Getting your team together in one room to come up with ideas not only allows you to identify creative content or strategies that you might not have thought of, but it also can improve feelings of psychological safety as people who might not be high-level managers are invited and encouraged to offer their input.
Brainstorming is one of the most productive team-building activities we use at HubSpot. But, recently, when we had to leave our physical offices and embrace remote work, many managers wondered how they’d recreate the same in-person communication, productivity, and sense of psychological safety virtually.
Luckily, many of our managers were able to adapt quickly, leading a number of successful virtual brainstorms in 2020.
To help managers build solid idea-generation techniques -- even from home -- here are a few steps HubSpot employees on the blog, acquisition team, and DI&B team take when coordinating remote brainstorms.
How to Run a Virtual Brainstorm
1. Give your team a headstart.
If your teammates already know the goal of the brainstorm, the prompts they'll be given, and their idea generation instructions, they'll come ready and eager to immediately make suggestions.
Before the brainstorm, consider sending a detailed email or a creative brief about what you'd like to achieve during the session.
"I’ve found that giving members of your brainstorm a chance to prepare in advance results in higher quality ideas presented in the brainstorm," says Emmy Jonassen, Sr. Director of Marketing at HubSpot. "A creative brief will also help you make the best use of your time, so you'll focus on the act of brainstorming rather than discussing the assignment."
2. Designate a facilitator before the brainstorm.
When you're attending a brainstorm in person, it's easier to determine who's talking, who's being asked questions, and who's running the meeting simply by body language and other social cues.
When you're on a video call, some cues can be harder to notice. You might not know who should be answering a question, who you should ask questions to, and who is trying to keep the meeting on schedule. That's why it's helpful to clearly designate a host or facilitator.
"The trick to having a great brainstorm is getting everyone involved," Jonassen explains. "A facilitator can help create an environment where everyone feels comfortable chiming in. They can also help keep the conversation going through awkward silences, keep the group on track, and bring people into the conversation who tend to be more reserved."
Once you've planned your brainstorm and designated yourself or someone else as a facilitator, be sure to note this information in the brainstorm's creative brief, calendar invite, or at the beginning of the session. If you choose to use breakout rooms -- which we'll discuss in step four -- consider having a facilitator for each of them.
3. Take virtual notes.
During in-person brainstorms, it's easy to look down and type on your computer while still talking and engaging with others. But, on a video call, you might want to stare less at your notes and more at your camera so it doesn't look like you're losing interest. And, if you must take notes, you might worry about missing something as you toggle between screens. Because of these issues, notes can get pretty muffled.
That's why Alexandra Garnier, a French automation marketing manager, says brainstorm coordinators should, "Either use a virtual whiteboard, a shared online notes document, or (if needed) a designated note-taker."
By creating joint notes or designating a note-taker, everyone can have a shared source of information to look back on and can focus on the discussions at hand, When selecting a note-taker, it's best to pick a fast typer or an attendee who isn't tasked with coming up with ideas, such as a co-coordinator. This will allow them to focus on the notes without heavily missing out on a great team activity.
4. Embrace virual breakout rooms.
During a large in-person brainstorm, you might be asked to break into small groups, go to another room, and come back with a few ideas to offer from your group. Luckily, many video call tools have been able to mimic this experience with breakout room features.
"It’s harder to get everyone to participate if you have more than five or six people involved," Jonassen says. "If I have a big group, I’ll typically use this feature to break people into smaller groups and brainstorm for a set period of time. After that time has ended, I’ll have everyone rejoin the larger group to share their ideas."
Garnier similarly added, "If you do a brainstorm with a larger group, it's better to then do breakout rooms. Some people tend to shy away when there are many participants." This can be especially true in a virtual setting, where people might feel uncomfortable speaking up.
If you're using Zoom for your meetings and interested in breakout rooms, here's a great tutorial for how to activate them on your next call.
5. Use digital noises and other signals to transition between activities.
Some brainstorms might involve a combination of individual and group activities. However, when the ideas are flowing in one task, it can be naturally hard to stop and jump into a new portion of the session. According to Margot Lieblich, a Sr. UX Researcher who coordinates monthly brainstorms and ideation sessions, it's even harder to manage time in a virtual meeting.
“Oftentimes in brainstorms, you are on a tight schedule and need to make quick transitions to the next activity. This can be especially hard in a remote setting, when you can’t always visually signal to get everyone’s attention at once," Lieblich says.
"Use an audible timer to clearly mark the end of an activity. You can even get creative with the sound," Lieblich advises. "I’ve used the Oscars' theme music, and one of my coworkers uses the sound of a duck quacking."
"After hearing the timer once, the group will quickly learn to wrap up and start transitioning to the next activity when they hear the sound again,” Lieblich explains.
6. Include both group and individual brainstorm activities.
Some people work better by themselves while others work much better in groups. In a virtual brainstorm, this can become more apparent when those who don't respond to group activities zone out, and those who don't like to give individual pitches will wait until the end hoping they run out of time. By doing two activities, you ensure that everyone can ideate in their own confort zone.
"I like to start out with an individual activity so people have a few minutes to explore their own approaches to the problem space without influencing each other," Lieblich says. "After running an individual activity, I incorporate a group activity so people can inspire each other and come up with even richer, more interesting ideas.”
7. Remember, you don't always need to schedule a video call.
While you might think all remote brainstorms must happen on video calls, this isn't always true. Yes, many of them certainly will. But, if you're asking teammates to come to a brainstorm prepared with something quick -- like a blog post pitch or a one-off email idea, you might be able to cut a time-consuming video call out of your brainstorming process entirely.
Recently, when the blog team was drawing out our quarterly content strategy, we wanted to ask our writers to come up with ideas for blog posts. But, because each writer has an incredibly busy schedule, asking them to come to a very long brainstorm meeting where each person would offer five to 10 post suggestions didn't make logistical sense.
So instead, I coordinated a virtual brainstorm that took place completely over Google Sheets. To kick off the brainstorm, I sent my team an email and an Idea Generation Spreadsheet with instructions on what content needs we'd have for the next quarter, how many post ideas to insert on the spreadsheet, and a deadline for submitting post suggestions.
From there, writers had two weeks to offer ideas for at least five blog posts. Here's a quick look at the spreadsheet with an example post I gave writers to guide them through the elements of giving a post suggestion:
After the deadline, our editors went in and used the spreadsheet's comment features to give feedback that writers could keep in mind for the next virtual brainstorm. Since this brainstorm, most of the blog posts suggested were added to our content calendar.
Planning Your Virtual Brainstorm
Many of the tips above relate to boosting one critical aspect of brainstorms: participation.
As you plan your next content or campaign brainstorm, ask yourself how you can make the brainstorm engaging for everyone.
By making it easier for your team to engage with others, give their thoughts, or suggest ideas in a brainstorm, you'll get more participation and -- ultimately -- more winning ideas from teammates that might not offer them otherwise.