• Joshua Ehrenreich

Digital Ideation: Post-It Parties in the age of WFH

Even before' the grand ole WFH experiment,' I loved conducting ideation sessions digitally. By designing digital-first ideation sessions, I was able to ensure our global teammates' time zone and location wouldn't prevent providing input. Additionally, by the end of it, your artifacts are already digitized, ready for cutting and pasting into action items, project plans, communique, and on and on.

But perhaps my favorite reason for digital ideation is the constraint of needing a thought-out collaboration tool. You can't say 'we're gonna brainstorm because we're all here, and I have a marker.' A digital ideation session requires some prep on your part for people to fully participate. This prep substantially increases the likelihood of accomplishing your goal with a wide variety of partners.

The goal of this session is to gather a wide variety of insights and ideas and then narrow down to those that resonate most with the group. 

We're going to stand up your session in 6 steps.

Let's do it!

Step 1: Select an application that offers real-time collaboration.

The key here is to select a tool that you can prepare ahead of time, so a Zoom whiteboard isn't the best.

If you're using an office-type solution, I like presentation applications (Google Slides, Powerpoint+MS Office Online, Keynote+iCloud, etc.). Two main reasons for this. First, it makes it easy for the meeting preso and workspace to share the same look. Second, presentation applications are less constrained in their icon dragging, so you can easily place digital post-its wherever one feels so inspired. This has a significant impact on the feel of this presentation for your participants. Plus, who doesn't love a good post-it free-for-all?

But if presentation applications aren't your thing, it's all good. There are plenty of other collaboration tools and, with the right prep work, they all work. Does your team rely on Dropbox Paper? Great! Mural—lovely! Figure out what tool you do (or can) use and choose that. I'll use slide language throughout this article, but you can use anything as long as you're using it intentionally.

Step 2: Figure out the big question.

This may sound basic, but—what are your brainstorming on? Are you seeking insight from data or going wide to imagine new product solutions. You don't have to be saving the world; maybe your ideating on what a digital office party would look like, but figure out the central question and write it on a slide.

And after you've written it, ask people's opinion on the question—it may not be as clear as you think.

Step 3: Prep your collaboration space and tools

Let's now dive into the actual digital collaboration space. We will create three tools—a space for brainstorming, a space for clumping into themes, and a tool for participants to vote. Our guiding thought is to remove as many obstacles as possible so that everything can be focused on idea generation.

Here is an example of a space for brainstorming. I identify the central slide space as a digital wall and create digital post-its in different colors. Each 'post-it' you see is resting on a digital stack 'post-its,' just a square, colored text-box on top of a bunch of others. I use color to designate who writes where. This ensures the brainstorming free-for-all doesn't result in any frustrating 'I was writing my most brilliant idea and then you wrote over it!' moments. Participants will type an idea and drag it onto the digital wall.

Regardless of how many people are on the call, I like to break it up into small groups—2-3 people per shared space. An advantage with digital is it can scale, but you still want to give the sense that they are working on their own post-it pad for now. Duplicate this slide for as many groups as you'll have and adjust the names. I also like to change the colors to make it look even more varied when we begin to clump into themes.

You'll then want to create a space for clumping into themes. They'll populate specific themes and ideas based on the ideas generated. You can see below that guiding instructions and tips are built into the slide, as is a unique graphic to differentiate one theme slide from another. (An excellent resource for icons is The Noun Project.)

Everything is done to minimize potential friction to the activity. I'll duplicate this slide a bunch to accommodate many different themes. If you're working with an application that easily creates 'large space canvases' (such as Mural), you may opt to have one space for all the themes to be on.

Your final necessary tool is a voting slide. Once ideas have brainstormed and clustered into themes, a dot voting method is a great way to do a pulse check. Like the other spaces, you'll want to do all the heavy lifting—so create all the dots and names associated with each dot ahead of time. This will also be a quick check to see who has voted.

