At HubSpot, we love brainstorming
Bringing your team together in a room to come up with ideas can not only identify creative content or strategies that you may not have thought of, but also improve the feeling of psychological security, as can be the case with people who senior managers may not be invited and encouraged to offer their contributions.
Brainstorming is one of the most productive team building activities that we use at HubSpot. Recently, when we had to leave our physical offices and devote ourselves to remote work, many managers wondered how they could virtually restore the same personal communication, productivity, and sense of psychological security.
Fortunately, many of our managers were quick to adapt and had a number of successful virtual brainstorms in 2020.
To help managers develop solid idea generation techniques – even from home – here are a few steps HubSpot employees take on the blog, acquisition team, and DI&B team to coordinate remote brainstorms .
How to conduct a virtual brainstorming session
1. Give your team a head start.
If your teammates already know the purpose of the brainstorming session, the prompts given to them, and the idea generation instructions, they are ready and willing to make suggestions right away.
Before brainstorming, send a detailed email or creative letter about what you want to achieve during the session.
“I’ve found that allowing members of your brainstorming session to prepare in advance leads to higher quality ideas to brainstorm,” said Emmy Jonassen, senior director of marketing at HubSpot. “A creative assignment also helps you get the most of your time. So you concentrate on brainstorming instead of discussing the task.”
2. Assign a moderator before brainstorming.
Brainstorming in person makes it easier to use body language and other social cues to determine who is speaking, who is being asked questions, and who is chairing the meeting.
When you’re on a video call, some cues may be harder to notice. You may not know who to answer a question, who to ask questions, and who is trying to keep the meeting on schedule. It is therefore helpful to clearly identify a host or moderator.
“The trick to a great brainstorming session is to get everyone involved,” explains Jonassen. “A moderator can help create an environment that everyone is comfortable in. He can also help keep the conversation through awkward silence, keep the group informed, and include people in the conversation who are more likely to are reluctant. “
Once you have planned your brainstorming session and designated yourself or someone else as the moderator, be sure to include this information in the creative summary of the brainstorming session, in the calendar invitation, or at the beginning of the session. If you decide to go with breakout rooms – which we’ll cover in Step 4 – you should consider having a moderator for each one.
3. Take virtual notes.
During personal brainstorms, it is easy to look down and type on your computer while you are still speaking and engaging with others. On a video call, you may want to stare less at your notes and more at your camera so you don’t lose interest. And when you need to take notes, you can worry about something missing when switching between screens. Because of these issues, notes can get quite muffled.
For this reason, according to Alexandra Garnier, a French marketing manager for automation, brainstorming coordinators should “use either a virtual whiteboard, an online shared note-taking document, or (if necessary) a specific note-taker.”
By taking joint notes or naming a note-taker, everyone can have a common source of information to look back on and focus on the discussions ahead. When choosing a note-taker, it is best to choose a quick type or a participant who is not in the role of developing ideas, such as a co-coordinator. That way, they can focus on the notes without missing out on a great team activity.
4. Include viral breakout rooms.
During a large personal brainstorming session, you may be asked to break up into small groups, move to another room, and give some ideas back to your group. Fortunately, many video calling tools have been able to mimic this experience with breakout room features.
“It is more difficult to get everyone to participate when there are more than five or six people involved,” says Jonassen. “When I have a large group, I usually use this feature to split people into smaller groups and brainstorm for a set amount of time. After that time, everyone will come back to the larger group to share ideas.”
Garnier also added, “If you are brainstorming with a larger group, it is better to create breakout rooms. Some people tend to shy away from having many participants around.” This can be especially the case in a virtual environment where people may feel uncomfortable talking.
If you use Zoom for your meetings and are interested in breakout rooms, here’s a great tutorial on how to enable them on your next call.
5. Use digital sounds and other signals to switch between activities.
Some brainstorms can involve a combination of individual and group activities. Of course, when the ideas are flowing in a task it can be difficult to stop and jump into a new part of the session. Managing time in a virtual meeting is even more difficult, according to Margot Lieblich, a senior UX researcher who coordinates monthly brainstorms and idea generation sessions.
“In brainstorms, you often have a tight schedule and need to move quickly to the next activity. This can be especially difficult in a remote environment if you can’t always visually signal that everyone is drawing attention to themselves at the same time, “says Lieblich.
“Use an audible timer to clearly mark the end of an activity. You can even get creative with the sound,” advises Lieblich. “I used the Oscars themed music, and one of my staff uses the sound of a duck quack.”
“After the group has heard the timer once, they quickly learn to wrap themselves up and move on to the next activity when they hear the tone again,” explains Lieblich.
6. Include both group and individual brainstorming activities.
Some people work better alone, while others work much better in groups. In a virtual brainstorming session, this can become clearer when those who do not respond to group activities are taken out of circulation and those who do not want to allocate individual spaces wait until the end and hope that they run out of time. Two activities ensure that everyone can gather ideas in their own comfort zone.
“I like to start with an individual activity so that people have a few minutes to explore their own approaches to the problem area without influencing each other,” says Lieblich. “After doing a single activity, I add a group activity so people can inspire each other and come up with richer, more interesting ideas.”
7. Remember, you don’t always have to schedule a video call.
While you might think that all remote brainstorms need to happen on video calls, it doesn’t always. Yes, many of them certainly will. However, if you ask teammates to come to a brainstorming session that has been prepared with something quick – like a blog post pitch or a one-off email idea – you can potentially cut a time-consuming video call entirely from your brainstorming process.
When the blog team was recently developing our quarterly content strategy, we wanted to ask our writers to come up with ideas for blog posts. However, since every writer has an incredibly busy schedule, it didn’t logistically make sense to invite them to a very long brainstorming meeting with each person making five to ten post suggestions.
So instead I coordinated a virtual brainstorming session that was done entirely through Google Sheets. To kick off the brainstorming session, I sent my team an email and an idea generation table with instructions on what content we need for the next quarter, how many post ideas to put in the table, and a deadline for submitting post Suggestions.
From there, the authors had two weeks to come up with ideas for at least five blog posts. Here’s a quick look at the table with a sample post I gave authors to walk them through the elements of a post proposal:
After the deadline, our editors came in and used the table’s comment functions to provide feedback that authors could consider for the next virtual brainstorming session. Since that brainstorming session, most of the proposed blog posts have been added to our content calendar.
Schedule your virtual brainstorming
Many of the tips above are related to encouraging one critical aspect of brainstorms: participation.
As you plan your next content or campaign brainstorming session, ask yourself how you can make brainstorming interesting for everyone.
By making it easier for your team to connect with others, share their thoughts, or brainstorm ideas, you will get more involvement and ultimately more engaging ideas from teammates who may not otherwise offer them.
Read this blog post to learn more about brainstorming tactics. If you’re interested in how to promote psychological safety in other areas of your business, check out these expert tips.