How to run an effective online brainstorming session

4 min read
Kacy Boone
  •  May 27, 2021
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Planning your organization’s next digital product iteration? Ironing out the kinks in your cross-functional workflow? Just want some quality ideas fast? Time to hold a brainstorming session! Make an agenda, bring your people together, and after an hour (or two), you’ll have actionable insights you wouldn’t have gotten without collaboration.

But what if your team works across different cities and time zones? You can still host an effective brainstorming session with a simple online whiteboard (like InVision Freehand), best practices, and a little prep.

Here are some pointers for running a productive online brainstorming session:

How to run a virtual brainstorming session

1. Determine whether you need a brainstorming session

The first step of effective virtual brainstorming is to recognize when you need to book a session. An effective test is if you’re coming up with a question that can be framed as “How might we…?” (HMW). For example, let’s say your company’s main competitor released a new product that significantly cuts into your share of the market. Your executive team may task you with answering “How might we improve Product X to maintain our competitive advantage?”

Companies often have questions that don’t require brainstorming. If the question is vague or high level (e.g. “How can we maintain our competitive advantage?”), your team may need more research before you start brainstorming together—a task the team can complete asynchronously.

2. Create a vision brief 

Your HMW question can work as your “problem statement,” or your online brainstorm’s raison d’être. For further clarity, InVision’s Senior Design Manager Caitlin Wagner recommends creating a vision brief to align participants prior to the session.

Vision briefs include your problem statement, provide relevant context and history, articulate the project’s prioritization, and define expectations for stakeholder success. You can forgo the brief if you’re working within a short timeframe, but it often allows for a smoother meeting and prevents spending time on rehashing details during the brainstorm.

3. Enlist a facilitator 

While you may be the right person to book the brainstorming session, you might not be the right person to run it. Try enlisting a knowledgeable, unbiased colleague to act as facilitator. They’ll be able to keep the session focused while teasing the best ideas out of people. (Read more on the value of expert facilitation here.)

4. Structure your online brainstorm

The best brainstorms use structured activities to keep the ideas flowing, the focus sharp, and the energy heightened. Before you dive headfirst into the session, warm up the room with an icebreaker game. Even if the team is close, a little time spent on an engaging activity will establish a light tone and keep brainstorming from feeling like a chore.

Online brainstorming techniques and games 

For the brainstorm format, use a template to keep goals and ideas as focused as possible. Freehand, InVision’s intuitive online whiteboard, comes with a gallery of plug-and-play brainstorming templates that feature exercises from high-performing teams.

  • From the team at Salesforce, Crazy8s whips up some fantastic low-fidelity ideas using a quick-sketch exercise.
  • KPMG Digital Village’s Card Sorting template helps you methodically develop ideas and group them into themes.
  • Create, share, and build on your teams’ ideas with Xbox Research and Design’s Brainstorming template.

Leave 5–10 minutes at the end of your session for a debrief with takeaways. Clearly define assignments for next steps.

Once you know which activities you want, share them and your agenda with your experienced facilitator. If time permits, run through the agenda with your facilitator and another teammate to iron out any kinks in your process. It also helps to have a few back-up activities or transitional exercises in your pocket in case an activity goes awry.

5. Invite your participants

For an inspiring session, invite participants from different roles, backgrounds, and perspectives. (Tip: Brainstorming with an online whiteboard can level the playing field for introverts, extroverts, and ambiverts!)

In your calendar invite, introduce the agenda, the problem statement, and the vision brief if you have one. Sharing these expectations and procedures early will give your participants time to prepare, research any initial ideas, and establish a productive tone for the session.

Mind map online:

In your prep email, urge your participants to create a mind map for their initial ideas. A mind map visually represents how our brains process information, which can be helpful in a brainstorm session when it comes time to iterate on ideas.

6. Run the brainstorming session 

On the day of the session, hand the keys over to the facilitator and then leave the rest to your team.

You want to generate as many ideas as possible, so keep any criticism to a minimum. Gather the ideas first then analyze their value. (Improv comedy calls this the “Yes, and” mindset.)

Let your facilitator know that if an activity isn’t working out, it’s okay to move to a backup activity. Know you can wrap up the session early if the group comes to a natural end point. Your team will be thankful for the chance to digest the session before moving on with their day.

To gain the most value from your brainstorm, consider recording the session. If you use Freehand, you can also run the brainstorm in presenter mode, so anyone who rewatches the session will have the same guided experience.

Virtual brainstorming with Microsoft Teams

With the Freehand app for Microsoft Teams, you can share and collaborate on an online whiteboard from a live Microsoft Teams meeting. Plus, add a freehand as a tab in your Teams application to keep the conversation going.

7. Recap the brainstorming session 

In the last few moments of the brainstorm, address next steps and delegate them. Write all recaps on the whiteboard. Take advantage of recent memory and maximize your session’s impact by promptly sharing results for other teams to see.

Create multiple artifacts, too, so the brainstorm lives on beyond the session. You’ll increase the chances that your colleagues see and celebrate the work, and give them chances to build upon it in the future.

Bring on better brainstorms

Sharing ideas and collaborating online are critical skills that teams need to master quickly in this new hybrid world of work. As a result, we’re bringing you 5 use cases, 5 principles, 5 techniques, 5 examples, and 5 ways to learn more—all to make your online brainstorming sessions even more effective and engaging.

Grab the guide

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard