Online World Café: 15 tips to brainstorm online with a (very) large group
June 2020, by Esther van der Storm
Can you brainstorm online as effective as face-to-face? Is it possible to collaborate creatively in large groups via video meetings? We tested it! In this blog you can read what worked and what didn’t. We have summarized our experiences in 15 brainstorm tips that will make your online session with a large group a guaranteed success.
A World Café is a tried and tested method to explore themes or come up with ideas in a creative way with a large group of people. One of the characteristics of a World Café is that the various themes are discussed in subgroups, at so-called ‘café tables’. At STORMPUNT we regularly facilitate these kinds of sessions face-to-face. Each theme table is hosted by a facilitator, who step by step guides the process from idea generation to idea selection. After our successful online brainstorm test mid-March (see also blog 1 and blog 2), we decided to test in two sessions whether the World Café work form could also work online. And wow… it did.
About our test approach
We conducted our tests on 9 and 16 June 2020. During the test we worked with about 40 participants and eight facilitators for each test. For the tests we used the brainstorm tool Miro, together with Zoom. We chose Miro not only because we have a lot of experience with it, but also because by using this tool you can very well imitate the set up with the café tables. In combination with the breakout rooms in Zoom, we created virtual theme tables on which participants can work with digital sticky notes.
The test was supervised by Anne-Marie Backx, myself and technical host Sjoerd. The virtual theme tables were supervised by facilitators who had previously followed our training Effective Online Brainstorming and were therefore able to support us on these tests. Both tests lasted two hours, consisting of a shorter, more condensed programme of the World Café. At the end we collected feedback on both the process and the technique.
Although we were positively surprised at how smoothly both tests went, it was also confirmed that supervising an online brainstorm with a large group requires some other skills and preparation.
Our 15 most important online brainstorm tips and our lessons learned:
Tip 1: Preparation is key
Good preparation really is key, because it is much harder to make adjustments during an online session than during a face-to-face World Café. Our preparation took far more time than I initially expected. From the information provided to the participants beforehand, to the session outline for the facilitators and set up of our Miro board: everything was planned out in detail beforehand. Many of the tips you will read below are therefore related to preparation.
Tip 2: Create a session outline from A to Z
This was the first time ever that we made an eight (!) slide session plan for a two hour workshop. I just never felt I needed one this detailed, but in an online World Café there are so many (technical) steps, that it really is essential to put everything down on paper. Every step in the process (like ‘everyone on mute’ and ‘breakout rooms close’) we defined beforehand, as well as an extensive explanation of each of the steps for the facilitators. For us and the facilitators this was our guide at the virtual tables. Without this plan we would never have been able to run the online World Café so smoothly.
Tip 3: Know your tools inside out
Reordering sticky notes, locking elements on the board and copying forms… During the test Anne-Marie and I need to help out our facilitators to structure their tables. After over sixty sessions in Miro, we know the tool pretty well and we have no problem (re)structuring things quickly. That turned out to be necessary. Without our extensive experience with the tool, I feel I would not have been able to take on the general facilitation of such a large group. It really does require some of your technical and online facilitation skills.
Tip 4: Carefully design your online whiteboard
We are quite proud of our Online World Café board in Miro. We designed it together with our regular STORMPUNT visual designer Henriëtte van Asch van Smaak Designers. As the digital whiteboard is the space where it all happens, we had to make sure everything was ready in advance and we had all the materials at hand. Our board had eight virtual theme tables with a facilitator toolkit next to each. In order to be able to facilitate the session properly, we had hidden some of the tools from the participants. That worked very well. Curious about our board? Then please contact us, we will send you the link so you can view our (Dutch) setup in Miro.
Tip 5: Test in advance and evaluate afterwards
Before we exposed it to our testers we first tested the whole Online World Café setup ourselves. We did this with the group of facilitators who would host the virtual theme tables during the session. That turned out to be very efficient, because we got the last small bugs out of your set-up. But… during the sessions we still found several points of improvement. During the first test it turned out that our round tables were not very handy as a large part of the table fell off the screen when zooming in. Participants also found it hard to work with only one color voting stickers; they often lost what they had already voted for. In the second test, the tables were therefore rectangular and everyone had their own voting sticker color. That worked much better.
We also thought a little too easy about the pitch part. ‘Just copy-paste the idea forms and then let the participants use the voting tool to choose the forms with the best idea’. That’s was our setup. It worked perfect in our pre-test, but it failed miserably in our first real test. The participants turned out to be able to vote on all kinds of separate text areas, which made it completely unclear which idea got the most votes. During the second test we therefore organized this much more tightly. Participants could only vote for one of the eight post-its with an idea on it, and during the session we could immediately announce which idea came out as the top idea. Good to have tested that.
Tip 6: Prepare your participants
Participating in a brainstorm with a large group is -also for your participants- different from participating in an online meeting. Our experience is that many people find it more enjoyable to work with two screens, because they can work on one screen in Miro and see everyone on the other screen at the same time in Zoom. This requires some preparation from your participants. A few days before the test, we sent everyone an e-mail containing all the practical information. And on the day of the Online World Café test, another mail with a reminder and the link to the Miro board.
Tip 7: Let participants practice with the tool in advance
What you really don’t want in your Online World-Café is to have 40 to 50 people at the table who don’t know how to post a digital sticky note. We solved that with our Miro Warming Up. This allows participants to familiarize themselves with the tool beforehand in just a few steps. They learned how to navigate the board and how to paste a sticky note. And we built a large play area, where everyone could test the functions of Miro. We shared a link to this Miro Warming Up in our preparatory mails.
