3 Ways to Successfully Brainstorm With Remote Teams

Take advantage of the situation to get outcomes that are even better than in-person sessions.
Headshot of Courtney Machi.
Courtney Machi
Expert Contributor
May 11, 2021
Updated: May 12, 2021
Headshot of Courtney Machi.
Courtney Machi
Expert Contributor
May 11, 2021
Updated: May 12, 2021

While remote work has increased productivity, it’s no secret that collaboration and innovation have gotten harder. With everyone working as hard as they can to keep things going, not a lot of time is carved out to think creatively.

And it doesn’t help that remote work feels exactly like the opposite of teamwork. Employees are used to a very specific setup when it comes to brainstorming — everyone in a room together with sticky notes and a whiteboard. This scenario is so ingrained in office culture that “whiteboarding” is now a synonym for brainstorming.

Getting over this chasm is important to ensure the same levels of innovation and problem-solving as in the past. Managers can build a bridge to better remote collaboration and brainstorming by identifying the differences between on-site and remote brainstorms and introducing solutions to create the best possible environment online. Managers can also take advantage of the new situation and get outcomes that are even better than in-person sessions.

With that said, here are three ways to create a more productive remote brainstorm.

3 Ways to Have a Successful Remote Brainstorm

  • Use isolation to your advantage.
  • Level up your technology.
  • Leave with an action plan.

 

Use Isolation to Your Advantage

Just as you would in an onsite brainstorming session, where you’ve gathered everyone into a room for a couple of hours and given them a load of stickies, make sure that your team knows why they are participating in a session.

Don’t just define your goal upfront, ask people to come prepared with some ideas of their own. Thinking about a problem alone can create more divergent ideas and so some requirements to bring ideas can jumpstart a virtual brainstorm and help ensure it doesn’t end up being one big agreement session.

Once everyone is at the meeting, everyone’s remoteness can also be used for what I like to call a “silent session,” which is a version of what is known as “brainwriting— a technique where everyone remains silent and writes down their ideas without influence from other people. This ensures that every single person participates equally, regardless of whether someone is an introvert or an extrovert.

Here’s how it works: Once everyone is in the (virtual) room, pose a question or a problem to the group (if you’ve already prepped participants on the topic, reiterate it and/or provide more detail). Give everyone time to write down their ideas, then come back in a bigger group to discuss the ideas and see what themes have surfaced. It’s great not just for brainstorming on feature ideas or adoption drivers, but also for identifying needed areas of improvement.

I used this technique with my team to create the agenda for a product offsite. We brainstormed the areas we felt we really needed to improve on or align on and we created a comprehensive set of sessions from the themes that emerged from that brainstorm.

The goal is to give everyone space to contribute, but there are many other options, such as:

  • A round robin. This is a way to build off of each other’s ideas. One person starts off the brainstorming with an idea. The person after them then needs to take that idea and build on it, and the person after them needs to do the same, and so on. You’d be surprised at the creative and viable ideas that come out of this one.
     
  • A virtual SWOT analysis. Bring a group of stakeholders together to document a product or an idea’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to assess the state of a product or idea and to serve as a foundation for a roadmap of sorts.
     
  • A crazy eights exercise. This is a really fun brainstorming exercise where you ask participants to draw out their ideas on a piece of paper or, if you’re brave enough, a virtual scratchpad. Once participants have finished drawing, each person presents their drawings to the rest of the group. It’s a great way to not just generate ideas, but also understand how your teammates think and approach the world. 

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Level Up the Technology

In remote companies, proper tooling becomes infinitely more important. Don’t ignore the whiteboard element of brainstorming — or the stickies for that matter. Pick a great brainstorming tool and commit to it for the entire meeting.

My favorite tool is Miro because of how easy it is to use, and because of all of the valuable features baked into the product such as templates, voting and polling  mechanisms, and wireframing components.

However, there are a ton of great virtual collaboration tools out there including Mural, Lucidchart, and Trello. Google Sheets is a free alternative, where you can use different tabs to capture ideas. Or, you can use the Zoom whiteboard feature, which is another easy one to access. In other words, there are no excuses for leaving out the whiteboard feature.

Tools You Can Use in Your Next Remote Brainstorm

  • Miro
  • Mural
  • Lucidchart
  • Trello
  • Google Sheets
  • Zoom's whiteboard feature

When I’m conducting a silent session using Miro, I even go so far as to create little packets of sticky notes for each person who is going to be participating. (This is another cool Miro feature — you can preload packs of virtual sticky notes onto your virtual whiteboard.) Each person’s sticky notes are a different color so we know who wrote what at the end of the session.

Once you’ve decided which technique and tool to use, make sure you create a template before the session. The template should include:

  • The goal of the brainstorm session or the problem you’re trying to solve.
     
  • The directions for the exercise.
     
  • The amount of time the participants will have to complete the exercise.

You can even share the template before the session starts. Before, during, and after the session, write everything down on the template. Team members need to be able to easily understand what is going on at any point in time.

Throughout the session, don’t forget to screen share. When people are on video meetings all day, it becomes exponentially harder to keep a group’s attention and keep people oriented on the task at hand. So make sure you’re sharing your screen throughout the entire brainstorming exercise so that everyone can see where you are with the exercise, and can ask questions if they get lost. 

And speaking of getting lost: Keep the meeting on track by timeboxing the exercise. You can even use a time for each part of the session to stick to the plan.

 

Leave With an Action Plan

Too often, brainstorming sessions don’t have any follow-up. They temporarily energize the team, but then can become frustrating when there is no action taken based on what was learned or uncovered in the session. That’s why it’s important to always leave with an action plan.

In the example of my offsite brainstorming session, after we collected the ideas from each person, as a team we then:

  • Grouped the ideas into different categories that we came up with based on what was written on the stickies.
     
  • Discussed the themes as a group and walked through any ideas that we found more abstract or that people wanted to drill into.
     
  • Decided as a group on next steps, including owners and due dates.

As the organizer, make sure to write down the next steps for a follow-up plan and share with the team. Have someone to keep you accountable. One of the benefits here of a remote brainstorm is that you always have your digital whiteboard to reference. No more fussing around emailing photos of a real whiteboard taken on someone’s phone, squinting and trying to read what it says.

When you follow the formula I’ve laid out above, I promise your team will leave feeling energized and excited about the ideas and plans that have been generated. Expectations are set properly, the entire team has been set up to participate in one way or another, and folks will feel aligned towards a set of goals that they want to achieve (or sometimes, further brainstorming that needs to happen).

This is why I feel that these sessions are, in many cases, even better than brainstorming in-person. Try it and see what happens with your team!

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