One thing we have all learned in the months since the Covid-19 pandemic emerged is that lots of things are going to be different in the world of business and work more generally.  Even before Covid most of us have already been experiencing fast-paced change and the requirement for more and faster innovation in all aspects of our jobs.  The current emergency, however, has magnified the pressure for new ideas and for new ways to create new ideas.  What’s for sure today is that we now need to accept that we must learn to tackle the problem of how we can successfully innovate whilst working remotely from our colleagues, our customers, and most of our other stakeholders.  There can be no doubt that this is one (amongst many) of the pressing challenges we will face in our working lives.

Perhaps the best place to start thinking about this challenge is… at the beginning!  Arguably the innovation process begins when we have an idea to assess, evaluate, and develop towards commercial reality or implementation.  I say “arguably” because, as you will know if you have been following this blog series, there are very useful precursors to ideation – and we will look at how these can be delivered remotely as well.

So… how are we going to find ideas in the new world?  As we’ve said in earlier blog posts, a “set-piece” ideation or brainstorming session is not the only way to generate new ideas, but it at least ensures that we can have a focused effort, employing lots of brains, on our key innovation challenges.  Success with these sessions is not a given – especially now that we cannot simply herd people into a room and assemble them around a white board.  The rest of this article sets out some tips for running remote ideas sessions in a way that increases your odds of producing lots of high impact ideas.


An obvious enabler for remote ideas sessions is communication technology.  Many more people have now experienced how easy and effective communication platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom can be and platforms like these provide one part of the jigsaw for successful remote idea sessions.  In fact, Teams offers a simple breakout room facility – essential for ideation sessions in our view. 

It goes without saying, that we think innovation management tools like smartcrowds, used in conjunction with Zoom or Teams, are nothing short of essential for a successful remote event.  Smartcrowds makes the end-to-end innovation process simple and transparent and provides several features that enable highly effective remote brainstorming.

Planning and Preparation

Any good create session will have a well-communicated purpose – in smartcrowds we like to talk about the “innovation challenge”.  As with all aspects of remote working, the better the challenge is communicated the easier it will be for participants to focus their thinking and creativity.  In addition, a well written innovation challenge will also engage the emotion and passion of individual contributors.

We find that people who can emotionally engage with the challenge are more likely to be motivated to look for new and better solutions and ideas.  The structure we suggest in smartcrowds enhances the way session organisers think about the challenge and helps them to craft text that makes it unmistakably clear what kind of ideas are required and to what end.

Another vital dimension of the preparation for a remote session is the gathering of what we call Brain Fuel.  Brain Fuel is the material that will be used as inspirations and stimulus for the brainstorming itself.  Good Brain Fuel will power up the creativity in the virtual room dramatically impacting on the number and the quality of ideas produced.  Once again smartcrowds provides a structure for gathering and presenting good Brain Fuel that can be easily accessed during the remote session.

An important part of the preparation is in deciding who will take part.  We have stated in previous posts that our preference is to have as much diversity in the room (remote or otherwise) as possible.  More diversity increases the chances of more and better ideas.  Diversity in this case is about making sure that you have people who will look at challenges and Brain Fuel items from different perspectives.  Diversity comes from the usual and obvious distinctions between people and groups, but we should also think about including people from different functions, with different lengths of service, different education experiences, different ages, and different personalities (e.g. extravert, introvert, etc).  If possible, it’s great to involve people from outside the organisation – maybe suppliers, customers, academics – people with no preconceived ideas that might inhibit creativity.  The fact that a session is remote might now mean it is, in fact, easier to involve people that you might otherwise have had to leave out.

Finally, particularly important for remote brainstorming is that we put some effort into preparing participants in advance about how they should communicate ideas when they have them.  There is possibly nothing more important for successful innovation when we are working apart than making sure that we can all quickly and easily understand the ideas created in other people’s heads.  Smartcrowds provides templates for describing ideas and these will be relied on for good communication during the session.  That said, it is probably wise to provide some instruction on this structure in advance – some simple “how to” videos should suffice in most situations.  These same videos should also provide some instruction on gathering and using stimulus as part of participant preparation for taking part.

