July 2020

By Simon Jelley – Head of Innovation at 42 Technology

Could remote working help companies be more innovative?

If working from home becomes the new norm or travel remains restricted, will companies still be able to innovate? How can they kick-start new product developments if they can’t bring the team together to sketch out new ideas and insights? We’ve run innovation workshops for years but have recently taken them online. And for some companies going virtual could even accelerate their innovation process. Here are our top tips for getting the best from remote innovation sessions.

Collaborative innovation workshops are the cornerstone of the new product development process. But they depend on being able to bring a team of people together into one location armed with Post-its, a whiteboard and an expert facilitator. And that just isn’t going to happen for a while.

While in the past we’d avoided remote innovation workshops, now we’ve been forced to move online. As a result, we’ve discovered that not only can we still hold effective sessions, but they can have significant added benefits for companies over face to face sessions too. Aside from the logistical benefits of removing travel time and expense, the act of digitising the discussion of ideas makes follow up and further development much easier.

Above: Example introductory board to familiarise participants with the tool (Tip 2)

Although we won’t abandon face-to-face workshops entirely when normality resumes, there are certainly new tools and approaches we’ve started using we’ll want to keep hold of. In the meantime here are our top tips for getting the most from online innovation sessions:

  1. Use a decent virtual whiteboard app (we use Miro) for visual collaboration activities such as capturing ideas on (virtual) Post-its, grouping them and for sketching ideas. Miro is great because it is so flexible, it allows you to quickly capture new ideas, and it can be used from preparation through to later work-up after the innovation session. It also has a usable free subscription level to get you started.
  2. Make sure everyone is comfortable using the tool before jumping into the creative session. If people are new to Miro, we always start with a 10 minute introduction where the focus is getting used to the tool, so that participants are confident with it and it doesn’t distract from the idea generation!
  3. Prepare everything in advance, just as you would for face-to-face workshops. Lay out the workshop space with focus areas for each session, mood boards and visual prompts, or diagrams and CAD cross sections to sketch on, as required.
  4. Use frames to create spaces for each focus area you want to explore. Get participants to jump to the current frame of interest to avoid people getting lost on the virtual whiteboard. It helps people quickly navigate and stay on topic during the workshop and makes it easier to export the ideas afterwards too.
  5. Sketching can be done with the mouse directly, although it’s clumsy and only tends to work if you can draw quite big. We find screengrabbing with Windows Snipping Tool, then pasting the image is a good way to shrink diagrams to Post-it scale when capturing the idea. It also means you can sketch over the diagrams provided in the workshop prep without needing to duplicate them. Screengrabbing real-world pen sketches held up to webcams also works well.
  6. The quality of sketching tends to be better if you can also join the workshop from a phone or tablet and use a stylus on the touch screen.
  7. Miro can host calls, but we prefer using our usual video call software (e.g. Teams) in a separate window. It gives you large views of webcams, which avoids cluttering the whiteboard view, but works best when used with dual screens (when working from home you shouldn’t be confined to a laptop screen anyway!).
  8. Keep sessions shorter or introduce breaks. Because unlike real sessions where you get people up on their feet and moving to keep their energy levels up, there is no easy way to introduce physical change when people are sitting in front of their computers. Make it clear that the break isn’t to remain sitting down, checking emails, but to go outside or otherwise move around.

What we like about virtual innovation workshops…

  • From our experience in running several client and internal sessions remotely, we’ve found the ideas generated are as good as if we’d explored the challenges face to face.
  • We like the fact that the workshop output can be recorded and is visible to all participants so they can continue working on ideas within collaborative follow-up sessions or individually. It is like having a dedicated meeting room where the Post-its remain on the walls but they can be easily copied and pasted into subsequent work too, without any re-typing or scanning.
  • Virtual workshops still need up-front research and proper preparation, but they can be set up much more easily and quickly than face to face sessions. Particularly when team members are based in different countries or frequently ‘on the road’, where the opportunities for bringing them together into one location may be very limited. We will certainly consider using online sessions instead of travelling in future, whereas previously we wouldn’t have been confident that we would get the results. This could also make it easier for people to bring in expert facilitators.

But there are some new challenges to consider too:

  • Online working is tiring anyway and with everyone seated, energy levels can plummet;
  • bear this in mind when planning activities and include breaks
  • It takes a skilled facilitator, even more so than for face to face sessions, to ensure no one is left behind or not being heard
  • Although sketching isn’t as easy as with a pen (unless you can provide everyone with tablets), there are some reasonable work arounds.

And from a client’s perspective…

Following a recent innovation workshop, Rob Stevens, CTO at Adlens, the adaptive optics technology company, said he thought that with any form of innovation development ‘continuity and momentum are critical’:

[For innovation workshops] there is little that beats face to face but online has some advantages over it too. You can capture ideas as you’re going and with everything in a digital format it’s much easier to continue building on the pure output from the meeting.

The key requirement for any innovation workshop though is having the right facilitator. Using an external consultant quickly overcomes any potential issues in getting people focused in a way that an internal person can’t. But you also need someone with technical expertise and industry experience who can contribute to the ideation, providing different perspectives and often from other sectors, and helping to bring the momentum through.