Five Principles For Planning Successful Virtual Ideation Sessions

Working remotely doesn’t mean the end of collaborative ideation and brainstorming. In fact, I have found that when planned and executed right, a virtual ideation workshop can be even more effective in generating innovative ideas compared to an in-person session. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic caused major disruptions to our working arrangements, we were planning and executing successful virtual design-thinking workshops both internally and with clients.

What I have found is the single biggest factor in the success of a virtual ideation workshop is how prepared the facilitator is. You should be spending as much time preparing for the workshop as the workshop itself.

If your strategy is “just wing it,” you’ll screw it up and waste everyone’s time. Trust me on this.

Here are five principles for designing virtual ideation workshops:



1. Reveal Responsibilities. Make your expectations clear well in advance. Send pre-reading at least 24 hours in advance. This contains background information, context and history, key insights, a clear challenge statement that ideation will revolve around, and any pre-work.

From the very beginning ask everyone to leave their job titles and hierarchy at the virtual door. One of my key beliefs is that good ideas can come from everyone; anyone can be a creative genius. Your workshop exercises should be designed to help people think beyond boundaries and ideate both independently and collaboratively.

Finally, while I usually share my screen and take notes throughout, it’s helpful to capture additional insights with a pre-assigned scribe. 

2. Ask for Accountability. Mandate that everyone turn their cameras on. Being able to see everyone else during the workshop helps immeasurably. Video helps with both engagement -- seeing other people's body language and facial expression is one of the core ingredients in communication.

It is also key for accountability -- you’re a lot less likely to start texting or ducking off to the bathroom if other people can see you.

3. Prepare for Screw-ups. In almost every session I have facilitated, at least one of the below will happen:

Someone will fail to read the pre-reading or complete the pre-work.

Someone’s internet will drop out.

Someone will reveal well into the call that they can't access the collaborative files.

Someone will accidentally delete another’s slide in a collaborative working document.

Someone will say “what are we doing exactly?” halfway through an exercise.

Someone will forget to go on mute as their kids scream in the background and they duck off quickly to wash the dishes.

Plan for it. Assume that all of the above will happen and have a contingency plan.

4. Plan for Personalities. Design your exercises for cognitive diversity. Here are a few of my favorites: 

I usually start with a Brain Dump icebreaker where everyone quickly blurts out answers to get people warmed up and accustomed to contributing via video. Usually this revolves around Empathy Mapping, an exercise designed to understand what the target consumer sees, hears, thinks, says, feels, their pain points and their gain points (motivations).

Magazine Cover Writing is an outside-the-box exercise that particularly helps those who are not used to thinking big, to think big. Imagine it is exactly 10 years (adjust if needed) from today, and BRAND is on the front cover of a well-known magazine publication. In 7 minutes, draw the front cover. Write out a heading, subheading, key points, did you know facts, and draw a hero image.

Brain Writing is a collaborative exercise designed to enable introverts to contribute equally without getting spoken over. You will need pre-developed collaborative Google Docs or Teams templates with clearly marked spaces for teams to develop each other’s ideas.

5. Follow-up with Fervor. Assign a core committee (approximately three people) to score and rank the often dozens of output ideas based on predefined selection criteria. This group will further refine ideas, scoping out costing requirements and bringing in specialists to workshop and prototype the ideas further.

The strength of a workshop is in its outcomes, and follow-up is the most critical yet overlooked step. Ensure that you keep the wider group informed of progress, keeping lines of communication open. Sometimes I have received idea contributions from participants several days later as inspiration strikes.

With the right preparation, contingency planning and an interactive agenda, anyone can run an effective virtual ideation session. These workshops can and should be energetic and inspiring. 

My final tips are to drink lots of coffee beforehand, use upbeat music effectively during breakout sessions and above all, have fun!

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