How to Facilitate Remote Brainstorms that Don’t Suck

BY: Erin Lamberty + Kelsye Gould

While we at The Design Gym tend to be biased towards in-person experiences, the growing reality is that the teams we work with (and even our own team!), don’t always have the luxury of being in the same place at the same time. Luckily, in the age of IoT, it’s never been easier to collaborate remotely. That being said, just as with in-person collaboration, working together virtually also requires some special care and facilitation in order to be effective.

So, since brainstorms are the gateway to creative culture change, we thought we’d start by sharing some tips and tricks to ensure your next remote brainstorm doesn’t suck.

BEFORE

Communicate the Scope

What is the challenge we’re trying to solve? What’s inbounds and out-of-bounds? What does success look like? Whether you put together a formal design brief or just some guard-rails, letting your team know what to expect in advance helps lay the groundwork for a productive brainstorming session.

Write the Agenda

To make the best use of your time, plan for how you’re going to use it. A simple structure that we like to use—especially when conducting brainstorms—is Open, Explore, Close. Once you’ve set your agenda, share it with your collaborators at least one day in advance of your brainstorm time. Setting expectations in advance on how long the group has to be generative, discuss options and make a decision will give you as facilitator a firm foundation to refer back to during the brainstorm.

Source Inspiration and Stimulus

Provocative prompts (ie: What would a gathering of all our most passionate customers look like?) and inspiring examples (ie: Peloton Homecoming) add fuel to a good brainstorming fire. Come up with a list of creative inspiration and stimulus beforehand so that you can have it at the ready when the group needs some additional sparks. If the group is game for it, you can ask them to add stimulus to a running list in advance or ask them to bring an example to the brainstorm.

Prep Your Digital Workspace

Just as you should prep a physical room in advance of the group arriving—double checking supplies, writing the agenda on the whiteboard, setting out some snacks—you’ll want to set-up your digital work space with just as much care.

We’re advocates of using the tools that your team is already familiar with (ie: collaborative word processing tools like Google apps or group chat services like Slack) versus something brand new. It’s harder to change your team’s behavior and lead a brainstorm that doesn’t suck at the same time, so pick what you’re used to and stick to it!

Make sure everyone is shared on the tools/docs, you’ve added in the scope and stimulus content, and you’ve pre-populated any examples that will be helpful for the group to see when they load the page. That being said, be careful not to reveal anything that could derail the conversation or cause confusion. For example, keep your sorting or decision-making frameworks at the ready in a separate document and add those into the shared document only when it’s time. This will help you keep the group aligned to the agenda, mindsets and current activity.

DURING

Template for Capturing

Model for your team how you want ideas captured and in what format. We like to use the three-part capture: headline, description and sketch. This can be done on paper and uploaded or a hybrid typed/sketched capture. Whatever you decide, make sure the group is consistent. This will make it easier to digest and evaluate the options.

A screenshot from one of our recent virtual brainstorms that has a mix of uploads and digital captures.

Solo Generation

After your housekeeping notes, the first idea generation activity should be done solo. Give the group about 10 minutes to add in their top-of-mind ideas using the template you’ve set for capturing. Another option is to have this be brainstorm pre-work so that everyone comes with a handful of ideas. This first burst of ideas will give the group some momentum and a starting point for building upon ideas throughout the brainstorm. It also neutralizes the group participation: quieter voices are on par with louder voices, the intern’s ideas are posted next to the VP’s ideas, and any guest participants can share equally alongside teammates who have worked side by side for years. If you do nothing else, do solo before group generation!

Silent “Yes, And-ing”

Before diving into conversation or vetting ideas, have the group soak up all of the solo ideas that were posted, build upon them and generate even more options. We call this “silent yes, and-ing,” which is a spin on the classic “yes, and” improv technique that helps groups grow their ideas, but doesn’t involve speaking. By giving the group the task of digesting the options and adding at least two builds, you’ll get everyone on the same page, add to your set of options and start to build collective excitement for the ideas.

How Might We…

Having a structure for group idea generation is essential in remote environments. Without one, your conversation is at risk of falling into terrible conference call territory with a few people talking and the others totally zoning out or ignoring the conversation completely (you know the ones). A tried and true technique for guiding a group brainstorm is to leverage “How might we…” questions. You can generate a set of questions in advance or with the group, but when it comes time to answer the questions, select one at a time and make sure the group knows which question to focus on—highlight it in the document or add it on a larger digital sticky. Have each person post one idea to the question before opening up the conversation. After a few minutes, do the same thing but with a new question until you’ve worked your way through the entire list or have reached your time limit.

Sorting + Voting

How you sort and vote will depend on your group size. If you’ve got five or less participants, it’s feasible to do a Round Robin share-out. Let each person take the virtual floor for 1-2 minutes and explain their rationale for what they want to take forward. If you’ve got a larger group or a larger set of ideas, having a sorting framework is useful. A 2×2 matrix can quickly cull the idea set into a short list of the most impactful to the customer and most innovative. A column category sort can be used to have the group filter ideas by most unique, most feasible, or group favorites. If it’s not clear what your finalists are, have the group vote. You could just tally up votes in the shared doc—we’ll add Xs next to ideas we’re upvoting—or use a simple voting tool. Simple Poll integrates into Slack—it’s a little nerdy to set up, but we’ve used it successfully. Updwn or Poll Everywhere are also decent options depending on your setting. Play around with a few on your own before introducing one to the group.

Check-out

While you’ve got the group together, do a mini debrief on the remote brainstorm process. Post a handful of closing questions for the group to respond to in the same way you’ve been working. We like a mix of learning and reflection questions: What behaviors and actions worked well today? What’s a helpful hint for the group to keep in mind for next time? What’s one word to describe how you’re feeling as we close this brainstorm?

Ask the group if anyone has closing comments they’d like to share out loud to the group. When you’re done, thank the group for their honesty, time, and attention, and recap your next steps before the group signs off.

AFTER

If there’s anything worse than a bad brainstorm, it’s a good one where all the ideas and energy die immediately after the brainstorm ends. As the facilitator, it’s your job to close out the experience for the group and make sure next steps are set so the ideas can live on.

Tidy Up

It’s not just life changing magic, it’s good facilitation. Organize the digital boards or documents so that someone else looking at them could easily navigate the information. Export the work to wherever your team keeps shared files. Be sure that everyone receives links to the final digital docs, exports, notes, etc.

Reflect

As with any good experiment, take a moment to debrief on your own and with your close collaborators. Get in the habit of debriefing as soon as possible after the brainstorm is over—we try to do it at least within 24 hours. A simple 30-minute Pluses (What worked well?) and Deltas (What to do differently next time?) conversation can get your learnings captured and set you up for next time.


Brainstorms are an essential part of a creative culture. And, having these best practices in your back pocket will ensure you and your team have a kick-ass brainstorm no matter where in the world you all are working from.

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