How Can I Effectively Hold a Virtual Brainstorm?

September 9, 2020 | Jamie Dalton


Bad news, whiteboard: teams won’t be gathering around you to brainstorm in the near future.

It’s not you, it’s us. The pandemic is forcing us to find a way to carry on without you.

In the absence of the ability to convene in person, around the white board (or its close cousin, the flip chart), many team leaders have eschewed the idea of brainstorms during remote work. Maybe you’re one of them. If you are, as someone who cares, I’d like to say, firmly but gently: it’s time to move on.

Productive virtual brainstorms are possible – and in many cases, more fruitful – than more traditional, in-person sessions. Besides generating creative ideas and solutions, they allow for more equal contributions, and help virtual teams renew connections.

So, how do you start a successful virtual ideation session? The same way you would with any brainstorm: Define your challenge.

Next, proceed to your setup: determine a group facilitator and participants; decide which virtual platforms will work best (both your meeting platform and a notes/task platform, like Google Docs or Slack); send the group a brief background and challenge statement 24-48 hours in advance of the session (you will reiterate this at the beginning of the session); and refine your agenda.

Now you’re ready to go. There are two possible paths forward: mimic the traditional brainstorm, or allow team members to contribute ideas individually into a shared document. Regardless of which path you choose, gather participants upfront to state the challenge, answer questions, and give the ground rules – no judgement of ideas until the end, quantity is more important than quality, and ALL ideas are valid.

In any brainstorm, it’s a good idea to start with a warm-up exercise to get the creative juices flowing. Give some lightness to the reality of our present day: have the team think of alternate uses for face masks, phrases for shelter-in-place coffee mugs, or concepts for the perfect Zoom shirt. Encourage rapid-fire, wacky ideas.

Then move on to the challenge at hand. If you’re brainstorming right there on the video meeting, start by allowing folks to do some brainwriting. Allow five minutes for each person to come up with at least three ideas individually in a Google Doc. Share the document to kick off the group ideation. Encourage the improv mindset of “yes, and” to build on each other’s ideas.

When things get slow, use an intervention: display an unrelated image to inspire ideas; force connections between your organization and another seemingly unconnected one (How would your favorite clothing or hospitality brand solve the issue at hand?); or encourage the team to come up with ideas that are so egregious, they would result in their immediate termination.

If you’re doing a brainstorm that favors individual input in a shared doc, set the expectation that all individuals will contribute. Define your time limit: are all ideas expected in the next two hours, or the next two days? Use a Google Doc to capture ideas from multiple parties at a time, in real time. Let the team know when it’s time to evaluate ideas, and how. Narrow your list to the top five and set up another small-group session to poke holes and/or flesh out those ideas.

The benefits of an individual contribution brainstorm include the ability to tap more than eight participants (the upper limit for a traditional session); increased team member confidence due to anonymity; reduced likelihood of the emergence of an alpha dog (every office has one); and reduced likelihood of groupthink.

Regardless of your desired virtual format, lay the appropriate groundwork; keep a positive, open mindset; tap into your team’s creative juices; and allow space for everyone to contribute. You won’t miss that old whiteboard one bit!

Topics: brainstorming Virtual meetings

Subscribe to Falls Insights Blog

Stay up to date with our latest articles, executive interviews, research reports, thought leadership and client success stories for a dose of innovation inspiration.