How to effectively brainstorm in a remote environment

One of the things that seemed most challenging when AWeber was transitioning from a physical location to becoming a remote team was figuring out how we’d effectively brainstorm. So much good creative work comes from people putting their heads together, identifying problems to be solved, and coming up with ways to solve them.

Historically at AWeber, we had done this by swinging by someone’s desk, or catching them in a common space and working things through on a white board. How could we maintain this free-flowing innovation when people weren’t in the same physical space (or even the same time zone)?

It turns out it’s easier than we thought it would be. We ended up finding the parts of in-person brainstorms that worked best and combining them with the principles that make asynchronous communication so transparent, clear, and inclusive.

Here are a few tips for brainstorming with a remote team.

Always start with documentation.

Whether you’re going to be brainstorming synchronously or asynchronously, documentation is necessary to make sure people have shared goals and understand their role. Your first step should be to create a document that lists:

  • The goal of the brainstorm. 
    Are you trying to solve a problem? Identify what is causing a change in your user behavior? Create a new feature?
  • Relevant documentation.
    It’s helpful to share things like user research, conversations with users, and data about user behavior. Share these with your teammates before the meeting.

  • The agenda. 
    We have a team policy of declining agenda-less meetings (and think you should too!). The lack of an agenda makes it much more difficult for team members to prepare and results in less effective meetings.

These meeting notes are also where you close the loop and share the ideas and outcomes from your brainstorm. Having this doc is the single most effective way you can increase transparency and participation around your early stage thinking about a problem.

Gut check whether you need a meeting at all.

I’ve been surprised by the number of interesting ideas we’ve been able to come up with and refine asynchronously. Ask yourself a few questions before you schedule a meeting:

  • Are you “starting from zero?” 
    You’re at the very early stages of identifying a problem or are in the freewheeling early stages of proposing solutions.
  • Do you need stakeholders to get aligned on a contentious issue where there’s likely to be disagreement?

  • Is your issue time sensitive?
    For example, if you’re in the middle of an outage or have a tight deadline.

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then you’d probably benefit from a meeting. Live brainstorming sessions can be more effective at resolving differences, can spur more creative ideas (given some constraints), and can speed up resolutions to time sensitive issues.

Otherwise, consider sharing the docs you created with relevant reviewers and asking them to share their ideas on the page.

Narrow your focus.

When you’re brainstorming solutions, some constraints encourage creativity. For example, we want to make sure it takes as little time as possible for people to send an email to their audience. When we ask “how do we make the process faster” there are all sorts of ways that we could solve that problem from better user education, to improved design, to changes to our message editor. This level of abstraction can be helpful for identifying opportunity areas, but it isn’t super effective at actually finding actionable ways to make improvements.

If instead we pick one of those problem areas and really dive in, we end up with a much more focused set of ideas we can actually implement. We did this recently by asking ourselves where the friction was in the text editing portion of our message editor. Because we focused on that one issue, we came up with all sorts of ways to save people time writing their messages that we’re actually doing!

Keep meetings short.

The longer the meeting, the more opportunity to get distracted or tune out.

Keep meetings small.

Be ruthless when setting your list of brainstorm attendees. Video calls tend to be more draining and difficult to focus on than in-person meetings. The more people you add to your call, the less any single person will have to contribute, giving them more opportunity to tune out and frankly waste their time.

How should you decide who to add to your brainstorms? Invite:

  • The most knowledgeable people about your subject area.
  • People who will be involved in implementation.
  • Folks you’re developing who could learn a substantial amount from the experience.

Proactively call on participants for feedback.

The loudest voices will have an outsized impact on your brainstorming for the simple reason that they’ll talk the most. To make sure you’re getting perspective from everyone, periodically ask folks who are quieter what their opinion or idea is.

Don’t stop there. To avoid groupthink, ask the quieter people to explain their ideas so everyone doesn’t end up just repeating what the louder voices are saying.

Record your meeting and synthesize afterward.

Writing down notes and outcomes is essential to having brainstorming sessions that actually result in action. However, note taking during a meeting can slow down discussion and lead to distraction. Instead, record your meeting so everyone can participate fully and listen back afterward, summarizing and grouping relevant information.

The world feels like it’s sped up exponentially in the past few years, and that doesn’t look to be changing. It’s important to have methods for idea generation that really work in our increasingly remote world. The things I mentioned have really worked for us. What’s been working for you?