Read our new manifesto
Future 50 Banner

Lessons learned from a year of virtual brainstorming

This promoted content is produced by a member of The Drum Network.

The Drum Network is a paid-for membership product which allows agencies to share their news, opinion and insights with The Drum's audience. Find out more on The Drum Network homepage.

Greenlight Digital on how to hold a standout virtual brainstorming meeting.

March 2021 marks a full year of working from home and, for many agencies and marketing departments, the last 12 months have been a steep learning curve.

As we’ve adapted to the ‘new normal’, we’ve also had to adapt the way we work. This is particularly true when it comes to brainstorming, an essential part of the ideation process and one that is, by its very nature, collaborative.

Over the last year, virtual brainstorming has become the norm. Where once we had visual aids, whiteboards, pastries, post-it notes and copious amounts of coffee, we now look to achieve the same results through Zoom calls, inconsistent wifi, and in many cases, still a copious amount of coffee.

Caffeine-dependencies aside, this has raised some big challenges. But it’s also presented unique opportunities to not only adapt to virtual brainstorming, but to thrive.

We’ve identified five lessons from the last year, and actionable steps that any marketing department can take to make a success of their virtual brainstorm sessions.

Preparation is key

For a brainstorm session to be focused and productive, you have to put in the prep time. Preparation is the foundation that we build our ideas from. When working virtually, having clarity on the point of the session is even more important to its success.

If the specific issue isn’t defined and no research has taken place, the team won’t center their thinking. Instead, you’ll have a Zoom call full of individuals all trying to come up with solutions to different problems. A detailed brief can save time and, in many cases, sanity.

Brainstorm tip: put aside time to go through a set agenda before every session. This should define the problem you’re looking to solve, explain the desired outcome, and detail the requirements needed to achieve it.

Think more about engagement

Visuals are a huge part of how we communicate with each other. In fact, it’s believed that 55% of communication is done through body language. Naturally when we don’t have that, positively communicating our thoughts becomes harder, as does interpreting other people’s suggestions.

If Jackie Weaver taught the world anything, it’s that it’s harder to stay focused on a call than in a room actively taking part in a discussion.

Whilst some issues may be specific to Handforth, others are universal. Whether it’s children, pets, partners, flatmates, or noisy neighbors, there are a million things now vying for our attention.

Brainstorm tip: check the tech. How many virtual meetings have been delayed or disrupted by a mute button or an issue with a specific app? Familiarize yourself with the functionality of the tech before the session to minimize distractions. If appropriate and agreed with your team, utilize the camera function so you aren’t relying solely on audio communication. Alternatively, try brainstorm techniques that forgo a call completely.

Inclusivity and diversity of thought is more important than ever

We’ve all been in meetings where one or two more vocal members monopolize the conversation. Studies show that if a meeting is made up of eight people, only three people do 70% of the talking. Every brainstorm session benefits from having a wide range of perspectives and therefore depends on every member of the team feeling enabled to speak up. This is true of all sessions, however speaking up virtually can be even more difficult for many team members.

Another challenge is ensuring the right people are in the room. Use the preparation time to think about what other perspectives are needed, regardless of position and department, and send them an invite. Ideation works best when an individual is at their best and, without an inclusive environment, this is impossible.

Brainstorm tip: invite everyone who you feel can contribute (not just the usual faces) and assign time for every attendee to contribute. Be flexible with the format of the session, allowing room for different schedules, experience and skill sets.

For example, mind-writing is an approach that specifically lends itself to virtual sessions and, unlike traditional brainstorming, doesn’t require speaking up. Instead, each member writes down one idea, passes it along and allows the next team member to elaborate. Not only does this help combat problems with groupthink, it also enables introverts and quieter members of the team to contribute freely.

Trial new methods

There are many different brainstorming techniques, from collaborative discussions to quieter sessions where people are expected to write down ideas based on something already given to them. Using the same techniques time and time again will achieve the same old outcomes, it’s important to trial new methods in order to achieve and elevate new ideas.

The makeup of every team is different, some people are visual thinkers and require physical components to elevate their thoughts, others will engage more with group discussion or written contributions.

Brainstorm tip: utilize available, often free, online tools. For example, Microsoft Whiteboard and Miro can be used to visualize an idea, Trello or IdeaBoardz can be used for collecting and collating suggestions. The important thing is to not let working from home restrict the type of sessions you’re able to hold.

Review, review, review

It’s possible that after your session you’ll have achieved a unanimous consensus on a concrete idea or solution. It’s possible, but not likely.

A review process where you collate all ideas and notes from the session, and allow each member to feedback, is crucial for completely remote teams. Not only does it allow members space to think, and time to hone ideas or raise any challenges, it also allows members who were not able to attend the initial meeting to contribute an outside perspective.

Brainstorm tip: create a shared document that wider members of the team can work from. Store all notes taken during the session and allow members to review and, if relevant, vote for their favorite concept, idea or solution.

Organizing and hosting a brainstorm session online can be daunting, but it doesn’t need to be filled with awkward silences, chaotic distractions or struggles with the mute button. By following these five steps, you can make brainstorming more productive than ever for your business.

George Norris, content strategist at Greenlight Digital.