Being a Virtual Brainstorming Super Hero: The Ultimate Guide

A couple of people sit quietly around a table. 

Suddenly a light bulb comes on just above someone. 

The flash of an idea, excited conversation, absolute agreement, and problem solved. 

The Seventies Show Gif to illustrate a light bulb moment in virtual brainstorming

Say the word brainstorming, and it’s often this image that pops into your head. You can thank umpteen comic strips and cartoons for that one. 

Real-life brainstorming, though, is vastly different. It requires planning and effort, and unfortunately, often gets a bad rep. 

But here’s the thing. The problem isn’t the method; it’s our approach to it. 

If used effectively, brainstorming can accomplish several goals at once. Even more so when the session is virtual. 

Virtual Brainstorming: Winning All The Way

Let’s be honest. Sure, the pandemic forced us to work from home and go into remote mode. And sure it forced us to have more virtual meetings. But virtual brainstorming… experts say that’s always been the better option. 

“Virtual brainstorming retains the original postulate of traditional brainstorming – that teams can crowdsource creativity by curating the ideas they collectively produce in an informal, free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness, session – but overcoming the main, originally unforeseen, barriers.”

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Business Psychologist, in a 2015 HBR article 

So what are these barriers? Let’s do a deep dive, shall we?

One Voice To Rule Them All 

Picture this! You are in a brainstorming session. People are talking, bouncing ideas off each other. Suddenly one voice gets loud. Everyone pauses for a second, looks around, and starts chattering again. 

That same voice now gets louder. Other people become softer. Finally, that voice gets so loud that it becomes the only voice in the room.

A gif from The Wedding Singer with Adam Sandler illustrating the dominant voice in a brainstorming session.

Sound familiar? If you just nodded your head in agreement, you have been in a brainstorming session with an extroverted, domineering participant. 

In traditional face-to-face sessions, dominant participants can take over the session and eclipse fellow attendees. This affects creative and democratic idea generation. 

In a virtual setup, facilitators can invite specific speakers to contribute and mute other attendees. Ideas can be shared through chat and digital sticky notes. 

On Toasty, we’ve made this even easier with Ask (formerly Response) which prompts questions to participants and allows them to record their answers.

Why So Quiet?

Have you ever stayed silent in a group because you thought what you were going to say was … well, dumb? I know it’s something I’ve done. 

Sharing unique, strange, and out-of-the-box ideas with colleagues, let alone strangers, can be nerve-wracking. After all, who wants to be the weird one, am I right? 

Quite a few of us often doubt ourselves and aren’t confident enough to present our thoughts to a large group. 

Traditional brainstorming can be tough on introverts and people who are unsure of their ideas, especially when they are forced to present to a larger group. 

Virtual brainstorming wins this round by giving participants the ability to remain anonymous.

That anonymity also allows ideas to be judged objectively, for their merit. Other participants’ positions or power play or politics, then become non-factors. 

I Have An Idea… So Do You 

One + One = Two. Simple mathematics, right?

Apparently, not that simple in a traditional brainstorming session.

Experts say that when participants are exposed to each other’s opinions during the actual idea generation phase, people conform to the group average. They pick uniformity over innovation.  

This means that instead of having multiple ideas generated, we are often left with one or two solutions. 

A New Yorker Strip from 1979 highlighting groupthink
The New Yorker Collection, 1979

But in virtual sessions, this is eliminated. Facilitators can encourage people to innovate on their own by prompting questions individually. 

Ask them to note down their ideas on digital sticky notes on the whiteboard you are using. On Toasty, participants can register their solutions as responses to question prompts. 

If the group is huge, you can also divide people into pairs and send them to breakout rooms to discuss the problem statement. 

Only once everyone has submitted their response, or you have ended the breakout session, will the ideas be visible to all attendees. 

And Then There Is Technology

When you think of remote brainstorming, what image comes to mind? 

A group of people on a video conference, going back and forth, discussing the problem at hand? 

If you said yes to that, then you need to makeover your virtual brainstorming sessions. 

