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Virtual Brainstorming Success Guide

Patrick McCarthy Hacker Noon profile picture

@patrickmccarthyPatrick McCarthy

Technologist linkedin:patrick-mccarthy-26a8111 Follow me on Twitter @pat__mccarthy


Virtual brainstorming is a really important skill to master for distributed teams that potentially can have a huge collaborative payback. Participants come away feeling heard, valued, aligned and the organisation benefits from the actionable items uncovered. Virtual does come with a unique set of problems that don't exist in the off-line world.


It is necessary to have group collaboration tools, for communication, white-boarding and polling. I used zoom and jamboard, but any equivalents will do.

Identify your focus area and break it down into logical bitesize chunks in advance e.g. (DevOps - technology, process, culture and people or simply performance for more focus). Identify your audience to invite (be diverse, consider bringing in x-org experts). Consider the total number of people, if you have more than 8-10 invitees then you need to get assistants lined up to help you run the sessions.

Identify how long you require, It depends on how focused the topic is. The session I ran was broad, took two hours and it was time squeezed with sixteen participants.

Be the owner of the zoom invite, so you can control breakout rooms and polling options.

  • Send out an invite in advance with an intro, pre-reading materials that sets the correct mindset for participants.
  • Create a group chat channel (e.g. slack).
  • Create a virtual post-it board (e.g. Jamboard/Miro).
  • Set up a feedback form for circulating at the end (e.g. pollev, google forms, survey monkey). Use an open feedback question in your post survey to avoid leading the pollsters. I used "Share your feedback on todays brainstorming session and upvote entries that you think are most important"

Agenda - Have a pre defined agenda to drive the session and put time duration against the agenda items

  • Intro (Who we are, Why are we doing this, Whats the outcome we are going to achieve)
  • Two mins for individual brainstorming
  • Eight minutes for group brainstorming using Jamboard/Miro
  • Five minutes to organise into themes
  • Two minutes to vote on the order of themes to discuss (aim for 3)
  • Five to ten minutes to discuss each theme and identify metrics
  • Five minutes to fill out session feedback (pollev/zoom polls)

Controlling the Meeting

At the beginning, give everyone time to think separately about different issues, then have participants add their post-its and "initial" them (so you can refer back to original poster for clarifications). This is a silent activity for the most part.

During the meeting set the expectation of the amount of time to be spent on different parts of the process. Utilise a count-down timer with an audible alarm for the first three stages, but a silent countdown later thats visible and shared screen to allow participants to self regulate. Demonstrate flexibility on the times if things are flowing well, there is a balance to be achieved between interrupting to move things along, and allowing things to bubble up. 

How to decide on when to interrupt? If the participants are going too deep (solutioning) or off-topic, then allow the conversation to develop to the point you can note down the bones of the discussion and interrupt. Write down the info on a different coloured post-it on the Jamboard for all to see and move to next item.

Request the volunteer assistants to help with the grouping of the post-its into common themes and it is easier to process if you add post-its in different colours to capture the themes. Use zoom's poll function to prioritise the selection order of the themes. Go through the post-its in the chosen topic (under the selected theme) one by one and allow discussion to occur. Capture points made and actions using separate notes (new colour on the Jamboard).

The end phase of the meeting begins when there is approx. ten minutes left.

  • Mark the time out loud to inform the participants
  • Bring the current discussion to a close
  • Ask if any participant has something they really want discussed and allow them that time.
  • End the meeting by thanking the participants and pointing them to the survey for feedback.

Post Meeting

Go through the jamboard notes and write up a report and actions. Arrange for a small group to review the report prior to circulating it to the correct audience and delegate the actions. There may be follow-ups required with certain people (initials come in handy now) for more information on interrupted topics.

Conclusion: Brainstorms takes preparation and practice to maintain momentum and focus, however if you follow and adopt some or all of my suggestions it can be very rewarding in terms of insights and knowledge sharing from the participants.  Whatever the actionable outcomes of the brainstorming session it will have achieved better collaboration, awareness and engagement of the participants.


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