Can consultants consult without whiteboards?

How do consultants best capture brainstorms online?
How do consultants best capture brainstorms online?
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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When lockdowns forced consultants the world over to work from home, one of the first questions that they had to confront was how they would replicate the on-site client experience so central to their work. More specifically, they had to find a suitable stand-in for their whiteboards.

Consultants are widely known for their love of whiteboards—or iterations thereof, including large paper pads, sticky notes, and so forth—to record ideas from client brainstorms. The sudden need to replicate the process online has increased the popularity of collaborative, digital whiteboards. But it’s also led to other creative in-house solutions.

Since the start of the pandemic, the two biggest players in the digital visual-collaboration space, Miro and Mural, have both seen a surge in users, with Mural alone saying it has added 1 million monthly active users globally this year. This uptick helped the companies secure $50 million and $118 million in Series B funding respectively. (In case you’re wondering which is better, reviews from consultants comparing the two are plentiful.)

A MURAL digital whiteboard brainstorm in action.
A MURAL brainstorm in action.
Image: Mural

Consultants rely on the in-person brainstorming experience to understand a client’s mood and openness to ideas. Whiteboards, sticky notes, and drawing pads help share an “emerging common perspective in a group” during brainstorming sessions, says Clark Scheffy, a partner and managing director at IDEO, a global design consultancy.

Scheffy, who co-leads a studio with 85 designers, says these types of tactile tools help capture the process of “using the minds of a group of people to engage in and solve problems or find alignment towards an action they want to take.” Replicating this energy is not easy over Zoom.

Working in your home office alone, but a step away from collaborating with people virtually, might actually be a more conducive way to brainstorm than in-person. That’s if we understand the original intention of the concept, coined by legendary advertising executive Alex Osborn in the 1940s. Osborn was a strong believer in the value of solitude. As Quartz at Work reporter Lila MacLellan has written, “[T]he man who gave us today’s whiteboard-centric chaotic brainstorming ritual placed as much, if not more, faith in the individual imagination.”

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Whither the whiteboard?

Since shifting to remote work, Scheffy says his team has made use of digital collaboration spaces tools like Miro and Mural, as well as Figma and Bluescape. But the group has also experimented with creating more robust virtual workspaces, along with the necessary tools and templates. They’ve been trying out digital drawing pads and having threaded conversations using messaging systems like Slack or Amazon Chime, to help recreate the buzz of in-person collaboration. As an example, one of IDEO’s designers created a jigsaw puzzle—now available through Figma—to break the ice in virtual client interactions. (Some of his colleagues, however, simply brought their whiteboards home with them.)

“We found both the value of some of the new tools has surprised us, [as well as] our workarounds to creating great experiences with clients… it has created its own interesting kind of energy,” Scheffy says. “I believe when we return to whatever this next world is after the pandemic, many of the things we’ve discovered and created will continue because they provide a unique value.”

At ThoughtWorks, a software consultancy with more than 7,000 employees in 14 countries, some consultants are using Mural. But they’ve also created their own virtual collaboration app called ThoughtArena, which allows users to add thoughts and ideas to a virtual card wall that can be pull up and viewed in any environment.

ThoughtWorks built a virtual card wall to try combat Zoom fatigue from brainstorming sessions.
ThoughtWorks built a virtual card wall to try combat Zoom fatigue from brainstorming sessions.
Image: ThoughtWorks Inc

The app “is a proof of concept that enables you to collaborate with your fellow colleagues in a 3D environment, providing you a spatial and interactive experience,” says Chris Murphy, ThoughtWorks’ CEO for North America. “It also provides you capability to move around whilst carrying out your meetings.”

Murphy says he’s not yet sure of the app’s overall effectiveness, but he says “it certainly helps build the connection on a remote basis.”

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The upside to awkwardness

Digital whiteboards aren’t a perfect replacement for the in-person experience. For example, IDEO’s design-thinking approach, which can involve creating digital experiences, spaces, and initiatives for clients, often involves brainstorms involving illustrations and drawings. These can be difficult to replicate in virtually, despite the best efforts of platforms like Mural, which allows people to import illustrations, or use a digital pen to sketch directly in the collaboration space. (Some of Scheffy’s designers hang cameras over illustrations as a workaround.)

But there is an upside to the fact that digital tools are imperfect. Brainstorming is arguably a process that’s due for some disruption. A report in January from the file-sharing company WeTransfer found that a majority of the 20,000 creative professionals, including photographers, writers, and podcasters from 197 countries that the company surveyed, reported that they found brainstorming largely unhelpful for solving a creative challenge.

Murphy and Scheffy both say that the obstacles this moment has created are inspiring some much-needed innovation and change. For ThoughtWorks, the shift to remote work has prompted consultants to be much more thoughtful about their workshop design, Murphy says. As an example, they’ve integrated polling into their video conferences to make sure people understand the purpose of a session or call, and are aligned on objectives.

Scheffy says his team at IDEO are now much more intentional about communicating to their clients what type of tool they’ll be using, and checking in to see if they have a preferred platform they’d rather use. “One of the things I think we’ve really learned quickly is that we have to communicate a lot more crisply,” he says.

Scheffy also believes that virtual collaboration environments are allowing for more diverse and inclusive thinking because people can participate more equally than in person. “Rather than it being [about] who’s more vocal, it’s all visual—you see things getting populated and someone can add to it very quickly,” he says. “I really enjoy that.”

Corrrection: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said MURAL raised $188 million in Series B funding. It raised $118 million.