I like to write initials in each of the dots in the color of the dot. This will give me a secret little record of who voted for what. As a project manager, I always like to think ahead about what information might possibly be useful in the future.

When I prepare dot voting, I provide a selection of different questions to account for the fact that different ideas may excel in different ways. For example:

  • Place the green dot by what you feel would have the most significant impact long term.

  • Place the blue dot on what you believe could be done most immediately (lowest hanging fruit).

  • Place the orange dot on what you believe 'just feels right.'

This helps my planning by giving me a sense of the different ways people may assess this project. Where do people think we should be marching to? What wins I can strategically scope for along the way? What could be useful levers of persuasion and coalition-building I could pull?

Fundamentally you'll want these three tools—a place to ideate, a place to combine, and a way to narrow down. You may choose different methods or add additional steps, but you'll definitely want these three.

Step 4: Create your supporting preso.

Now that you've built the tools, you want to create the supporting material to facilitate this process. This is your basic human-centered meeting design, and there are some tips to plan for success.

  • Give an overview of the entire activity and share a vision of what will be accomplished at the end.

  • Follow up on any prework sent out (next step)

  • Do a quick walkthrough of the ideation space. Describe it using physical, tangible, comparisons (this slide is like our wall chart, these colored rectangles are like my own post-its). Highlight the different names and colors. In the example above, my 'topic' is animal puns, so when I'm explaining, I have an animal pun ready to go (sheep relax at a spaa-aa-aa). Dumb jokes are perfect for an explanation!

  • Display the central question you will be ideating around and write it out on the slide they'll be brainstorming on.

Is this a new tool for your participants? You may want to do a quick how-to to ensure everyone can use it. This can be designed into the tools you create (such as how keyboard short cuts are integrated above). Don't over-assume ability, in every session I've done, I've had at least one person exclaim they never knew the keyboard short cut.

If you like thinking of things in terms of time, here's a simple, speedy agenda. Adapt to fit your needs.

Step 5: Assign a little prework.

In digital ideation, especially, prework is useful to get those wheels turning in the mind. You don't need much, just a bit of data, a relevant article, or a question to write a brief response. Anything to get them thinking about it. Make it so easy they'll want to do it. If it's data, introduce a trend or two you observe to ground it. If it's a video, highlight it's only 5 minutes. If it's a 'written response,' suggest a mad-lib template for them to use.

It may be that your brainstorming question is premised on reviewing the prework (such as a question asking about insights from provided data). If that is so, make sure to highlight that explicitly.

Step 6: Tech Set up

This ain't no regular virtual presentation—you're facilitating the use of a tool. This means attention will be pulled between you and what the tool ( all the other usual-suspect distractions :-). Let's make sure there are as few hiccups as possible.

The first thing to verify is that everyone actually has access to your digital collaboration space. Will anything need to be downloaded ahead of time? Provide guidance on this ahead of time. Do they need to be given permission to access a file? You'll need to determine when you want to provide them with access.

Next, determine how you'll handle your collaboration tool + web conferencing. I like to have a separate presentation from the digital collaboration space. This way, I have a separate area for general info and a place to 'return to' (ie, break away from the collaboration tools). Keeping your preso separate from the tool allows you to show specific info (like ideation questions or dot voting instructions) for quick reference activities.

For simplicity's sake, I often skip breakout rooms. However, they are easy to set up if you want groups to have the opportunity to talk with each other in brainstorming. If that's the case, give them some guidance to have the first 2-3 minutes of brainstorming be silent.


It is possible to capture the energy and activity of an in-person ideation session with just a little bit of thought ahead of time. Designing for digital allows you to get more stakeholder input as well as have artifacts of the meeting ready to be sliced and diced into whatever project tool you use.

Take a few moments to design your tools and try it today.

Interested in designing a digital ideation session but still have questions on how it might apply to your specific situation—let's chat! I offer you my support—we've all benefited from a bit of extra help, and it's important to support our communities, whether down the street or through the wifi. Ping me and let's set up a connection.

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