I’m redesigning brainstorming for asynchronous participation and I love it
Making effective meetings accessible to people not in the room
Over the years, I’ve seen people, myself included, rely on three main assumptions when planning brainstorming meetings:
- The total number of participants needs to be small.
- The participants need to brainstorm live, at the same time.
- Ideally, all the participants are together, in-person.
In my journey of learning to be a better community listener, facilitator, and organizer, I’m currently trying to blow all of these assumptions out of the water. My work, which involves hundreds of people in different time zones, geographies, family situations, and news organizations, makes flexibility essential.
I’ve learned that:
- Limiting the number of perspectives results in worse work.
I’ve learned over and over through working on the DEI Coalition that the more people you collaborate with, especially if they have different experiences and viewpoints, the better your collective work becomes. A common reason people want to limit participants — I used to think this, too — is because having too many people risks a lot of chaos, which could lead to a meeting that doesn’t accomplish your goals. People could talk over one another, some wouldn’t be able to get a word in, or the goals could become watered down and unclear. Now I realize that these are all solvable problems if you have a good facilitator for your meeting and you design your brainstorm well.
- Live brainstorming doesn’t let you scale.
If you’re working with a small group, even across multiple time zones, it’s still possible to find a shared time where everyone can gather for a meeting at the same time. But when the number of people involved increases, for example, to over 50, finding a time that works for everyone becomes practically impossible — especially when they all don’t work at the same organization. Instead, what if we solved this problem by designing ways for people to participate on their own time? For example, instead of conversations concluding at the end of live meetings, we could create a structured document specifically targeted to people tuning in later and on their own, that allows them to write down their ideas and iterate on what others have written.
- Sometimes, in-person just isn’t possible.
Even if we weren’t in the middle of a global health pandemic, having an in-person requirement for a coalition-wide, anyone-can-come brainstorming session just isn’t possible or practical. However, digital tools have been iterating quickly, and options like Etherpad (an OpenNews favorite), Mural, and Jamboard are starting to make creative collaboration among dozens of people feel significantly smoother. Sometimes, it even feels charming.
The more I designed ways to make live (aka synchronous) collaboration and on-your-own-time (aka asynchronous) collaboration equally valuable, the more I’ve learned what’s possible. By making sure more people can participate in a way that works for them, the results are better. Full stop.
In early 2021, my colleagues and I at OpenNews digitally attended an anti-oppression facilitation fundamentals workshop, hosted by AORTA, which I highly recommend. One of the many incredible lessons I learned was that it’s our job as facilitators to “remove barriers to full and broad participation.”
One way to accomplish that is to design meetings where extroverted and introverted people have equitable ways to participate, where speaking out loud and writing down your thoughts are equally visible and valued. Another way is to make sure participation isn’t unintentionally limited because of class and financial barriers. Especially at a moment in which the DEI Coalition is looking to change the journalism industry, the ability to be involved cannot be dependent on whether you have access to caregiving support or time off from work.
So, how did we design more equitable and accessible meetings?
Every time I host a new meeting in the DEI Coalition, whether it’s for brainstorming, reviewing ideas, evaluating decisions, or something else, I iterate on this process to try and make it even more friendly to synchronous and asynchronous participation.
Sometimes, I realize I don’t need a meeting and don’t go through this process at all, but for the moments where I decide a meeting would be helpful, here’s what my process looks like right now:
- Determine and clearly communicate the purpose of the meeting, and ask people if they’re interested in participating.
If the answer to this question isn’t clear to you, do not move forward. If you need help understanding how to determine an effective purpose for a meeting, I recommend reading Priya Parker’s book, the Art of Gathering.
- Gather availability for everyone interested and schedule the time slot with the highest number of available participants.
My favorite tool for this right now is when2meet. You should also give people a deadline for when to share their availability. I usually give at least a week. The time slot you pick will be used for part one of your meeting, the live version.
- Create a clear agenda, complete with activities.
I’m not going to dive into this, since agenda building and how to design meeting activities that are effective and accessible could be an entire piece of its own. If you’re new to this, I highly recommend starting with this piece by Lara Hogan. I’ve been following her work on how to be a good manager for years, and her blog is a treasure trove.
- Share your agenda ahead of time, if you can, with all your participants.
I admit, sometimes life takes over, and I’m doing my agenda and activity design the day before. When I’m really on top of my game, I usually share it around a week out.
- During the live meeting, make sure there are easy and natural ways for participants to record their thoughts.
Many of the built-in activities the OpenNews team engages in during live sessions involve writing our ideas in a shared Etherpad or Google Doc together, and then responding to others’ ideas. I find this a lot easier and more equitable than asking one or two people to transcribe what everyone else says — since then your transcribers don’t get to fully participate in the meeting itself.
- After the meeting, redesign that shared doc to become a worksheet for people participating on their own time.
I tried this for the first time a few weeks ago, and I cannot wait to keep iterating on this idea. The redesign should accomplish multiple things:
- First, the responses of people at the live session should be preserved, but deprioritized so that asynchronous participants have priority real estate to come up with their own ideas. This way, you can work toward asynchronous participation not feeling like an afterthought to the first session.
- Second, the document should now read like it was designed for asynchronous participation to begin with. Instructions you may have given verbally — even helpful tips you realized and delivered impromptu — should now be captured as written instructions in the document.
- It should be crystal clear what participants should do, how they should move through the document, and how they should interact with the live session results.
- If you’re interested in seeing this in action, here are some examples and templates for how to do this.
- Share your redesigned doc with the entire group, and give people a deadline to participate.
I usually give at least a week, if not more, and I make sure to communicate that this doc has been redesigned to prioritize asynchronous participants.
- Synthesize the results of both the live session and the async session, and share it back with the group.
For example, this could mean bundling similar responses, adding your own annotations on key decision-making points, or popular ideas, and what next steps you have in mind. You could also highlight any final actions you need people to take, or if people signed up for next steps as a part of the process, let them know that it’s time to begin.
That’s it! Once you’ve got your results, you can decide your own next steps, whether that’s another meeting, executing on decisions, or something else.
When I worked in newsrooms, one of the most frequent complaints I heard was about needing to go to too many meetings and therefore not being able to get your work done. But the problem has never been with meetings themselves — but rather whether the people calling the meeting effectively used the time and placed real value on other people’s time.
In newsrooms, it’s rare for me to hear editors refer to themselves as facilitators or hosts, but that’s a role they often play. Whether it’s team meetings, brainstorming sessions, training, 1-on-1s, or postmortems, editors are meeting designers, facilitators, and hosts. Doing those jobs well can be the difference between everyone feeling like their time has been wasted, and everyone feeling inspired, energized, and ready to take action.
If you regularly work with a team, a department, a coalition, or a community of people who can’t practically get together at the same time, give this process a shot. The results and the way people loved engaging definitely have surprised me, and convinced me to keep honing the process.
Sisi Wei is Co-Executive Director of OpenNews, where she envisions and executes transformative initiatives to help create a journalism industry that is more inclusive and equitable, especially for journalists of color and local journalists. Previously, she was the Assistant Managing Editor at ProPublica, during which she edited and managed news apps, graphics, visual investigations and large, interdisciplinary projects. Sisi has won numerous Malofiej, SND Digital and ONA awards, the Gannett Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism, and the 2016 Data Journalism Award for Best Individual Portfolio. She has served as an adjunct professor at New York University, The New School and CUNY, and she is also the co-founder of Code with me, a high-impact, nonprofit workshop that teaches journalists how to code. She is based in New York City.