Remote Design Thinking Workshops:

How to strike the perfect balance between individual and group work

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Adam Billing

Design thinking is hands-on, messy, collaborative, interactive and, for all these reasons, traditionally done face-to-face. Going remote presents some challenges, but there are also some major benefits to be gained when we venture beyond what is standard practice for in-person workshops, and introduce new methods designed for a virtual setting.

One of the biggest advantages can come from getting the balance right between the amount of time teams spend working together on the same thing (synchronous working), and working as individuals independently (asynchronous working). In fact, we have seen consistently that getting this mix right can lead to extraordinary results. 

Don’t just try to replicate in-person experiences remotely 

In face-to-face workshops, participants spend the majority of time working synchronously - i.e. together in real-time, in full control of the facilitator. This is what most facilitators and participants are used to, so it’s no surprise that when it comes time to run a virtual workshop, this is the first approach most people think of.

While a two-day face-to-face workshop with non-stop collaboration can be invigorating, the same does not apply when you go remote. No matter how many polling questions you ask, virtual break-out rooms you use, or funky transitions you incorporate into your slide deck, people can only focus on a screen for so long before they get bored or distracted.

When you go remote, you need to break it up and tap into different styles of creativity and collaboration, for example:

  • Never go longer than five minutes without getting interaction or changing your mode of working. 
  • Use multiple types of communication, sharing instructions in short bursts of video people can view on other devices, as well as live instruction. 
  • Engage people in physical challenges as part of the virtual experience - e.g.”Go find as many blue things as you can from around your home in the next two minutes!”.  
  • And, most critically, employ a good mix of synchronous and asynchronous working throughout the session. You won’t just make your workshop more interesting, you’ll get better results.

Tap into individual creativity

Any experienced facilitator will tell you that real-time group collaboration is a major factor in creating the magic of a good design thinking workshop. Getting people together, running a group brainstorm, working up a rough prototype collaboratively - this is where ideas collide and ‘group genius’ can emerge.  


No doubt this is true, but there is another source of magic that often gets overlooked in face-to-face workshops: individual creativity.

Many people do some of their best work when they have a bit of time and space to reflect on the challenge, work up their own thoughts independently, and then share them with the group. In fact, research suggests that individuals are capable of generating a higher number of original ideas when working on their own as opposed to in a group.

Also, there is the tendency within groups to inadvertently begin converging too quickly around a single direction - even when the goal of the exercise is to diverge into many possible directions.

When teams introduce periods of independent working  - or working ‘asynchronously’ - the negative effects of ‘groupthink’ are greatly diminished, and the quieter members of the group have an opportunity to develop their ideas and make sure they get heard.

For higher quality output, make space for greater diversity of input 

Diversity of input is one of the most important drivers of great outcomes for innovation teams.  This is why external stimulus is so critical, and why the most effective teams include people from different backgrounds and across disciplines. Genuinely novel solutions often come from the combination of data, ideas and perspectives that at first seem unrelated.  

By allowing people to disconnect from the video call and work independently for a while, you tap into the unique creative styles and perspectives of each participant. The ideas that emerge from these periods tend to be distinct from one another as the creative process was not influenced by the group’s direction.

This is especially critical during divergent phases of the process like field research, insight formation or idea generation. The greater the diversity of input, the higher the likelihood of truly new and innovative solutions emerging.

Getting it right 

It’s not a question of whether synchronous or asynchronous working is better, but rather how can we strike the right balance between these two distinct sources of creativity.

Most of us are more accustomed to the real-time group work we typically experience in face-to-face workshops, so incorporating time for team members to work independently during virtual design thinking workshops can be challenging at first. But when you consider how each approach contributes to the overall flow of the workshop and the quality of output the team will create, it becomes less daunting and proves extremely fruitful.

Here’s some extra guidance to help get it right:

  • Use independent working during divergent phases of the process when the diversity of input needs to be maximised. 
  • Get teams to work together during convergent phases when the goal is to share information and align around key decisions.
  • Give participants tools, guidance and instructions that they can refer to while working alone to ensure they are focusing on the right things in the right way.
  • Put clear, fixed time frames in place to ensure people return to the group when they’re needed and keep the team on track.
  • Give individuals a private workspace to develop their ideas - working independently in a shared space doesn’t yield the same results. 

Adam Billing is the Founder of Sprintbase. He will be running a workshop on ‘The Power of Going Virtual: Better Solutions, Faster with Remote Teams’ at the Design Thinking Digital Summit on Tuesday April 21.