A board filled with post-it notes from a brainstorming session

Brainstorming Online: Tips for Remote Teams

Brainstorming online isn’t harder, or that much different, from brainstorming in person. In both situations, it’s important to conduct the process in a way that stimulates participants to come up with a large number of creative ideas. Here are some brainstorming tips for remote teams.

Brainstorming: what not to do

There’s an episode of The Office where Michael rushes in snapping his fingers and asking his team for “ideas please, NOW!”. Everyone stares at him blankly. They have no idea what he’s talking about.

Then, with very few words, Michael explains his predicament: there’s wet cement outside, drying fast, and he needs help figuring out “what to write.” 

The sense of urgency (“It’s drying fast!”) and importance (“This is a lifelong dream!”) that he creates gets his team’s attention, and they start contributing ideas. 

However, as each team member shares an idea, Michael either shoots it down or interrupts them. Then, when an ill-intentioned Jim suggests something dangerous and ridiculous, Michael decides to go with that idea, for no other reason than he thinks it’s what a celebrity would do.

Putting aside the fact that he’s using his team’s time to pursue a personal “project”, the way Michael conducts this brainstorming session is wrong on so many levels. First, there’s no preparation, no heads-up. Michael surprises his team with an impromptu brainstorming session and creates a sense of urgency that’s likely not even real. Do they really have just a few seconds to come up with ideas? 

Then, when they contribute ideas, he’s too impatient to listen. When he does let someone speak, he shoots their idea down immediately. Finally, when he chooses one idea to implement, he does it not because everyone agrees it’s the best one, but because he loves it.

There’s something else that’s wrong with Michael’s brainstorming session: he does everything—solicit, evaluate, and select ideas—at the same time.

Michael is an extreme case of incompetent brainstorming guide, but his behavior isn’t that extraordinary. Many managers think that forcing team members to come up with ideas on the spot and then taking down just “the good ones” is how brainstorming is done.

The method to brainstorming 

There’s a science to conducting productive brainstorming sessions. It starts with dividing them in stages. 

The first—the idea generation stage—is about collecting the largest number of ideas. The second—the idea evaluation stage—is when the team reviews, comments, and expands on the ideas collected. The final one—the selection stage—is when the idea with the biggest potential is selected for implementation.

In the idea generation stage, it’s essential to follow two principles: 

  1. Defer judgment
  2. Reach for quantity

This reduces inhibition, stimulates idea generation, and increases creativity.

Why brainstorming online might be better

The shift to remote work has made brainstorming online a necessity. But virtual brainstorming isn’t harder or that much different than brainstorming in person. It might even be better. Here’s why:

  1. Since location isn’t an issue, you can get a larger and more diverse group of people together when brainstorming remotely.
  2. People collaborating in different time zones are less likely to be influenced by one another during the idea generation stage.
  3. Since you don’t need to be in the same place together, the brainstorming process can extend for longer (although, typically, virtual brainstorming tends to be more efficient). 

That said, it’s important to consider the unique aspects of online collaboration and adequately prepare so you can get the most out to your virtual brainstorming sessions.

Expert recommendations for virtual brainstorming

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Art Markman, professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas, gave the following recommendations for brainstorming online:

  • Be selective of who you invite. Define the roles and expertise that you think will be beneficial to your virtual brainstorming, then seek out those individuals. The more diverse the group, the better. Recruit people with different backgrounds, perspectives, and levels of expertise.
  • Ask people to come up with ideas on their own (or as part of small groups) first. Then, have them send you their ideas so you can compile them before any discussion happens. 
  • Share the full list with the group, THEN invite discussion. Ask everyone to comment and expand on the ideas compiled. At this stage of the brainstorming process, you might think of someone whose expertise would be useful who isn’t in the group. Go ahead and invite them to participate.
  • Encourage participants to get into detail. When ideas are too generic, it’s hard for others to build on them, so ask participants to be detailed when submitting and expanding on ideas.
  • Remind participants that the “ideas doc” is a living thing. The process is based on the principles of iterative design, in which things get constantly tweaked and improved. Having tentative ideas isn’t a bad thing—it actually keeps people more engaged and committed to improvement. 
  • Don’t rush things. Your brainstorming process doesn’t need to be over in a few hours or days. Feel free to extend the duration of your process for as long as you see fit, and invite more people to add their insights if you think it will help.
  • Schedule a live discussion. When one or more ideas have stood out as promising, and the team has had a chance to question and expand on them, bring everyone together to discuss implementation.

More tips for remote brainstorming 

  1. Don’t do it all on video. A live discussion on Zoom should be just one step of your online brainstorming process. Many teams use video conferencing for the idea generation stage, but you might wait to do a Zoom call at the end, at the idea selection stage, to discuss implementation. See how to host better Zoom meetings.
  2. Brief people first. Give participants time to prep by sending them the challenge/problem (along with any helpful instructions) ahead of time, especially if you’re having them brainstorm live on a Zoom call. 
  3. Be wary of fancy tools. Although there are several remote work tools you can use for brainstorming online, it might be best to keep things simple and save time and hassle. Rather than investing in new software, consider using tools most participants are already familiar with, like Google Docs, Trello, and Slack.

Brainstorming online is here to stay

Brainstorming is a time-tested methodology for coming up with innovative solutions to problems. When done right, brainstorming is exciting, fun, and productive—online and offline. 

Digital technology has made it easy to submit individual ideas as well as to collaborate with others to improve and build upon ideas, so more and more teams are integrating a digital component to their brainstorming sessions. 

Brainstorming online is likely to become an essential part of the brainstorming process for both remote and co-located teams. 

How does your team brainstorm online? We’d love to know the tools and strategies you use for successful remote brainstorming sessions—share your tips in the comments below!

If you’re doing part of your brainstorming over Zoom, check out Host Better Zoom Meetings: A Framework.

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