Pre-pandemic, when we relied on a traditional office environment, brainstorming with colleagues meant getting in front of a whiteboard and jotting down ideas or lively brainstorming exercises to get everyone thinking creatively. This free-flowing exchange of ideas is harder to master in a remote setting. If your organization is new to remote working, don’t assume all team members know how to brainstorm virtually.
“Effective brainstorming is about clear context, a safe space for unexpected ideas, and emphasis on quantity over quality,” advises Bruno Bergher, VP Product at Gladly. As a product management leader with experience leading product and design teams, Bruno knows how to guide creative brainstorming sessions and promote innovation in a virtual workplace, adding, “You can accomplish a lot of that without being in the same room.”
Here are Bruno’s best tips for remote brainstorming.
1. Use an online whiteboard
If your teams are used to brainstorming visually, don’t give that up in your remote work environment. There are many apps and tools that offer templates where colleagues can drag, drop, write, draw, comment, and attach files—all in real-time—and work on a task together.
2. Remember to warm-up
Bruno recommends doing a warm-up brainstorm to make people comfortable and get them thinking outside of the box. “I’m especially fond of funny ones, where it’s easier to demonstrate that unexpected, even silly ideas are welcome.”
3. Work alone before working together
It can be hard to align with everyone’s schedules within remote teams, especially if teams work across different time zones. Managers can use this to their advantage—in most brainstorming sessions, you don’t need the entire group to develop the best ideas. As a manager, think about finding the right mix of people to attend these virtual sessions to get different perspectives and use everyone’s time effectively. Start your brainstorming process by having each person generate potential solutions independently and jot them all down in a document. What you want to avoid is having the entire group start throwing out ideas at one another in a group chat. Bruno recommends using software like Notion, Google Docs, and Figma. “There’s something extra fun about seeing the cursors of other people moving around on the screen.”
4. Always brainstorm on video
Brainstorming is a lot easier when you can screen share on a video call app and have others draw or highlight on your screen. Managers can also use in-built app features like breakout rooms on Zoom to break up a larger group.
Bruno recommends all participants have sticky notes at their home desks to make things a little more dynamic in a video setting. “Have each participant write ideas down one idea per note, as fast as they can. Then read them back to the facilitator, who writes all ideas down in a shared document that everyone can see (works best for describable, not drawn, ideas). This allows all participants to see others’ ideas, re-read something they may have missed, and add their own,” he adds.
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Some brainstorming formats:
There are many brainstorming techniques. Here are some to get you and your team started.
- Mind-Maps: Set up a central question in the middle of a whiteboard (or other shared document). Invite your team to add their ideas or thoughts. Link up related points to create a visual map of information, opportunities, recommendations, and roadblocks.
- Rapid Ideation: Give your team a limited time to come up with as many ideas as possible. Sometimes time pressure brings out the best in everyone in terms of creativity.
- Figuring Storming: Ask your team to imagine what someone else thinks about a topic. Tell your team to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, whether that’s a customer, supplier, client, or another department. Treat this as a role play, which will in itself present an opportunity for innovation.
- Stepladder Brainstorming: This method is great if you want to give everyone the space to speak and present. Pose a few centralized questions, then send smaller groups off to breakout rooms to discuss their ideas and report back with one solid idea. Repeat the process until your full team is involved.
Exercise your remote brainstorming muscle
If you’re new to virtual brainstorming, remember that this is a process that will become more comfortable the more you do it. Give your team time to reflect and provide feedback on the sessions to optimize future sessions. During uncertain times, businesses rely on innovative solutions to keep the momentum going, and managers have to keep finding innovative ways to keep their distributed team inspired.
From Shiran Yaroslavsky
Shiran Yaroslavsky is the VP Product US at Hibob. She is the former CEO and Co-founder of Cassiopeia (acquired by Hibob), a startup that helps managers lead teams effectively with data. Shiran is a thought leader in people analytics and remote team leadership. She was featured in 2019 in Forbes’ 30Under30 list in Israel.