We’ve been using our Miro Warming Up for much longer. Also, for the workshops and trainings that we do with smaller groups we send people the Warming Up beforehand. It really makes a difference when people have practiced in Miro before. With just a little bit of practice almost everyone can work well in the tool during the session. Would you like to try our Miro Warming Up as well? Send us an email and we’ll be happy to send you the link to our English version.
Tip 8: Arrange a technical host
Without a technical host, Anne-Marie and I would have been lost. In the background, our tech guy Sjoerd made sure that everything went smoothly. He arranged for everyone to end up in the right breakout room and gave ‘first aid in Miro’ if starting up took more time then expected. Sjoerd’s role was really essential, because Anne-Marie and I had our hands full guiding the session, structuring the Miro board and supporting the group of facilitators. So in sessions with a large group of participants, always make sure you have someone who can focus solely on the technical side.
Tip 9: Do a digital walk-in, with subgroups
If you want to start on time, which you do, start 15 minutes earlier and let people in digitally. What you don’t want is for everyone to sit quietly waiting for the start. After all, where’s the fun in that. It’s also rather atypical behaviour. When you enter a large venue, you don’t see everyone sitting still and being quiet, do you? No! Then you have coffee, form subgroups and start talking to people.
You can do this digitally too. We did this by allowing participants to enter our Zoom call in small groups. After a welcome and check if everything worked technically, we sent them onwards to a break-out room, where they could get to know each other better and network in small groups.
Tip 10: Provide good facilitators and prepare them super well
Allowing people to brainstorm in break-out rooms without any guidance is asking for trouble. Therefore our eight theme tables each had their own facilitator. And they were worth their weight in GOLD. A good facilitator at your virtual table can really break or make your session. Because we took into account that during the sessions in the break-out rooms we would have little time for guidance, we thoroughly discussed the session outline with the facilitators beforehand. They were given an extensive session programme and we organized a 1-hour dry-run workshop to prepare them for the session. During the dry-run we went through all the steps and the facilitators were able to ask questions.
During the test, we kept in touch with our facilitators via WhatsApp. In Zoom, you can no longer communicate with each other once everyone is in a break-out room. Although the addition of WhatsApp worked well as a helpline, it is an extra tool that you need to keep an eye on. It is quite a lot to handle. So as a facilitator, you’ll need some technical skills and experience if you’re coaching a group in Zoom and Miro. Curious about our facilitator tips? We wrote a blog about it earlier.
Tip 11: Use ‘rename’ to let people choose a theme table
We wanted to let people choose their own theme table and not divide them up in subgroups beforehand. One of the things we really thought about is how to let 40 people digitally choose which theme table they want to participate in. In a face-to-face session you just say: ‘Choose a table you want to discuss and sit on a chair. Full is full!’ But online this will not work. We chose to solve this by giving each of the four themes its own colour. We then asked participants to put the colour they had chosen in Zoom in capital letters in front of their name. This can be done via the ‘rename’ option. Their name would then, for example, read: ORANGE Esther. Our technical host could then divide the participants over the eight break-out rooms, which in turn corresponded to eight theme tables. Except for a few small hick-ups, this went very well. And we have used this technique in each of our World Café sessions afterwards.
Tip 12: Use creatieve exercises
More energy = more ideas. Okay, maybe it’s not that simple, but with little energy in the group the result of your workshop will be limited. At STORMPUNT we use all kinds of creative exercises to keep participant energy levels high, also in a World Café. For example, we did an introductory exercise with a variant of hat-on-hat-off. We asked everyone to stick a post-it over their camera and take it off when their answer to one of the statements we put forward ‘yes’. With questions like ‘Who got up before 6 a.m. this morning’ and ‘Who ever supervised an online session’ you get – literally! – a view of the similarities between people in your group. This works great as an ice-breaker. In addition, we added some other creative exercises to let people come up with out-of-the-box ideas (such as: how would a well-known organisation or famous person solve this problem?). This creates new dynamics and energy in your session, also online!
TIP 13: Take your time
Two hours was too short to go through all the steps in the Online World Café. We knew this beforehand and we also received this feedback after the test. For our ‘real’ World Cafés we will certainly take longer. Our experience is that online sessions of three or four hours are fine, as long as you apply sufficient variation in working methods. For example, choose to combine off- and online exercises and make sure to take enough breaks.
Tip 14: Organize virtual drinks afterwards
After a face-to-face session, people often linger for a while, to chat or network with each other. This can also be done online and is really easy to arrange. After the first test, we made everyone co-host in Zoom and set up break-out ‘drinks’ rooms with funny titles like ”Creative Tinder: find your creative match’. In Zoom the participants could hop back and forth between these break-out rooms and thus speak to several people. During our second test Zoom had a temporary malfunction and this feature didn’t work for a while, so we solved that by switching participants via the main room. This caused some stress for us as supervisors, but worked like a charm for the participants.
Tip 15: Accept that things sometimes don’t go as expected
This might sound like an open door, but it’s very important. Things always go ‘wrong’ during a session. As facilitator you can make the difference by how you deal with it. I myself forgot to do an exercise in the second test. None of the participants noticed. Of course, all the facilitators asked me afterwards if there was a reason I had skipped the planned exercise. Nope, just forgot about it! As long as you are relaxed and don’t get stressed, the session can continue without any problems.
Our conclusion: a World Café works perfectly well online. That offers great opportunities for the coming period, in which organizing face-to-face events with large groups is not going to be easy. Online collaboration with large groups from all over the country, or even from all over the globe, is absolutely possible. Start by taking the above 15 online brainstorm tips to heart. Do you want to work with a large group, in an interactive way, and are you looking for help with that? We are happy to think along with you. Feel free to contact us!
Check out our previous blogs below, in which we share our experiences in facilitating online creative workshops. Would you like to learn how to facilitate an online session in Miro? Check out our online trainings, in which we teach you all the (facilitator)tips and tricks so you can get started yourself!