Remote working has never been under such sharp spotlight. Office spaces sit empty around the world, yet human ingenuity is ensuring that the wheels of commerce continue to spin. That’s certainly true when it comes to the concept generation workshops that are a core part of the design process here at Cambridge Consultants. I’m pleased to report that collaborative idea generation is alive and well, and that our clients are contributing to – and benefitting from – highly effective remote brainstorming sessions. 

Turn your idea into reality

If you're taking the plunge into the world of remote brainstorming and driving its use in your organisation, then here are ten practical tips to help you get the most from running, planning and facilitating your online sessions. 


Face-to-face workshops are an engaging way to deepen relationships with our clients as we immerse them in the knowledge and creativity of our engineers and designers. The approach is usually the same: go broad – rapidly – then narrow down to attractive and technically feasible concepts. It’s then a case of working out what’s hard about those concepts and formulating a plan to de-risk those that we select to progress. 

Shifting this activity onto collaboration tools such as Mural and Miro provides plenty of benefits to help offset the lost energy and creative buzz of physical proximity. Our online and offline workshops have ranged from harvesting tool design and biosensing to novel pack dispense and artificial intelligence for canteen tray clearing systems. No doubt the workshops you might be planning will be equally diverse. This set of tips should apply whatever the subject and type of idea generation session. 

  1.   Don’t delay, dive in… 

We mostly use Mural and Miro, but there are many more out there. All have free trials, so pick a couple, download and watch the tutorial video, make a simple canvas and invite someone to throw some Post-its onto them straight away. Don’t wait until you have everything perfect! Once you’ve had a play, run a couple of trial idea generation sessions, which are a great way to engage isolated teams. ‘Cup of tea-making robot’ as a good place to start if you’ve no suitable live projects. 

  1.   Always use a facilitator 

Just because the session is not face to face and may seem like less of an ‘event’ doesn’t mean that golden rules don’t apply. A facilitator prevents participants going into unnecessary technical depth and encourages the less outgoing into the conversation. Without the benefit of being visible and able to respond to body language, the facilitator will have to work even harder online.  

Their key functions are to maintain purpose, keep to time, adjust the agenda when ideas evolve and establish a respectful, positive and energised environment. If that’s not you, find someone who is right for the role and give them time to get up to speed with the objectives as well as the tools. 

  1.   Keep planning  

Plan well – a workshop lives and dies in the planning. A detailed and well-structured agenda clearly indicating why you’re doing each section gains buy-in from the participants and drives efficient use of their time. Most importantly, don’t run all-day workshops for remote brainstorming, it’s too long to keep energy levels up. It’s easier to remain focused for one or two days when you’re collaborating face to face. Split remote sessions into smaller chunks. 

I’d suggest two days of working between ten and midday, and then from one to around two-thirty in the afternoon. This allows participants to get emails out of the way first thing and also to have a good lunch break. The time between sessions is ideal for structuring ideas and tweaking the agenda. What you lose in momentum you can gain from refreshing your participants and marshalling the new content. 

  1.   Workshop rules still apply 

Workshops quickly become dysfunctional and inefficient without a set of simple ground rules. Be sure to include them in the introduction. For example: no criticism of ideas; don’t get bogged down in technical details, take risks, be visual, and turn off email and messaging. 

  1.   Positive psychology  

Always try to establish a positive, open environment. Never reduce your participants to identikit virtual idea-generating robots – they represent the same mix of personality types and psychologies you would have in a face-to-face session. Being aware of that – and adapting approaches accordingly – will help everyone feel comfortable and able to contribute productively. In the right conditions, your team will be able to generate ideas and explore beyond the obvious. Effective familiarisation and warm-up activities, in tandem with a good facilitator, will achieve this. 

  1.   Don’t leave out warm-ups 

When brainstorming remotely it’s easy to forget the importance of warmups. Firstly, run a pre-workshop familiarisation warmup with the participants to get them used to the software you’re using. There are usually templates with the various software that help with this – customise these to make them more relevant, engaging and fun for your audience. 

Early in the actual workshop, make sure you include some constraint-free ‘lite’ challenges/versions of the problems you’re addressing in the main workshop, with the participants splitting out into breakout groups. You need a ‘low bar to entry’ start so everyone contributes and becomes confident in doing so 

  1.   Double dial-in for sketch-heavy workshops 

Don’t rely on ninja mouse-drawing skills. We find it works best in sketch-heavy workshops if participants also log in on their phones. They can take a good photo of a sketch and paste onto the collaborative canvas rather than holding a picture up to the laptop webcam and screen grabbing, which never looks good. 

  1.   Select structured-innovation tools upfront  

Once relatively obvious ideas dry up, structured innovation tools and approaches come into their own. There are hundreds to choose from which will vary in appropriateness to your problems. Always be clear on why you’re using a particular technique or method and identify how it suits your overall goal. Prepare custom templates in your creative canvases for applying these structured tools. 

  1.   Reference gallery 

We usually display a wealth of information or reference imagery in physical workshops. The infinite canvases on remote brainstorming tools provide plenty of space for reference image galleries. But to make the most of them, make sure they are well curated and structured. Dumping grounds for useful pictures soon get messy. Facilitators have a range of useful tools available to them in the various software options. A particularly useful one when working with galleries is ‘bring everyone to this part of the creative canvas that I’m looking at’. 

  1.   Get creative with participant engagement 

We frequently use a lot of physical items in our face-to-face workshops. They range from reference products or product features to the use of prototyping tools within workshops, including various modelling materials and 3D printing. A remote approach needn’t preclude physical items; in fact, sending out goodie boxes is a great way to engage participants. Consider sending out boxes of sweets, basic prototyping materials, some simple small reference products, 3D printed part(s) and even a few prizes in sealed envelopes. 

I hope you’ve found these tips helpful and that they might encourage you and your teams to get stuck in, make the most of the creative tools on offer, and help drive efficient collaborative thinking. Please feel to get in touch with any specific questions. 

Iain Smith

Iain is a facilitation expert and chartered engineer with 15 years experience in the field of user centred design & research, systematic innovation process, mechanical engineering design and user requirements capture/elicitation.