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How to have a productive (and remote) brainstorm session

One of the biggest challenges of working in this pandemic year has been working out how to collaborate. Hashing things out around a table has gone digital, and for the foreseeable future, your team may be more likely to be in five different places than hunkered down in a conference room together. After the fourth or fifth, “Sorry, can you repeat that?” it can feel less like a brainstorming session and more like a patience test. So how do you help keep that group energy and ideas flowing, when everyone’s in different places?

Make sure you’re using the best tools

Tech glitches have always been a fact of work-life, but they can increase tenfold when nobody’s on the same Wi-Fi, people are using different equipment, and people don’t feel comfortable with the tech. Before jumping in with collaborative virtual meetings, make sure you’re set up for a positive, successful experience.

If you’re using apps like Zoom, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams, make sure not only that you understand how they work as a leader, but also that everyone else is trained and up to speed on functionality, how to do things that would once have been handled in person, etc. It’s also important to replicate the kind of experience you’d have in person.

For example, a whiteboard is a gold standard brainstorming tool. Does the software you’re using have a whiteboard function? Does everyone know how to access, compile, change, and save information? If people are calling in rather than video chatting, how are they expected to participate, and how do they access follow-up materials? Before you even start, it’s important to consider how everyone will be using the brainstorming tools available.

If everyone’s distracted by minor (and preventable) tech issues, it’s going to be very difficult to get the best of anybody. The more thought you put into what tools you’re using to brainstorm and how everyone will be interacting with them, the experience will be smoother when you’re ready to get going.

Broaden your reach

Remote brainstorming is a great opportunity to rethink who’s in the room and be more inclusive. When you’re not limited by physical space or having people in the office, why not get as many perspectives as possible? When before it might have just been immediate team members, now you can think about whether it would be beneficial to have others sit in as well. That doesn’t mean your virtual brainstorming becomes a town hall. Rather, think about whether any perspectives were lacking in the past, or times when other points of view would have been helpful. It’s a chance to get the right stakeholders in the room, no matter where they are.

Many video conference apps can create breakout rooms or other smaller sessions of people to work together. That can keep a large group from being dominated by one- or two people’s ideas and open up the space so that different people can contribute more comfortably.

Be the taskmaster

One of the bigger challenges of brainstorming (no matter how or where you do it) is the conversation meandering away from the goal of the session. And in a remote session, it can be harder to be the moderator, with fewer physical cues and people (let’s be honest) often talking over one another in that awkward videoconference way. So, running remote brainstorming means being willing to step in and be the leader, having a stated goal for the session, and trying to keep people on topic when things start to get too abstract or tangential. Abstract brainstorming can be good, but someone needs to make sure that things are staying productive.

Before the session, set an agenda and send it to everyone who’s invited to the session. That may seem counterintuitive to the idea of spitballing, but it can help you get everyone pre-thinking about any ideas they might have and keep them focused on the goal.

Everything about how we work these days may feel different, but we don’t have to give up on the best parts of teamwork just because the geography might be a little different. Like just about everything else about the new work normal, it means being a bit more thoughtful and detailed in the approach. Solid tools and considerate management are–as ever–the best support you can give when you want to get the strongest ideas from your team.

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