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

Goldilocks Workshop Spaces

Successful design workshops call for various things. For one, you must pick the right focus: select problems to work on that are relevant to participants and at the right level. Speaking of which, successful workshops also include the right participants: a good mix of folks at different levels of the organization, degrees of expertise, etc. Another important component to successful workshops is the space in which they happen. That’s what I’ll focus on here.

The space the workshop happens will matter a lot, especially if people will have to be there for more than one day. The space will literally frame the work; it’ll be the context around which all thinking evolves. What characteristics do successful spaces share? I’ve noticed a few:

  • Ample wall space (especially walls you can write and/or put stickies on)
  • Reduced distractions (away from open office spaces, if possible)
  • Natural light (often hard to get, but it makes a big difference)
  • Adjacent spaces to take breaks (including restroom and refreshment facilities)
  • Just enough horizontal surfaces
  • The right amount of chairs
  • The right size

These last three are somewhat relative, and I want to expand on them. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced when facilitating workshops is rooms that are mismatched to the size of the group of participants. I’ve used rooms that were too small and sine that were too big. Both were challenging.

Too-small rooms are crowded and stuffy. People can grow uncomfortable sitting so close together for long periods of time. Small rooms also have less space to move around, which is awkward if you’re drawing on a whiteboard or putting stickies up on the walls. Small rooms tend to have smaller tables, which means people end up with laptops on their laps. And of course, smaller rooms have fewer walls. (The required wall space is often directly proportional to the number of people in the workshop and the number of days it takes.)

You’d think huge rooms would be the answer, and certainly a too-big room is better than a too-small room. But bigger rooms come with challenges of their own. For one thing, people may be tempted to peel off into sub-groups. I find bigger rooms lend themselves more to allowing some folks to disconnect themselves from the proceedings to focus on their laptops. For another, people will invariably sit further away from each other. In-person workshops give teams the possibility of gelling, and too-big rooms can chill that dynamic.

What’s the right size for a room? If I could have my way, I’d be in a space where there are only a couple of more chairs than people needing chairs. (The converse, where a couple of chairs must be brought in, can also work.) If the number of empty chairs is more than double that of participants, the room is too big. (Conversely, if you have to double the amount of chairs, the room is too small.)

One argument in favor of conducting workshops in rooms that are bigger than needed is that larger rooms have more wall space. This is often true, but not always. I’ve noticed that many “fancy” conference rooms don’t have serviceable walls. (That is, you can’t write or stick things on them.) And there are solutions for expanding practical vertical surfaces that don’t require larger rooms. (E.g. rolling whiteboards, large foamcore boards, etc.)

As a workshop facilitator, it may not be ultimately up to you to decide what room the workshop happens in. But if you do have some sway on the matter, aim for a room that is the right size for the group. And if you find yourself operating in a room that is too big or too small, make accommodations to help people feel more comfortable; it can make a big difference on the quality of the work that happens there.