The biggest surprise of the last 18 months has been that online design thinking journeys have proved far more successful than in person workshops ever were.  As innovation facilitator, my job is to harness and activate the collective intelligence of a team of people so they can create better ideas than their competitors and grow their brands.  I’m the author of The Workshop Book, and my agency leads innovation projects for global teams at Unilever, Diageo, GSK and Essity. 

Pre COVID, we were all used to doing most stages of important innovation journeys in person, which meant that they were attended by the senior extroverts who were based in the right location or could afford to travel to meet for intensive in-person experiences.   When we moved all our innovation journeys fully online by necessity, we were both shocked and surprised to see how much more commercially successful the experience, engagement and outputs were.  The main reason for this positive shift was the change in our use of people’s time and attention.  Instead of the intensive 4-8 hour in-person workshop sessions where the most extroverted, confident people were heard, online meant we split the journey into smaller, tighter engagements across a week or two.  This not only allowed a far more diverse group to join from other locations, it meant that people had downtime and reflection time between sessions, both of which helped introverts and neuro-diverse thinkers to participate in ways they weren’t able to before.  I saw our workshops became far more diverse, global, democratic and, despite what many feared with the addition of tech platforms, far more human-centred.

However, as we come back to a past-pandemic hybrid world, where some teams will now be in-person and some will join online, our greatest challenge is to remember what we learned, rather than going backwards to the bad old days of an in-person team getting all the airtime and someone joining remotely from a spluttering conference call phone on a desk, completely forgotten about.  New hybrid working models bring a fresh challenge to design thinking, particularly if you are considering some team members joining working sessions in-person and others joining remotely, because it creates an imbalance of power that needs to be addressed rather than ignored.

The reason fully remote, online design thinking journeys work so well is that every team member has equal access to information and an equally powerful voice to help to guide and shape the outcomes at each stage.  To put it simply, when we are all square boxes on Zoom (with cameras on and in full participation mode), we are all equal and included, especially when we are given time between sessions to refine our thinking and contribute ideas.  Particularly when user empathy, constructive challenges, rule-breaking ideation and prototyping are crucial, online brings better engagement for each of those stages.

With that in mind, here are my top 6 tips for design thinking journeys as we work in a post-pandemic hybrid world:

  1. Stay fully remote for workshops, even when you are a hybrid team

If you have 10 people in the office and 10 people online I always suggest you still use purely an online journey, with 20 people each joining from their own computers. No matter where they are sitting, in the office or at home, joining online in equal ways preserves and inclusive power dynamic, and the limited time of short, focussed, iterative sessions lends itself to better thinking than intensive 8 hour workshops anyhow.

2. Plan participation and contribution for all

Ask yourself if you really need to have some people meeting in person and some people joining online.  If the answer is yes, consider what you can do to mitigate the potential power imbalance.   Don’t leave people at the end of a computer screen without including them deliberately.  This involves careful facilitation to prevent the people in-person from having all the airtime, all the conversations and all of the influence.  Plan how you use shared, live time and downtime, making specific space for those joining remotely to have a role and contribute. 

3.  Be asynchronous 

If there’s a long presentation or debrief to share, send it in advance to all participants to watch in their own time.  Don’t use valuable live time for one person to present, no-one wants to hear “that could have been a podcast!”.  Send out pre-recorded presentations in advance for people to watch and digest in their own time, leaving the live time you get for full participation, debate, discussion and ideas.

4. Create a time zone relay

One advantage of hybrid teams is being able to use time zones to our advantage.  We like to create a time zone relay team between the in-person and remote team.  This is how it works: the people in the room generate initial ideas which are then presented, recorded or sent to those joining later online.  The remote, online, different time zone team members then take the ideas, build and challenge them, and present them back in improved form, possibly overnight.  When the in-person team come back together the next day they have fresh perspectives and new ideas to work with. They can then send back their work again, and so on.

5. Optimize the full journey rather than a single event

Focus as much energy on the user empathy, inspiration and prep work experiences as you do the live ideation stages.  If different people from multiple locations can gather, share and be inspired in advance, the quality of the thinking and so the ideas is far stronger when you do meet live.  Build in ample reflection time after initial brainstorms too. It’s important not to lose the space that allowed for greater diversity of thinking styles and input, especially when turning early ideas into prototypes for testing.

6.  Small teams are mighty teams

Creating and refining ideas and business cases is far better done in small groups than in one large team. If you’re working on one big project with 20 people, create five small teams of four people each, mixing people between in person and online so there’s a true spread of diverse perspectives. Smaller teams can work across location and time zone to create deeper, better quality thinking.   The alternative is all 20 people digesting the same information as each other and then creating a scattergun of shallow ideas that are far harder to flesh out.  Get fewer people to do more depth and quality earlier, and then they can present them all back to the wider team. 

Design thinking journeys can be done brilliantly online, so long as you are maintaining equity, inclusion and the balance of participation and reflection time.  If you must do hybrid, do the planning to give voice and airtime to those in the room and online, so that you create true collective intelligence throughout your innovation journey.

Pam Hamilton is author of Supercharged Teams: 30 Tools of Great Teamwork and The Workshop Book.  This article was first published by Unleash in November 2021.