Focus on Communication

An obvious challenge when running remote sessions of any description is that we are forced to communicate in an entirely different way and some of the features of our usual communication methods aren’t as easy over video.  The 7-38-55 rule is a concept that explains how we understand what someone else is trying to communicate.  The rule states that 7 percent of meaning is communicated through the written or spoken words themselves, 38 percent through tone of voice, and 55 percent through body language.  Whilst we still have words, and to an extent, tone of voice available to us in remote sessions, the body language dimension is greatly reduced.

This difference puts a much greater onus on the online facilitator or session leader to ensure that structures and methods for communicating ideas are used and that they ensure much greater clarity on how participants should communicate and conduct themselves during the session.

A good example of introducing structure that we’ve seen is the Six Thinking Hats method of Dr Edward de Bono.  This technique isn’t new, but we believe that it has taken on a new relevance in the remote world.

In short, the Six Hats method recognises six different types of thinking that we do during ideation and identifies these thinking styles with six notional coloured hats as follows:

  • Blue Hat – planning, organising, purpose and evaluation
  • Green Hat – creativity, newness, connecting, building
  • Yellow Hat – objective positive; identifying benefits and opportunities
  • Black Hat – objective negative; identifying problems or downsides
  • White Hat – information, data, facts
  • Red Hat – emotion and feelings

The technique requires that participants engage in these different thinking styles in parallel – all at the same time.  Communication difficulties arise when these thinking styles are mixed – some people being creative, whilst some are evaluating, whilst others are still looking for facts and information.  This is especially likely – and doubly frustrating – when we are working remotely and can’t as easily take our cues for appropriate engagement from what others are doing.

Skilled facilitators will use the Six Hats structure to order the thinking styles and create a smoother, more productive session by ensuring that participants engage in the parallel thinking that the Hats method provides.

The Remote Session

The remote session itself will undoubtedly be enhanced by having smartcrowds or similar to allow participants to readily access Brain Fuel, easily refer to the Innovation Challenge, and have a simple clear structure to record and communicate ideas.  From a facilitator’s perspective we would suggest that your group size should be no more than 15 people.  More than this in our experience really exacerbates the problems of communication – even with a structure like Six Thinking Hats.

Our preference is to have groups for around a half-day with breaks built in.  In the old world, all-day brainstorming sessions would be the norm, but this is probably a stretch in the remote format.  A half-day will allow for a few creative “cycles” where the group will make use of the Brain Fuel as well as judicially selected creative thinking tools that the facilitator can introduce.  We also think it is useful for the facilitator to prepare a short Brain Fuel presentation that they use to get the ball rolling for the first creative cycle.  This presentation would typically be based on their interpretation of any of the gathered Brain Fuel that piques their curiosity.

We would also recommend that the creative cycles involve both individual and small group elements.  Microsoft Team’s breakout rooms make this straightforward.  We would recommend that each breakout room is set up with one member of the “facilitation team” included in the group.  This is just to ensure that each group understands the task and uses the Brain Fuel and tools appropriately.  The group facilitator can also take care of timekeeping and making sure that the group’s work gets translated into ideas recorded in the idea management platform.  We have also known some breakout room facilitators introduce background music to the group’s work.

When a team is brainstorming silently, the introduction of music can create an added dimension to the creative effort.  Whatever it is you’ve done in traditional brainstorming you can try to replicate online.  Research has shown that changes to the group’s environment has a positive effect on creative productivity.

A final idea for the remote session that makes more use of the capabilities of a platform like smartcrowds is to set up a rapid feedback facility using the powerful survey tools and capabilities that the platform provides.  For more experienced groups it can be useful to access almost instantaneous feedback on emerging concepts and ideas.  By teeing up individuals and groups external to the session, interesting lines of thought can be tested very quickly and the feedback received can serve to focus the group’s work on those directions that gain most immediate traction.

Embracing the Void

So, a new world requires new approaches to old challenges like innovation.  What seems to be undeniable is that many more people are realising that remote group working is not as difficult or even as unrewarding as they may have thought.  Indeed, now that the remote working dam has been burst we firmly believe that organisations will embrace the benefits that well-planned and well-resourced remote sessions can bring.  Tools like smartcrowds undoubtedly enable these sessions to be much more productive and indeed might even allow organisations, teams, and individuals to reach new heights of innovation success in the future.