With the sheer number of powerful online collaboration tools available to you, you can change how your meeting looks. 

Include creative icebreakers, collaborate on virtual whiteboards, use virtual breakout rooms in smaller groups, etc. In fact, on Toasty, you don’t even have to take minutes because our automatic workshop summary does that for you. 

The 8 Step Guide To Running Perfect Virtual Brainstorming Sessions 

When Toasty first went into a remote mode, I figured it would be a breeze. After all, we run a platform focused on virtual collaboration. 

Boy, was I wrong! I will never forget that daily team standup, where I spontaneously went into brainstorming mode. No heads up… no plan, nothing. 

To put it lightly, it was a disaster.

My team was caught off guard and were just unprepared to jump in like that. 

Which brings me to the most essential thing to remember about brainstorming with virtual teams.

Always check if you need to have a brainstorming session.

Sessions focussed on idea generation and problem-solving are time intensive. Don’t club them or confuse them with other regular meetings. Think about whether brainstorming is integral to the session you are planning. 

As a facilitator, making that mental note will start you off on the right foot. 

#1 Write the Problem Statement

The number 1 reason why brainstorming sessions fail? A lack of clarity about the problem statement.

A Gif from Finding Dory illustrating the lack of clarity about a problem.

If you are organizing a remote brainstorming session, ask yourself: 

  • What is the problem? 
  • Who faces the problem? 
  • Why is it important to solve the problem? 

Once you have answered these questions, you will be better positioned to define a clear, succinct problem statement. 

If you want to generate disruptive, creative ideas, it’s essential to zoom in on the core problem. 

Instead of a problem statement that says, “How can we improve our marketing strategy?”, define it as, “Which social media platform is the best medium for us to reach out to our core audience?”

#2 Identify Your Participants 

Quite a few facilitators make this mistake… of not planning their participant group. They don’t decide on the number of people and also the mix of people. 

During a brainstorming session, you want to get the most diverse ideas. And for that, you need a diverse group. 

It’s essential to bring in people with different skill sets to bring diverse perspectives to the table. 

Sure, experts are important. You need someone who can provide insights specific to the topic. But don’t ignore non-experts. They bring more out-of-the-box thinking to the mix since they aren’t jaded by prior knowledge.  

But how many people should you ideally have in a problem-solving session? 

Experts recommend that ideally, a brainstorming session should have four to seven participants. 

Worried about hosting a larger group? Don’t! Use virtual breakout rooms to divide the group and let them brainstorm in silos that come together to zero in on key takeaways. 

#3 Fix the Pick 

At the end of a brainstorming session, you need ideas that solve your problem statement. 

But experts say facilitators often make this common mistake. 

They focus too much on how ideas will be generated but not on how the best ideas will be selected. 

When you create a plan for your session, think about how you will shortlist the ideas and pick a winner. Here are some options you can choose from: 

  • Ask people to virtually raise their hands to indicate their preference. This is easy in a small group. 
  • Score the idea on different factors and add the points up. This is a great option when there is no clear winner, and you need to evaluate the pros and cons.
  • Take a poll. Toasty makes this super simple. Just use our Poll activity. Enter the options and let everyone indicate their preference. Easy Peasy! 

#4 Choose a Technique 

You have a problem statement, you know the participants, you know how you will pick the best ideas, but how will you generate these ideas? 

Welcome to Virtual Brainstorming Techniques: A Quick Guide! 

Often facilitators stick to a few tried and tested methods like the ideation phase in design thinking. Here are a few favorites I hear about from most experts. 

Brain Writing: Participants work alone. In an allotted amount of time, they develop three solutions to the problem statement and jot it down in a shared document. The facilitator then collates the ideas for a discussion. 

Image illustrating brainwriting

Using a shared document allows participants to build off someone else’s idea, which can have interesting results. 

Six Thinking Hats: This is based on a technique conceptualized by Edward de Bono. Each participant is assigned a different hat and looks at it from that angle.

