Online brainstorming: do’s en don’ts
March 2020, Esther van der Storm
“Nice creative techniques, lovely that you can do that online too.”
“Good explanation is essential, because this is new to everyone.”
“Digital brainstorming really costs more energy.”
“Needed some time get used to the technique, but after a while it went great.”
“My brain really is turned on!”
Just a few of the reactions from participants in our online brainstorm test. In the first week of the ‘intelligent lockdown’ in the Netherlands we organized two online brainstorm workshops with STORMPUNT. Although I am not an online expert, I have been facilitating and supporting innovation projects for almost ten years. I help teams to unravel problems, come up with innovative ideas and then help them realise those ideas. The question everyone is asking at the moment is: is it also possible to do this (partly) online? We decided to test this with a classic brainstorming session. But then online. The results I share in this blog post.
Do you want even more tips after reading this blog? At the end of April 2020, after facilitating more than thirty online workshops and training sessions, we published an overview of our essential facilitator tips and tricks. You can find this post here.
For the test we organized two online brainstorming sessions using the Miro and Zoom. In this blog you can read why we chose Miro over Mural. In both tests we worked with groups of 7 to 10 people. The first test was supervised by me alone, the second test I did together with my colleague Maartje Le Goff. The tests sessions lasted two hours and consisted of a 1,5 hours brainstorm, followed by a 30 minute discussion to collect feedback on the tools and process used. Because we learned that online facilitation takes some getting used to compared to the face-to-face coaching of groups, we wrote a separate blog with tips especially for facilitators.
At first, I was quite sceptical about virtual facilitating. It seemed technically complicated to me and I couldn’t imagine achieving the same interactivity online as during live sessions. But I was not at all disappointed by the results of both workshops. The energy was high and the participants enthusiastically left our digital space. As one of the participants said afterwards: “My hands are really itching to carry out that idea!” And after only an hour and a half.
In this blog post I share below the 11 most important lessons, based on the 101 things we ran into during the tests and/or the solutions we came up with during these sessions:
1: Practice using the brainstorm tool you choose
Whatever tool you choose, play with it for a few hours before you start your first session. This allows you to learn what you can do with it, find out which functionalities there are and which buttons you use. The more often you do something, the faster you master it. I tend to never read manuals myself and just explore, but if you like to read in, you can find plenty of tutorials and manuals online. Testing a tool with colleagues or other facilitators in your network may help to discover features faster. Maartje, for example, showed me the ‘bulk’ function in Miro. This feature allows users to type ideas, which then magically appear on a digital post-its when you hit ‘enter’. I had missed that function myself, but have used it in almost every session since..
2: Create a session plan
For face-to-face sessions we always create a session plan. This is our roadmap for the session. In it we describe the consecutive steps, the creative techniques used and materials to use. We recommend doing the same for online sessions. Evelien Fick – who already has a lot of experience with online brainstorming – told me that a session plan for an online session is extremely essential. Note that you cannot just copy your face-to-face plan to online setting, as sometimes things take a little more time online. Therefore, carefully about the time needed for each step. And remember to build in time to explain the tool and to guide your participants through the most important features before you start.
3: Set up that board
A platform like Miro is in essence a large whiteboard to which you can add all kinds of small ‘posters’. To run a tightly managed brainstorm session, you need to setup your session board beforehand. Online it is much harder to (nicely) setup something last minute. Below is an impression (in Dutch) of the board we used in the second test session. Super important: make sure you ‘lock’ all parts well, so they can not be moved by participants. During Miro’s testing I had not done this everywhere, which caused participants to accidentally move some of my posters over the board :-).
4: Practice facilitating an online session
A good way to test your online session is to run a workshop together with colleagues. This way you can experiment and learn in a safe environment, allowing you to tweak the platform setup to your liking. You will also learn which features you have sufficiently mastered and which not, giving you great pointers regarding what to practice further. For us, the practice was mostly about learning to switch smoothly between Zoom and Miro during our sessions. Good to learn this before having your sessions with paying clients.
5: Prep your participants
Assume that not everyone is tech savvy. Explain participants which tools you are going to use. Ask them to log in well in advance of the starting time and to test their webcam and microphone before the session starts. Also check if it is necessary to have an account to be able to use all the tools. With Zoom, for example, this is not necessary, with Miro it used to be. Having everyone properly setup before the start of the session, means they do not have to do this in your session. Giving you more time to focus on what you want to achieve, not how.
6: Find someone to help you
With all the technology required to collaborate online, we found it to be much easier to facilitate an online workshop with two facilitators. For example, Maartje arranged everything in Zoom, kept an eye on the chat and made sure that people were put on ‘mute’ when there was a lot of background noise. I supervised the brainstorm, explained the functionalities in Miro, explained the assignments and intervened when I saw that participants had difficulties. Make sure you agree clearly upfront who does what, as you will not have a lot of time to align this when you are busy.
6: Be on time
Like with a face-to-face session, it is important that you are present first. Log in to Zoom no later than fifteen minutes before the start to accommodate participants who join early (remember people like to test if it works we found that many join early for that reason). I had some very pleasant online conversations in the first fifteen minutes, as those minutes allow for plenty of small-talk time.
7: Keep your workshop format intact
One of the biggest assumptions I had before doings these test sessions, was that the creative techniques I normally use would not work online. What I found however is that that is not the case, most actually do. Okay, you do not want to set up all kinds of break-out rooms for a quick few minute exercise in pairs. But almost all other approaches that I normally use in a face-to-face sessions, could be transferred to an online version of it. So do not worry that you have to start from scratch, you can almost one-to-one convert your face-to-face training or workshop methods and materials to an online version.
8: Provide variety
One of the questions I got was how to keep peoples’ attention. A good question, because even during our test sessions we noticed that people were more easily distracted. The solution is simple: ensure you have enough variety in your working methods. That way people remain motivated to participate. Plan a break every now and then (turn on the music!), so people can grab a drink and exercise. And change the subgroup composition once every while to boost the interpersonal dynamic. A tool like Zoom offers the possibility to assign people to work in subgroups in separate breakout rooms. Finally, it is always a good idea to specifically ask your participants to put away their phones and to turn off email notifications during the session.
9: Ask for immediate feedback
We always ask ‘tips and tops’ from our participants at the end of a session. That gives us immediate insight into how we can improve our next session. We did the same in these test sessions. We added the smiley-posters that we normally use in face-to-face sessions to our Miro board. We asked participants to write on post-its what they had liked about the session, and what we should improve and to stick those on the digital posters. We then discussed this feedback at the end of the session. This gave us a lot of useful points for improvement which we used to tweak our setup between test one and two (and all sessions for paying clients that followed)!
10: Share the results
A fantastic side effect of online brainstorming, is that the results are immediately available digitally. You can easily download everything. No more taking pictures of badly described sticky notes, something I do not mind living without as a facilitator ;). The only thing I needed to do after the sessions was to align the info on the board, which took me a few minutes of work. Within the hour all participants had the results in their mailbox. In all my years of facilitating sessions, I had never been able to do that.