Remote Ideation Workshop using G-Suite

We’re in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, which for me and many other change professionals, means adapting a lot of our workshop techniques to make them work remotely. Here, I’m sharing a remote ideation (idea generating) workshop I facilitated in early April, with some some key takeaways for virtual workshops.

Challenges

I’ll be looking at three challenges I faced as a part of this workshop:

  • Less improvisation being possible,
  • Items that are hidden from you but are in your participant’s view,
  • Being unable to have separate chats with people in the group.

Challenge 1: Less Improvisation Possible

Virtual workshopping means you have less flexibility. There’s tech to consider and your participants’ technical/virtual skills. You can’t just grab post-its and put them on a wall in the way that seems best at the time (unless you’ve already set up a virtual wall with virtual post-its). This makes workshop planning more important. Run-throughs, testing tech and of ease of use are all things to consider. How can you lessen the brain burden of dealing with tech so that your participants can focus on the topic of the workshop?

Planning Tech

When working remotely, you and your participants are always going to be reliant on some virtual tools, so it’s worth thinking about which tech to use and then to set up as much as possible and test it ahead of the session. I chose the Google Form/Sheet combo as I have years of experience using it and I knew my participants did too, so I could focus on facilitation in my first fully remote session, rather than worry about how to use the tech.

I also only have one screen, which means when screensharing, I can’t do anything else on my laptop, such as look at notes. I ensured I had notes written down on a separate piece of paper which I could refer to at any time.

Two post-it notes with a sketch of a workshop plan.
I had the idea for this workshop, just as I was trying to get to sleep on a Friday night. In order to actually go to sleep, I had to get up and scribble these ideas on some post-it notes and stick them on the door to the office.

This post-it note is the plan in a nutshell. This is what it means in neat bullet points:

  • Warm-up: “Uses for a Brick” game (here’s a link with a few good warm-up ideas, including this one).
  • Gather data using Google Forms
  • Ask participants to pitch their ideas
  • Dot vote on ideas

Tech Used

Our company uses G-Suite, so from this collection of apps, I used:

  • Google Forms and Sheets
  • Google Meet

Rehearsal

I wrote up the plan a number of times on paper and played the workshop through in my head to make sure it all made sense. There were a few areas where I missed the rehearsal, such as timers on stop watches, and this was a bit of a fumble during the workshop, so it’s worth being very detailed with this.

Ease of Use

As well as picking tech which I knew all participants would be familiar with, I also sent around slides before the session as a rough guide for participants on what the session would involve, as well as explaining things like dot voting, in case they hadn’t come across it before. This had links in, so that when it came time for participants to navigate to these places, the links were available for them to click or for me to copy into the group chat.

Throughout the session I made sure that whenever we navigated somewhere new, everyone had made it there too, pausing for anyone who’s internet may have been a little slow.

Challenge 2: Hidden Items

You don’t know what’s in or not in your participants space. Whether they have tabs or IMs open. The key with this is setting out parameters and rules. Ensuring participants have pen and paper before the session, creating strict time boxes and limits are all ways of doing this without coming across as patronising. Making participants input as much as possible digitally is also helpful but can also inhibit creativity if they would prefer to draw and don’t have drawing tools available. This issue was most prevalent during the warm up.

Warm-Up: Uses for a Brick Game

In this game, participants have a longer-than-comfortable timebox to come up with uses for a brick. This sparks creativity and is normally great fun to do as a facilitator, because the really wacky ideas are always a giggle and get the team in a great mood for the rest of the session. Normally, we’d do this on post-its and put all the ideas on a wall, but as we were virtual, participants just wrote their ideas down on their notepads.

Why I Love the Uses for a Brick Game

  • Gets everyone engaged and into the workshop mindset
  • Sparks creativity
  • Normally great fun to facilitate and have a giggle.

How Hidden Items Became a Problem

This warm-up took ages – about 25 minutes overall. Normally, I’d ask participants to write their ideas on post-its which would be stuck on the wall, then as facilitator, I could run through them at any speed I liked. As they did these ones in the comfort of their home, I asked people to read their ideas out themselves. Each participant had a lot of ideas, so getting through them all took much longer than anticipated. This made it hard to ensure that everyone had time to speak and be treated fairly whilst trying to move the workshop on.

What I’d Do Differently

Either ask people to pick their top 3 ideas, or find a way to collate the ideas and group and present them quickly like you can with post-its. In this instance, it probably would have been better for them to say their top 3 ideas, as I collated a load of ideas later, which involved a lot of tech co-ordination and planning. By making this small change whilst limiting the amount of planning needed, we would have gotten through the warm-up quicker, in a simple and low-tech way, saving the co-ordination overhead for the main event.

Other Tips for the Uses of a Brick Game

This is one of my favourite workshop warm-ups. Whether you use it virtually or not, here’s some key takeaways:

  • Show participants a picture of a brick to help the visual thinkers of the group (see slides above). If the brick is interesting it will spark more ideas – I’ve spent a surprising amount of time on Google looking at pictures of different sorts of bricks! Engineering bricks have been best so far, but feel free to try other types.
  • Timebox how long people have to think of ideas. 5 minutes is normally a good amount of time as they will normally reach a point about halfway in where they’ve thought of all the normal ideas. Minutes four and five are then when the more wacky ideas begin to be thought of, and the more creative brain juices start to flow.