  • White Hat (Data, Facts, and Figures)
  • Red Hat (Emotions)
  • Green Hat (Ideas)
  • Yellow Hat (Positivism)
  • Black Hat (Critical Judgment)
  • Blue Hat (Control and Overview)

A popular variation is to have everyone look at the problem from the same angle, discuss it, and then tackle it from a different perspective. 

#5 Use Online Collaboration Tools 

I can’t stress this enough! 

Yes, sure, in a traditional brainstorming session, all you need are sticky notes and pens. But in a virtual session … with remote, distributed teams, you need more. 

Pick collaboration tools to make the experience engaging and seamless. 

Who can live without Google Docs? Not me! Collaborative documents make it intuitive to share ideas, suggest edits, and allow team members to comment and rate ideas.

Online whiteboards like Miro make remote brainstorming dead simple. They have pre-built templates, features like image import, shapes, PDF integrations, sticky notes, etc. and provide you with a vast canvas to play on. 

But remember that a whiteboard can be overwhelming and distracting. And if everyone is working on the same board, nothing is anonymous. Which is why you need an environment that allows you to move in and out of the whiteboard canvas. 

Image highlighting the Miro integration on Toasty.
Using Miro on Toasty

And this is where a feature-rich, collaborative video conferencing platform is powerful. It makes life simpler for participants. Instead of forcing 4 different tools for one call, pick something which has multiple features.

Like Toasty! 🤩

We combine engagement activities with Miro and Google Docs integration. It’s a win-win! 

But also encourage participants to use sheets of paper and a pen. Sometimes the best ideas can come from doodling offline. Don’t lose these ideas. Ask participants to take photos and share them with the group. 

#6 Design the Space

This is something of a Toasty mantra! 

Whether it’s a breakout room experience or a brainstorming session, we are absolute believers in creating a space that inspires meeting attendees. 

And we aren’t alone in this thought process. 

Take a look at the virtual space that Jen Goertzen, a UX Designer & Partner at Caribou and her team created for a brainstorming session.

Image illustrating how to create a virtual space for a brainstorming session

#7 Craft the Final Agenda

Planned every detail of your virtual brainstorming session? Do you know exactly when you will conduct a poll, prompt a question, use a whiteboard, or jump into a breakout session? 

Then, it’s time to share the agenda with your meeting attendees. 

A schedule ensures that attendees don’t feel lost, confused, unwelcome, or worse, as if they’re wasting time. 

Highlight the problem statement so that they come prepared to ideate. Describe the techniques you intend to use. 

Experts recommend paying attention to one detail.

Timebox your agenda. Don’t just give attendees details of each session but also how much time each session will take. 

#8 Help Participants Prepare Themselves 

So, you have shared the agenda? Are you in pre-brainstorming relaxation mode? 

Sorry to break that up because your job hasn’t ended yet. 

Communicate with participants to talk about the pre-work they need to do. 

Think that’s too much information, pre-session? That it will put participants off? 

It’s a common misconception. 

Preparation from participants, in fact, can go a long way in ensuring an efficient brainstorming session. 

Facilitators using Toasty with its inbuilt Miro integration often share the board beforehand. This allows people to work on the board asynchronously before the actual brainstorming starts. During the real-time session, this board then becomes a part of a broader agenda of a Toasty meeting with built-in engagement activities and breakout room discussions. 

What Else Should I Know 

The space that you design is sacrosanct. Keep it judgment-free where ideas are shared freely and without restriction.

Encourage users to communicate and collaborate. I have often noticed that the best idea comes not from a single person but from two (or three) people who worked together. Remember what Alex F. Osborn, the father of brainstorming, said, 

“It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.” 

So, tip a hat to the crazy ones. 

Remote brainstorming sessions only need a bit of planning to be completely transformedAt Toasty, we are excited to help you plan and streamline your meeting flow with collaboration activities, integration with popular tools, and breakout room experiences. This way everyone (even if this is your very first time) can run a productive virtual meeting. Check out more about Toasty through our website.