Brainstorming is hard, and remote brainstorming is harder. These 7 tips can help turn frustration into awesome idea generation!
As the owner of a creative agency, I don’t think a day goes by that my team isn’t brainstorming, and that’s still true even after almost a month of us all working remotely. Here are a few tips we’ve been using to help make our remote brainstorms positive, engaging, and fruitful.
Prep for the meeting
A lot is being done on the fly right now, and we are in a constant mode of adapting. But to make remote brainstorming as effective as possible, prep the participants ahead of time – ideally, at least a day ahead of time. Providing a brainstorm brief in advance allows people to digest the information, do research, and come ready with questions…along with any potential thought starters that can start the brainstorm out with a burst of energy.
Define the meeting
A true brainstorm is not about decision making – it’s about generating as many positive ideas as possible. Reminding everyone about that purpose at the beginning of each remote brainstorm will help put people in the right frame of mind. It’s also a good time to share the brainstorming rules:
- be positive (we tend to shut down around negativity),
- don’t judge any ideas (you never know what idea another idea may lead to), and
- don’t try to sell any ideas (that’s trying to influence a decision vs. generating as many ideas as possible; if participants feel a decision is being made they won’t waste their time digging deep into their brains for more ideas).
Moderate the meeting
Whoever is leading the remote brainstorming session should also be moderating the group to make sure that the rules are followed (see step #2) and that everyone gets an opportunity to speak. Oftentimes quiet people will lay low in a brainstorm – especially one via video – and let the louder voices prevail. The moderator needs to guide participants in a positive manner, praising all ideas, nudging less vocal attendees (without putting them on the spot), and limiting those who are overtaking the conversation – especially if they are saying the same thing over and over or going deep into one thought (selling their idea).
Video video video
Avoid remote brainstorming over the phone unless there is absolutely no other choice. Seeing each other’s faces while they speak, and seeing their reactions when we speak, are key elements of group communication. (Who cares if you’re wearing your work-from-home pajamas!) When we see each other, even via video, we feel closer, we respect each other’s thoughts more, and (let’s face it) we pay more attention than if we are on a phone.
Time and tell
To keep things moving and make sure everyone participates, use the timer on your phone. This works well in a brainstorm and can be essential to remote brainstorming success. Decide how long everyone will have to respond – maybe a minute to share initial ideas – and tell them when they are at a minute so they can wrap up. (Note: this shouldn’t replace the organic riffing off of each other’s ideas that happens during brainstorms; but adding in some structured sections can get more ideas out there to riff on.) Also, during the timed sharing of ideas, try to avoid the mess of everyone talking at once. We like to have whoever is speaking then call on someone when they are done, and then that person calls on someone, and so on until everyone has gotten their turn. Oh, and speaking of timing: we limit brainstorms to an hour. It’s perfectly fine to have multiple brainstorms before you get to the decision making meeting, so avoid marathon brain drains.
Shake it up
It happens. No matter how smart and creative the group is, sometimes there’s a lull – and that can be an idea buzzkill. Be prepared with ways to shake things up when that happens. One way to do this with remote brainstorming is to have everyone grab their digital device and move to a different area of their home. It’s amazing what a literal different POV can bring to the brainstorm. (Also, seeing different backgrounds can spark interesting conversations that may work their way into idea generation.) Another technique we use when remote brainstorming is lacking good ideas: ask people to think of the worst ideas they possibly can. That brings in humor – as well as the possibility of using some sideways thinking to turn those terrible ideas around into amazingly good ideas. A fun way to spark new energy (and ideas): break into smaller groups for lightning rounds. Have groups of 2 or 3 people generate as many ideas as they can in 3 minutes, then they present their ideas to the rest of the group. For remote brainstorming, that can be as simple as using your smartphone to connect (while you mute your video chat).
Use the tools
We are a Google shop, so we use Google Meet a LOT these days. Google has a lot of great tools, including one called “Jamboard” that looks like a whiteboard to which you can attach virtual sticky notes. This is something we just started using during our remote brainstorming sessions, and it has quickly become a fan favorite. The moderator can share their screen with Jamboard, type up the sticky notes, and put them on there for all to see – or everyone can have access to put ideas up on there in real time. Either way, then the group can organize ideas by general themes, see what areas of thinking are missing, and refine their efforts. Whatever platform you are using, invest some time to learn what tools it offers and then use them. There’s never been a better time to maximize your remote work skills – and that investment will continue to pay off long after we get past the current crisis.
I hope you find these tips useful and that you try at least some of them at your next brainstorm. It takes a bit more rigor, but improving your remote brainstorming technique will lead to more fun and fruitful work-from-home sessions. And as a bonus: it will help your in-person brainstorming improve, too!