Challenge 3: Separate Chats During the Gathering Data Phase

A key component of many workshops is to gather as much data as possible, and then to converge these later on, either by grouping or ranking. You see this in Design Thinking, as well as the classic Agile Retrospective structure. Normally participants are asked to do this work either individually or in small groups so as to get lots of divergent ideas, as opposed to them working together to create one single, detailed idea.

In a real-life room, whilst people are generating ideas, you can walk over to one specific person and help them think of ideas, encourage them if they aren’t sure if their idea is valid or good enough or help them to refine what they already have to make it more succinct and easy to understand. With virtual meetings it’s like you’re all sitting very close with knees touching one another, unable to get up and separate from the group without coordination. In this setup, having a quiet chat with someone which isn’t broadcast to the entire group is a bit tricky. Here’s how I went about the Gathering Data phase and the options I could have explored for separate chats.

How I Designed the Gathering Data Phase

For gathering data, I made a simple Google Form with the How Might We question at the top. Participants inputted one idea at a time and email addresses were automatically collected – this would be important later. I timeboxed this section for 10 minutes which was plenty of time.

I also started this section with a few ideas of various quality to communicate that we were more interested in quantity over quality (one of these was “Let’s have a flashy light show, Parks and Rec style“).

The Options I Had for Separate Chats

In all honesty, I hadn’t considered the separate chats issue prior to the workshop, so I didn’t have anything prepared to tackle the issue. In hindsight, due to my workshop set up the only option I had would have been sending individuals an instant message in something that wasn’t the group chat. This approach is a bit of a faux pas however, as any good participant will be trying to keep their distractions to a minimum and not be looking at any new messages during the workshop.

Since this workshop, I’ve done a few other sessions where I’ve given everyone in the group their own document/slides to fill in, which I could access but other participants could not. Whilst it prompts many comments about being treated like 12-year-olds, as you and the participant are the only ones who can access their doc, you can monitor what they are writing and put comments if you see them getting stuck, which none of the other participants can see – hey presto, a separate chat!

The other alternative is to ask questions to the group at large such as “how’s everyone getting on?” This can be a bit vague and is unlikely to prompt introverts to open up with their problems in front of the whole group. If the group trusts each other, this would be fine.

Wins from the Rest of the Session

The final two sections of the workshop ran very well. These were:

  • Pitching – everyone explaining their ideas in 30 seconds. Google Forms worked very well for this as I could see who had suggested what.
  • Dot voting on the best ideas. Sheets was great for this as I could total and sort the votes really easily.

Pitching

Google Forms allows you to see responses in two ways – either in the edit form window or as a separate Google Sheet. I screenshared the Sheet. As I had collected email addresses in the Form, I could see who had inputted each idea. I told the participants they would have 30 seconds to pitch each idea and then went through the list in the order they appeared in the sheet. I also asked participants to skip their idea if it had already been said. This would make dot voting later easier.

I used a 30 second timer on my phone. This was not the easiest to use in a pinch and participants were unable to see a countdown timer, so I often had to interrupt them when they were only half expecting it. It might have been better with a visual timer, however it did afford me the flexibility so that if they only took 20 seconds we could move on rather than wait 10 seconds. If I wanted a floating timer for participants, I’d need to test that it worked whilst screensharing (often the lag makes timers a bit clunky, and it would have to appear in front of the sheet at all times). With this in mind, I think the timer on my phone was fine, but I could probably do with a little practice using it (see the rehearsal section).

Dot Voting

I had a slide prepared which explained dot voting, which I ran through:

I included a visual – this is how dot voting normally looks like in a workshop

I then shared the Sheet link with all the ideas in the video chat so that everyone could open it with edit access. I had prepared the Sheet ahead of the workshop so that each participant had their own column in which they could type the number of votes they wanted to cast next to their preferred ideas. Doing this on Sheets was really simple, easy and effective as I had set this up and tested it ahead of the workshop which meant that the new Form responses didn’t mess it up.

Whilst they were voting I made a new row to total votes so that people could see how far along they were. There was also a total column to sum which idea had the most votes.

At the end I sorted the ideas by total votes, went through the top four voted ideas and wrapped up by thanking them and explaining that we would prototype these in the future to see how they might work.

Final Points

In general, the workshop was a success and was a good first try at fully remote facilitation. A couple of final points:

  • That as a facilitator, whilst screensharing I couldn’t always see people’s contributions, which made it difficult to direct at times (Google Meet is particularly bad with this when it comes to screensharing as there isn’t a separate hovering camera view, like you get in Zoom and Skype. Instead you have to have Meet in a tab in your browser, so once you flick away, you effectively become a blind facilitator unless you have a separate screen you can keep this open in).
  • Being virtual makes it much more on you as facilitator – not being able to see each other’s body language and there being more risk of sound issues means that people who may normally try to help facilitate and communicate are less likely to as they can’t see what everyone is feeling at any given time. This could be a positive or a negative depending on the help being given!
  • As participants had been working remotely for a few weeks, they didn’t need much instructing on how to use the tech, however it’s always worth making sure participants have all the knowledge and resources they need before starting.
  • There’s a lot less clean-up at the end – no hurriedly taking post-its down from the meeting room walls whilst the next meeting is waiting to start!

Please let me know how you’re getting on with facilitating your own workshops – any ideas, tips or discussion points would be greatly appreciated in the comments below.

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