Modernize group brainstorming with Google Apps

Use a shared Google spreadsheet to facilitate the success of your next brainstorming session.

Flipcharts and markers are staples of large group meetings. You know the drill: break into small groups to discuss ideas while one person takes notes on a flip chart. Then one person from each group "reports out" to the larger group.

The "flipchart and report" ritual is familiar to most technology professionals. There is evidence that flipcharts were used as a sales tool as early as 1912 by John Henry Patterson, founder of National Cash Register Company. So flip charts have solid roots in the earliest days of the modern tech industry.

I propose you add a modern tool to your 2012 brainstorming meeting kit: a shared Google spreadsheet.


Only a small group of people can view a flipchart. Anyone with access can view a shared Google spreadsheet. With a projector, the spreadsheet can be visible to everyone in a room. Even remote groups of people can actively contribute. Try that with a flip chart!

A shared Google spreadsheet works best when brainstorming the diverse application of a common idea. For example, different groups in a company might explore how mobile technologies change their work. A shared spreadsheet does not work as well when brainstorming unrelated topics: social media policy ideas might have little relevance to a group prioritizing infrastructure upgrades.

Here's how to set up and use a Google Spreadsheet for group brainstorming.

Preparation and setup

1. Create a Google spreadsheet.

Give the spreadsheet an appropriate title, such as "Staff Retreat - May 2012".

2. Assign each breakout group a column for their ideas.

This solves one of the big problems of a shared document: how do you know where to type? This sounds funny, but isn't. Ask a group of people to type their name in a spreadsheet without assigning a specific place for their response. People will type over each other's responses. People will get frustrated. Designate a specific row or column for each group (or person) to solve this problem.

Title columns to identify the various breakout groups and then assign each group a column. (You might also work with the meeting organizer to devise fun names for each group: Kirk, Picard, Janeway, etc.)

Resize the column widths, if needed. Typically, I make the columns a bit wider than the default width. This can make typing text into the cells easier.

3. Share the spreadsheet.

Change the spreadsheet's sharing settings by clicking the Share button in the upper right, then click "Change" under the "Who has access" listing.

Choose a setting appropriate to the nature of the participants and topic of discussion.

For meetings with a broad range of in- and out-of-company participants, I recommend the "Anyone with the link" option. You can adjust the settings after the meeting, if needed.

(For internal meetings at a company using Google Apps, I recommend the "People at YourCompany who have the link" option. This will only be visible if you are using Google Apps for Business.)

In both cases, select the "Can edit" option from the Access drop-down settings near the bottom of the sharing settings.

4. Create a short link for the spreadsheet.

Participants need a quick, easy way to access the document without typing an extremely long link. Click the "Share" button in the upper right corner of the screen while viewing the spreadsheet.

Copy the "link to share" the document, and then paste the link into the box at

Share this link either in materials distributed for the meeting, or by projecting the short link on a slide during the meeting.

5. Designate at least one "reporter" for each breakout group.

The reporter is the modern equivalent of the person using the marker in front of flipchart. Reporters will need an Internet-connected device that lets them edit a Google spreadsheet. The reporter's role is to capture and document ideas from the group by typing key concepts and notes into the group's designated spreadsheet column.

You can have several people within each breakout group edit at once. People in a small group can coordinate on edits: "I'll add that in D5", "Make your note in D8". This minimizes "type-over" issues.

Spreadsheet brainstorming works best if all columns can be viewed on a single screen without scrolling horizontally. Typically, this is between four and eight columns - and therefore, four to eight groups. A maximum of 50 people can edit a Google spreadsheet simultaneously, so that's the technical limit on participation.

6. Use a projector to display the spreadsheet during the brainstorming session.

This is where Google Apps shines: All participants can view all changes.

Participants can see what other groups add - and can then can respond with their own ideas.

The spread of ideas changes with visibility. With flipcharts, each group might identify a similar set of core issues. With a shared Google spreadsheet, participants can see that another group has already identified an issue. No need to repeat it.

Flipcharts limit idea sharing to the breakout group. A shared Google spreadsheet expands idea sharing to all participants. The interplay of ideas across the breakout groups can be very compelling. This can also make the "report out" at the end much faster: no need for each group to re-state issues already addressed.

7. Share the final document with all participants.

The final document already "lives" online: people simply need the link.

In many cases, facilitators want to preserve the document as it existed at the end of the session. Simply use "File | Download as" to save the file in Microsoft Excel or PDF format. This gives you a document you can distribute the "old fashioned" way via email.

While you're at it, be sure to move the action items out of the spreadsheet and into your task management system.

Never forget that the goal of using flipcharts in 1912 - or shared Google spreadsheets in 2012 - is the same: to work smarter, together.

Also read:


Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.


You mention a task management system - is there some you can recommend? Perhaps one that integrates with Google Apps?

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Online tools and the ability for everyone to access the same online document at the same time has changed the way many companies collaborate. Has your company embraced online collaboration? Is it useful? Is there a reason why you have not?