More Effective Remote Brainstorming

Art Markman writing in the Harvard Business Review blog:

In the age of Covid–19, many of us are no longer working together in the same rooms — but we still need to generate ideas collaboratively. Fortunately, even in a remote environment there are several approaches that can help you solve complex problems effectively.

I’ve tried to facilitate remote brainstorming sessions during the pandemic, and have found them to be less effective than in-person sessions. The article provides suggestions worth checking out. Some, such as getting specific beforehand about the issue to be considered and thinking carefully about who should be in the session, are applicable to non-remote brainstorms as well. I’m most intrigued by the suggestion that initial rounds happen asynchronously, since it matches how I’ve been approaching recent remote brainstorming sessions.

Why are remote brainstorming sessions less effective? For one thing, the interpersonal dynamics of collaborating remotely are different, as is the environment where the collaboration happens. People’s attention is more scattered when meeting over apps like Zoom. And as impressive as they are, visual collaboration tools like Miro and Mural are no replacement for meeting in a room with a large whiteboard; there’s still too much friction in manipulating digital representations of sticky notes. (I’ve had better success with collaborative text-editing tools like Google Docs, but the linear text format doesn’t encourage exploring rich relationships between concepts.)

What to do? I’ve been gravitating to the solution Mr. Markman proposes: having participants do an initial round of thinking on the virtual whiteboard before joining the shared session. This reduces the time it takes to capture their thinking and “primes” the board; the other participants can more easily riff on what is already there.

One possible downside is that this requires that participants read what is on the board, which takes time. A way to resolve this is by assigning pre-meeting work in rounds: you set a deadline for everyone to put their thoughts up on the board and a subsequent deadline for everyone to review the rest of the team’s work, noting any questions they may have. With this approach, you can start the synchronous part of the work by reviewing these open questions.

I’ve not yet facilitated remote brainstorming sessions that are as effective as the in-person variety, but I’m getting better. And as the article points out, there may even be advantages to these new ways of working. The pandemic is forcing us to discover more effective ways of collaborating remotely; these are valuable skills that will pay dividends long after lockdown measures have eased.

How to Brainstorm — Remotely