Remote team creativity

11th of April 2020

laptop and mobile on desk

Distributed collaboration has existed for ever, but right now, due to global Covid-19 pandemic, many people have been thrown at the challenge to collaborate remotely in a visual manner. Here are some quick tips from CreativeSensei.com on how to go about running a productive brainstorming session with a distributed team. I will share them in a relevance order (my own criteria), to offer a range of solutions to different challenges and possibilities.

  • Remote distributed brainstorming – for team visual ideation (alternative to sticky notes), with ad hoc teams, non-designers
  • Remote design team of 6 – a permanent team of designers or creative types, who need to collaborate over time (offline) and in real time
  • Distributed asyncronous collaboration of 20 people around the globe – when you have a distributed team in different time frame, and have to collaborate but there is no need for it to be simultaneously (can be “asyncronous”)
  • Hybrid Brainstorming sessions with remote participants – when you have a physical meeting and only one or two members are in a remote location, but you want to work analogically (hands on) in real time

Remote distributed brainstorming

For the past month I have been exploring the possibilities of online collaborative visual tools for different purposes (design, ideation, agile projects, communication). There are several tools out there and the two main ones I have found out are Mural and Miro, both great, according to reviews.

Here is a report on the Total Economic Impact of using Mural.

I had an earlier experience as a participant with Miro, and saw its potential. Since I wanted to evaluate it, I created a free account to test it (maximum 3 board, 8 users). I believe Mural probably offers similar features, so do check them both out to see which one suits you.

I have run 2 sessions with 3-4 participants, 2 demo sessions and 1 session with two teams of 6 people working in parallel in two separate boards, while in a whole teams videoconference. It is not extensive but enough to gather some insights:

  • Start small, gain experience, then grow team size, session duration or complexity of the tasks.

Here is a quick tutorial of Remote Brainstorming I put together to setup a basic brainstorming session in Miro

  • Prepare carefully.
    • Allocate time for participants to become familiar with the platform (think 20-30′ for first timers)
    • Setup creative warmups (10-20′ for people not used to creative assignments, maybe more if the group is big and/or people don´t know each other)
    • Create collaboration areas for different tasks during the sessions and include summary of instructions
    • Time tasks as usual… but then be prepared to give extra time, both for more explanations and for each brainstorming rounds (or whatever the task)
  • set clear rules and expectations:
    • everybody needs to be extra patient, there will be more time needed for everything
    • for more than 4 participants, establish a way to be mostly quiet, while giving people opportunity to share questions. After you explain a task, ask if anyone has a question (do this all the time)
  • recommended: have a helper to respond to technical issues over the chat (or the phone), so the facilitator focuses on running the session.
  • very nice to have: independent audio channels for small team collaboration. There should be a general workshop channel (ie. teams videoconference), and a separate channel for each team, via a specific tool, over the phone… whatever.
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Remote design team of 6

In 2014 I met my new team members from another location through skype, and it was a while until we actually met in person. Since we have been designing user experiences for web and mobile since, we needed to communicate visually quite a lot. Over the years we have been using several tools, at different times, for different reasons:

  • Communication: video conference (google hangout, gotomeeting, skype, teams), email and phone (team calls), whatsapp
  • Project coordination: trello, analog kanban, jira
  • File sharing: network space, google drive, sharepoint, onedrive
  • Prototypes: Axure, marvel app, pop
  • Visual communication of ideas:
    • Paper and photo: rough sketch on paper, take a photo, send photo in real time while in call (if showing sketch to camera was not good enough)
    • Online whiteboard: tested some free web based whiteboard, but not very formal (google “online free whiteboard” to find out current applications)
    • Microsoft Teams Whiteboard: recently discovered Teams whiteboard (it is an option while in a call meeting, tricky to find), which for a quick explanation may be enough for many users. It has 5 colours and the precision of the drawing pencil is a little rough, but sufficient to sketch a diagram for clarification.
    • Miro for design, ideation and drawing: Currently exploring Miro’s visual collaboration possibilities, with drawing capabilities and UX templates (user persona, empathy map, product roadmap, wireframes…). As for drawing, it provides a variety of colours, thickness and, while using the ipad app, with a stylus, it can be quite precise. It also offers smart drawing, a beta function that creates perfect form out of hand drawing.

Distributed asyncronous collaboration of 20 people around the globe

In 2012 I signed up for “A Crash Course on Creativity“, an experimental MOOC created by Stanford University professor Tina Seelig, and run over a collaborative learning platform called Venture Lab (now Novoed).

The challenge was to generate at least 100 solutions for sleep problems, in 4 weeks, and the original team was composed by 20 people distributed across the globe in all sort of time frames. We run some meetings in real time, over Facebook, but most of the work I did was offline. We were testing tools and delivery methods Some of the tools we used back then:

  • Coordination/documenting: google docs, google calendar, google spreadsheets, timezone tool, facebook group
  • Voting ideas: google forms, facebook poll
  • Visual tools: google image search, wordle (for word clouds), mindmaps (Mindmeister, slatebox), google presentation

Hybrid Brainstorming sessions with remote participants

In 2016 I run a few brainstorming sessions in our office with a couple of participants located in another office. We ensured they have access to the same analogic materials (pens, sticky notes and plasticine, mostly) and we run the usual brainwriting rounds (brainstorming where you write one idea in one sticky note, rather than voicing ideas).

We used videoconferencing to run the session, but the main canvas was in our office, where we hosted 6 other participants. We took note in a sticky note of the ideas of the distributed members (they told us over the phone) and place them in the panels, and we took pictures of the panels to send them the section they had to work on. It was a little work intensive and it took some extra time, but it was a way to include remote participation of a few people.

Around two years ago, we run a bigger creativity workshop with 20+ people in one office and 8 in another, where there was another facilitator. We tried to run the workshop together for the most part, but due to communication difficulties, it was mainly two parallel sessions, although the results would add up.

team brainstorming with sticky notes

April 2020 @ CreativeSensei.com

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