There are compelling reasons for technology startups to be fully remote: Hiring isn’t limited by location. Overhead costs are lower, allowing earnings to be reinvested toward growth. And employees tend to be happier and more productive than in-office workers.
Despite the benefits, some may wonder if remote startups can attain the level of collaboration needed to resolve difficult organizational challenges. One method that distributed teams can use to overcome distance and achieve alignment is a remote ideation workshop—a group session in which a facilitator leads ideation exercises that prioritize speed, teamwork, and creativity.
Ideation is a process of analyzing an issue and brainstorming potential solutions without weighing their merits. It’s also the third step of design thinking, a design-oriented approach to innovation popularized by IDEO. For nearly four decades, IDEO’s design thinking process has helped some of the world’s most recognizable companies solve complex business and product-related problems, but ideation exercises aren’t purely the province of formal design thinking sessions at large corporations.
If you have a startup client who’s facing an organizational hurdle or a design dilemma and they’re open to exploring novel solutions, offer to plan and run a remote ideation workshop. As a designer and creative expert, you are a natural choice to facilitate the workshop and lead participants through ideation exercises.
I run remote ideation workshops to help my startup clients understand user behaviors, develop design strategies, and discover new features for their digital products. It’s a rewarding experience, but it does require meticulous preparation to accommodate time zone differences, technology hurdles, and communication barriers. While acknowledging that every company is different, I hope these key insights help you lead a successful remote ideation workshop for your startup client.
Plan a Productive Remote Ideation Workshop
Before you can run an effective remote ideation workshop, you need to build a plan. Make sure to involve your client and ask them questions about the workshop’s purpose, participants, and logistical details.
Uncover the Workshop’s Purpose
Remote ideation workshops are designed to help teams assess business problems and share potential solutions without fear of judgment. They’re also intended to yield as many ideas as possible. The hope is that a few great ideas—or even the beginnings of a few great ideas—emerge from the hundreds of concepts produced.
Your client should have a specific challenge that they want to address. Ideation workshops aren’t merely team-building events where you generate blue-sky concepts that will never be used. If there’s no intent to act on ideas, employees may come to see workshops as a waste of time and be reluctant to participate in the future.
Write a Problem Statement and Define Clear Goals
Does your client want to generate new product concepts, alleviate user pain points, or define a set of company standards? A remote ideation workshop is suitable for each, but the workshop’s problem statement needs to be precise.
A well-written problem statement describes the challenge at hand and explains its impact. It also lists specific plans to address the problem. These plans are the workshop’s goals: Reference the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) framework to ensure that the goals you set are attainable in a workshop setting.
Gather and Prepare Data
Data can be a convincing way to reinforce the workshop’s problem statement and goals. Ask your client for:
- Quantitative data from sources such as Amplitude, Google Analytics, and Microsoft Clarity
- Qualitative data from user interviews, online reviews, customer service tickets, and the like
Then, review the data and turn key metrics and user insights into simple graphics, slides, and talking points that participants can reference during the workshop.
Decide Who to Invite
If you don’t invite the right people to the workshop, the session could be unproductive. For instance, if the workshop is meant to address a shift in your client’s mission statement, but you only invite participants from one department, the outcomes will be skewed.
Usually, I’ll ask designers, product owners, marketing experts, customer service reps, and engineers to join. Make sure the guest list includes the right stakeholders, but keep it small. Some participants may not have the confidence to speak up in larger groups, and their insights and ideas will be missed.
With a startup client, you might find that hierarchies aren’t as important as they are at larger, more established companies—allowing you to invite people without concern for official roles or titles. Just be sure that a wide range of areas are represented.
Early-stage startups may not have meaningful metrics or user research at their disposal. If that’s the case, you can invite special guests to discuss issues that relate to the workshop’s goals. For instance, ask an industry expert to talk about innovative ways to address specific business problems or invite users to share their thoughts about certain aspects of your client’s product.
Communicate Logistical Details
Your ideation workshop may be remote, but its logistical details can’t be ignored. Participants are going to need more than an email with a time, date, and meeting link. For instance, will they need access to online collaboration tools? Do you need to account for time zone differences?
Send a calendar invite with an agenda and a short description that helps participants understand the nature of the workshop; three days before the event, send a reminder.
