Across The Board

Updates, inspiration, and musings from the folks behind Trello.

3 Ways Trello Will Change How Your Distributed Team Brainstorms

Online whiteboarding for remote teams

Greetings, fellow office worker. Like you, I do a metric ton of brainstorming with my team. Back in the day, we'd partake in the time-honored tradition of gathering 'round Ye Olde Whiteboard. We'd fill the board up with mosaics of colorful sticky notes, and inflict our criminally illegible handwriting upon one another as we hastily scribed our ideas. Recently, though, we've learned how to use Trello as an online whiteboard.

Because times have changed.

A few years ago, we started working more with people in offices across state lines or across an ocean. Then I transitioned to full-time remote work. Now, I'm rarely within a 100 yards of an actual, physical whiteboard. Maybe that sounds familiar.

Whatever our reasons, we office workers are finding it harder to do co-located brainstorming. But teams that use Trello have a leg up in the distributed brainstorming game.

Because Trello boards live online, it's easy to use them for exchanging ideas with your teammates and capturing them in real time, especially when combined with a voice or video call.

Let's step through a few brainstorming techniques and look at how to do them with Trello. 

How To Use Trello For Basic Brainstorming

You've got the general topic or theme in mind. You've got your team on a video meeting. Now you just need a place for everyone to share their ideas. That's where Trello comes in.

First, create a Trello board and add your teammates to it. Next, decide how you want to use lists to structure your board. In cases where we're focused on a relatively narrow topic (e.g., the headline for this blog post), I like to create a list for each person, then create new lists later on as we group similar ideas together.

Other times, it helps to set the board up with lists that represent sub-themes. For example, when the Jira team brainstormed ideas for this quarter's blog posts, we set up lists for ideas related to Git, agile, continuous delivery, and DevOps. 

Brainstorming blog ideas in Trello

Once brainstorming begins, each idea gets its own card in the appropriate list. Everyone participating can move cards between lists, re-order the cards, or comment on them. You can add labels to further categorize the cards, too. 

Eventually, you'll have to narrow the lists down to the strongest candidates. In co-located brainstorming, this is often done with "dot voting" – each person grabs a marker and puts a dot next to their favorite ideas. When using Trello, you can simulate dot voting by adding yourself to cards with the ideas you think are best. Just hover your mouse over the card, then press the space bar. Boom! Your avatar now appears on the card (shaped like a dot, no less!). 

How to tag yourself on a Trello card

Tip: Try the Voting Power-Up. That way, you can use the "add member" function to assign cards for follow-up instead. 

I know, I know: if you had a penny for every time you heard about "disrupting"...  Hear me out, though. "Disrupt" is the name of an advanced brainstorming technique we use at Atlassian. You warm up with some basic brainstorming, then do several rounds where you introduce constraints that force your brain out of its usual neuro-pathways

To use this technique in a distributed context, start by setting up a Trello board with lists for each round of brainstorming. During each round, you'll build out that list with ideas – again, one idea per card. 

Tip: Add a card at the top of each list explaining what that round will focus on and summarizing the instructions so it's easy for everyone to refer to.

The real fun of the Disrupt technique is those constraints I mentioned, which are traditionally represented as a deck of cards. (Click here to download them as a PDF.) After an initial round of basic brainstorming, you introduce a Disrupt card. It might say something like "Humor" or "Surprise". Then you do a round of brainstorming keeping humor or surprise in mind, and cull the so-so ideas at the end of the round so you're left with only the real gems.  

Since printing out Disrupt cards as a physical deck won't work unless every participant has them – cumbersome! – it's best to create a list for each card you use. (Whether you choose cards in advance or on the fly is up to you.) I like to add a Trello card at the top of each list where I attach an image of the front of the Disrupt card and the description on the back. 

Brainstorming Trello board sample

Create An Elevator Pitch 

Most people think of the elevator pitch as something entrepreneurs need for schmoozing with VCs at cocktail parties. But for us rank-and-file folks, it's also useful for explaining your project and it's value to exec sponsors, stakeholders, and ourselves.

What you see below is me and my team working up an elevator pitch for "Smells Like Team Spirit", which is a publication we launched last year on Medium.com. One year in, it's time to re-evaluate its direction. And to do that, our team needs a shared understanding of why SLTS is valuable, and to whom – perfect elevator pitch use case.

Since creating one is essentially a fill-in-the-blank exercise, we set up a simple Trello board with lists to brainstorm what we'd fill those blanks in with. 

Brainstorm an elevator pitch as a team

To start the session, we all jumped on a call and pulled the Trello board up on our laptops. Even the team members who are co-located called in from their computers, which puts the entire group on a level playing field. We intended to go through three rounds of brainstorming, one for each list. But we ended up discussing the ideas from the first round so deeply, we changed it up and spent the following two rounds writing and sparring on fully-formed pitches. 

Still we used a lot of the Trello tricks I mentioned above and a couple others: 

  • One card per idea
  • "Vote" on an idea by adding yourself to that card
  • Reorder the cards in each list to group similar ideas together and/or rank them
  • Use labels to mark the winning ideas

At the end of the exercise, we had a concise statement describing our publication, and more importantly, a shared understanding that is now helping us make better decisions faster. 

Make team decisions in Trello

Start Brainstorming Online With These Templates

To be sure, the whole Trello-as-online-whiteboard thing has its limitations. If you're brainstorming on a topic that necessitates a lot of sketching or diagraming or flow-charting, using a Trello board will be cumbersome. (Never fear, though: there are other online whiteboarding solutions built especially for this.) When you're working with words, however, you don't need to go out and buy another tool. Just use the Trello boards you already have. 

So now it's your turn. To help you get started, we've made two new public boards available on Trello.com/inspiration: Disrupt Brainstorming Session, and Create an Elevator Pitch. Give 'em a try, have fun, and tweet us a pic of your board, wouldjya? 

Happy brainstorming!

Next: Storm To Perform: The 4 Stages Of Team Productivity

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