Collaborating and Brainstorming New Product Ideas in a Remote World
13 April, 2021
The product should never be the sole responsibility of one person. All functions across the organization have their role to play in its development. Without the luxury of over-the-shoulder conversations and meeting-room brainstorms, bringing together and aligning all functions is far more difficult. While we try to compensate for the lack of physical interaction by using different tools and processes, some of the inherent hindrances of the remote environment are hard to overcome.
Tools that matched our need
The main action I took was to recognize which tools would best suit our needs. Zoom meetings require a lot of moderation and would often result in Zoom fatigue, while Slack lacks the interactivity needed for design sprints. Both curtail spontaneity and impact team dynamics, making the collaboration different from the one done in person. On the other hand, Miro, a whiteboard solution, allowed us to have multiple people contributing on a virtual whiteboard. Each person could input information and align that input without overstepping on the other person’s contribution.
A structure that supports the remote environment
I soon realized that we needed more structure in the remote environment, both with design sprints as well as with any other work. Before a design sprint, I would make a slide deck that I would share with all team members ahead of time. Also, previous to any sprint brainstorm, I would have one-on-ones with various individuals trying to better understand what motivates them and what their strengths and aspirations are. Whoever runs the meeting should have insights from all the different functions of the business beforehand.
I made sure that all the exercises are timed. People, in general, tend to dwell too long on the same ideas and keep recurring back to them, which is not productive. I would encourage people to write their ideas down and move along. The idea would be stored, and one could revisit it at a later time. Every 60 to 90 minutes, I would take a break. I would walk away from my desk and grab a glass of water. We as a team love stretching; everyone would get up, and one person would lead the stretching group session. That helps our team stay energized and fresh.
Caring for the team
During the week, some of our days would become quite long. Sending gift cards to the whole team to order some food would save them some time and make them feel appreciated. In-person, a tap on a shoulder or honest smile could amply convey the feeling of care, while the remote environment required an extra effort and frequent pulse check-ins.
_Dealing with ambiguity-
The first day carries a lot of ambiguity. People would be perplexed about the direction we would be heading, but I would assure them that we would have a much clearer picture by the end of the week. Also, many people would tell me in one-on-ones that they didn’t understand the purpose of the exercise. The entire success of brainstorms is founded on trusting the process. Everyone should understand why we are doing a certain exercise.
This was a new world to everyone, and we had to embrace ambiguity. No one could have full control over the problem set, and I would help the team become comfortable with that. Their response would be overwhelmingly positive, and they would be left with the feeling that they had a part to play in how we would design the product and build our prototype.
- Reach out to people that are more quiet. They are not quiet because they do not necessarily have anything to say, but perhaps, they are not comfortable speaking in Zoom or Slack. Reach out to them in one-on-ones and have them write their thoughts down. It would take an extra mile to build personal relationships in the remote environment.
- Managing expectations is critical. Tell people ahead of time that design sprints will leave them confused. But that confusion is okay. By the end of the week, we would get to a conclusion, and then everything would start to make sense.
- Be mindful. Take breaks and take them often. When you are sitting at your desk the whole day, it is important to have your circulation running. Add a brief meditation, take a brisk walk outside, schedule a walking meeting with no video, etc.
- Add a bit of fun. Design sprints don’t have to be deadly serious. Novel ideas often flourish in relaxed and amusing communication. Keep the environment light. We would copy and share YouTube links or memes to the whiteboard, bringing laughter and making the working environment much more enjoyable.
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