Run an Effective Remote Ideation Workshop
Introduce the Problem Statement and Goals
Start the workshop by introducing yourself and defining the problem statement. This will give the group a challenge to rally around. Every creative exercise should point back to the problem statement or goals, so make sure you don’t rush this step.
After introductions, I recommend reframing the problem with the “How might we …” format because it creates a sense of possibility and prompts collaboration. For example, “How might we encourage existing users to subscribe to our new services?”
Give Participants Context
Once the participants understand the problem and feel comfortable with each other, it’s time to provide additional context for making decisions and generating concepts. This is when you’ll share the quantitative and qualitative findings you gathered before the workshop. Or, if your client doesn’t have that kind of data, devote this time to the special guests you invite.
Everything presented must be easy to understand. Don’t overwhelm participants with too much information. You want to maintain the positive momentum from your icebreaker, so provide high-level insights and keep moving.
Schedule Breaks Throughout the Workshop
The introductory phases of the workshop force participants to process a lot of new information. Once ideation exercises begin, most participants will be engaging their brains in totally new ways. Allotting time for breaks allows everyone to step away from their screens and stay mentally sharp.
Find the Right Mix of Tools and Activities
Online tools such as Miro or Mural allow participants to collaborate in a shared environment. Whatever tools you choose, you need a place to quickly capture everyone’s ideas then access them later for further organization and documentation.
When it comes to ideation activities, there are many options. Here are a few tried-and-true exercises:
Diverge and Converge
Diverge-and-converge is a simple yet powerful approach to ideation that you should apply to every exercise in your client’s workshop. Essentially, it entails breaking activities into periods when participants work on tasks independently (diverge) and communally (converge).
Diverge-and-converge curbs groupthink, and when concepts are shared anonymously during converge periods, it prevents participants from deferring to ideas submitted by influencers in the group. It also enables participants to process information and generate solutions at their own pace.
After a clearly defined diverge period, ask participants to converge to share ideas, identify patterns, and talk about the various ways they understood and approached the activity. Using the diverge-and-converge technique permits participants to see problems from different angles and prevents them from fixating on one concept prematurely.
Recap and Document
After you’ve completed all your ideation exercises, it’s time to recap. This is an important step because it helps solidify insights and key takeaways. It’s also a time to see how the group’s ideas address the problem statement.
At this stage, everyone is going to be tired. Schedule a break and give participants a chance to regroup. When everyone reconvenes, congratulate them on their hard work and creativity, but remind them that the workshop’s goal isn’t simply a list of new ideas; it’s an actionable plan that provides a path forward.
What happens next depends on the client and their goals for the workshop. Maybe the group chooses two ideas to test against each other. Maybe they select a handful of ideas to share with a broader group of stakeholders at the company. Maybe they decide to meet again to create a roadmap for one idea that everyone agrees is exceptional.
Make sure that the workshop’s activities and outcomes are documented and remain accessible to all relevant stakeholders.
Ideation Is Ongoing
Ultimately, ideation isn’t a one-off activity that you do when you need a new idea. It’s an ongoing practice that you can improve upon over time. If you’re a designer with a startup client, their ethos is likely still evolving. You’re in a unique position to champion a culture of collaboration and innovation. Make it a goal to schedule a quarterly remote ideation workshop that addresses a specific business need. You’ll get better at facilitating, staff will grow more comfortable participating, and your client’s vault of ideas will expand and mature.
Further reading on the Toptal Blog:
Understanding the basics
A remote ideation workshop can help a company address business-related problems through creative exercises that prioritize speed, teamwork, and innovative thinking. An ideation workshop can be especially effective at a startup, where smaller staff sizes and flexible hierarchies make it easier to test new ideas.
A remote ideation workshop uses the same format and exercises as an in-person workshop, but time zones, technology, and communication barriers require careful planning. Meeting apps such as Zoom and collaboration tools such as Miro and Mural allow participants to solve problems in shared environments.
There are many popular ideation workshop methods and techniques, and each has its own use case in which it is most effective. For instance, Crazy 8s, an exercise in which participants sketch eight concepts in eight minutes, is a great way to get people to think beyond their first, second, and third ideas.