How Managers Can Brainstorm Remotely With Their Teams
Pre-pandemic, when we relied on a traditional office environment, brainstorming with colleagues meant either getting in front of a whiteboard and jotting ideas, or having big brainstorming activities to spark the creative juices. With those channels on hold for the foreseeable future, remote managers need to find alternative ways to generate ideas in a virtual workplace, and continue to work creatively and collaboratively.
“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 in leading product and design teams, Bruno knows how to lead creative brainstorming sessions and promote innovation in a virtual workplace. “You can accomplish a lot of that without being in the same room, and even without a tool which emulates a whiteboard.”
Use an online whiteboard
If your organization is used to brainstorming visually, then 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.
If your organization is new to remote working, then don’t assume all team members would know how to brainstorm virtually.
Bruno recommends to do a warm-up brainstorm to make people comfortable and get creative juices going. “I'm especially fond of funny ones, where it's easier to demonstrate that unexpected, even apparently silly ideas are welcome.”
Work alone before working together
Here’s a thing about remote working -- not everyone’s schedules are aligned, especially if teams work across different time zones. Managers should use this to their advantage because in most brainstorm sessions, you don’t need the entire group to be together to come up with the best ideas.
As a manager, think about finding the right mix of people to attend these virtual sessions, so you get different perspectives, as well use your time effectively. So start your brainstorming process by having each person generate potential solutions on their own, 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 softwares and tools like Notion, Google Docs and Figma. “There's something extra fun about seeing the cursors of other people moving around on the screen.”
Always brainstorm on video calls
Brainstorming is a lot easier when you can screenshare 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.
To make things a little more dynamic in a video setting, Bruno recommends all participants to have sticky notes at their home desks. “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’s being shared on their screen (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.
Assign brainstorm session roles
Once you know who you need to invite to your virtual brainstorming sessions, define roles within the participant list to design your sessions for utmost productivity.
Facilitator: This person can be you, as the manager, or you can pass it on to someone within the team who is responsible for moving things along.
Timekeeper: This is an important role, as timekeeping is virtual for brainstorm sessions. You need someone to make sure all topics are covered, and that everyone is getting equal speaking/presenting time.
Some brainstorming formats:
There are lots of techniques for brainstorming, but here are some alternatives to get you and your team started.
Mind-Maps: As the manager, set up your central question in the middle of an online whiteboard (or other shared document). Invite your team to collaboratively build out from it with their ideas or thoughts. Link up related points to create a visual map of information, opportunities, recommendations and roadblocks.
Rapid Ideation: In this session, give your participants a limited time to come up with as many ideas as they possibly can. Sometimes time pressure brings out the best in everyone in terms of creativity.
Figuring Storming: In this technique, 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 of collaboration is when you want to give everyone a space to speak and present. Have centralized questions, then use breakout rooms where pairs can discuss topics and report back with a unified solution or idea. Repeat the process until your full team is involved.
If you’re new to virtual brainstorming, reach out to your team and ask for feedback. This channel of communication will give your team time to reflect and provide feedback based on how valuable they found the session. Once you have the insights, use them to tweak and optimize future sessions. During uncertain times, businesses are relying on innovative solutions to keep the momentum going, and managers have to keep finding innovative ways to keep their distributed team inspired and effective. Remember, this is an opportunity, not a problem.