Brainstorming sessions are among the best-known and best-loved tools for business creativity. Everyone is invited to toss out ideas, without fear of being judged. Every idea receives consideration, regardless of where it came from. It’s the perfect way to generate great new ideas from the whole team without censoring creativity.
Or is it?
There's a more effective method of coming up with ideas as a group. In this tutorial, learn how brainwriting outperforms brainstorming in a number of circumstances. Start using this innovative idea generation process.
What’s Wrong with Brainstorming?
Surprisingly, brainstorming turns out to have limited effectiveness in many situations. Yes, in some groups, it can be effective. But if you’ve been part of a brainstorming process, you’ve probably experienced some of the issues that get in the way. Most of those problems relate to group behaviors that almost invariably come up in corporate, startup, or team business situations. For example:
- Large groups have a difficult time staying focused and attentive (someone is talking at the front of the room, leading participants to think: I’ve already had my say, so I might as well check my email!)
- Strong personalities take the floor at the start of the meeting and maintain control of the creative process (Jane will either squelch or take credit for my idea, so why pitch it?)
- The first ideas suggested become the focus of discussion, making it difficult to propose new, innovative ideas (We’ve already come to consensus, so why pitch another idea?)
- Self-censorship based on others’ responses to earlier suggestions (I could tell that no one liked Bill’s idea, so they’ll hate mine too.)
- The process can take a long time (With so many people participating in the brainstorming process, it can take several meetings to finally come to an agreed-upon solution.)
- Shy, anxious group members tend to resist participation (I don’t want to embarrass myself; it’s safest to just keep my mouth shut.)
- People are too busy thinking to listen or vice versa (I want to get my idea completely sorted out before I say anything—but whoops, the meeting just ended!)
- Group members are frustrated when their own ideas are “taken” by another person (I was just going to say that!)
- Politics can take a front seat (What does the boss want to hear?)
Leigh Thompson, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, is one of the leading researchers on creativity in the workplace. Her studies have found that brainstorming—for many of the reasons listed above—is less effective than many have assumed. In addition, she has found, the “no debate” rule so often invoked during brainstorming tends to restrict rather than increase creativity.
Fortunately, there is a simple fix for the many problems inherent in brainstorming, and that is: brainwriting.
What Is Brainwriting?
Thompson and her colleagues at Kellogg (along with several other researchers in the field) have been studying the relatively new ideation tool of brainwriting. The basic process for brainwriting is incredibly simple: instead of stating your idea aloud, write it down. Then pass it along—anonymously.
This deceptively simple approach seems so obvious that it’s hard to immediately grasp its many benefits. How could brainwriting be a significant improvement over brainstorming? Impressively, researchers have found that brainwriting gets the best creative ideas from the most people possible in the least amount of time—without performance anxiety, politics, personalities, or time getting in the way. This amazing improvement in outcome results from some important benefits:
When there is no “performance” (public speaking) there is no performance anxiety.
- There can be no negative feedback in the form of muttered comments, eye rolling, or sighs – because there is no opportunity for the group to respond to any one written suggestion .
- There can be no opportunities for political alliances or factions to be formed, because each individual is asked to write their own thoughts—privately and anonymously.
- Anonymity also makes it possible for the shyest and most anxious group members to express their ideas without fear of being judged.
- Everyone’s ideas can be expressed simultaneously, thus cutting down on the problems created by waiting your turn, managing large group dynamics, and feeling pre-empted by someone else’s similar idea. Alternatively, it is possible to collect written ideas over time without actually calling a meeting at all.
- It is possible for people to critique and/or build on one another’s ideas in writing—without concern for possible political or emotional ramifications.
- When many ideas are generated simultaneously, more ideas can be generated faster.
- Brainwriting is a more flexible approach than brainstorming: it can be accomplished in a group or individually, all at once or over time, publicly or privately, with any size group, with or without critique and discussion.
- Because brainwriting is, by definition, written down, no ideas will be missed in the confusion of a general conversation.
How to Brainwrite
There are a number of different approaches to brainwriting for different situations and needs. Some approaches are interactive; some are not. All, however, are based on a basic technique.
Set the Stage. Much as you would do when starting a brainstorming session, you will need to set the stage for brainwriting. Provide participants with the basic information they need to suggest innovative, viable ideas. Specifically:
- What is the question you wish your participants to answer? Questions can be creative (“What tagline would best represent our advertising client?” or “How can we add value to this product?”) or procedural (e.g., “How can we decrease the amount of time required to complete X?” or “How can we structure meetings more effectively and efficiently?”).
- How should answers be presented? Most brainwriting works with small index cards which are handwritten. This makes it easy for participants to quickly jot down ideas without the pressure of thinking through all the details. In some cases, however, ideas may be jotted on post-it notes or scribbled onto poster paper.
- Are there any ground rules? If desired, you can set parameters for the amount of time allowed for writing, or limit the options for ideation. For example, “you have five minutes and your idea must be something that can be completed without spending additional funds.”
- Explain your plan. In order to help people feel free to express their ideas without hesitation, explain that brainwriting is an anonymous process. Then describe the steps you’ll be following once their ideas are written down. You may choose to follow this basic process or one of the other possible brainwriting options below.
- Write. Participants have a set amount of time to write their idea on the appropriate type of paper. Time should be kept short (just a couple of minutes) in order to reinforce the idea that no one need flesh out the details or come up with a justification for their thoughts.
- Share. Ideas can simply be collected and collated by the decision-making group. Alternatively, they can be posted, read aloud in no particular order, or typed up and shared at a later time. If desired, the entire brainwriting group may be asked to vote on their favorite idea.
More Methods of Brainwriting
Over the past few years, management professionals have come up with a number of creative ways to use the brainwriting process. Some are highly interactive, while others allow members of the group to respond with written ideas over time.
This method builds on the basic technique described above. Instead of simply collecting idea cards, participants pass their cards to other members of the team. Team members may then jot comments or additions on the cards before passing them along to the next person. This process may continue for as many rounds as desired. Ideally, the process does not include conversation.
Looking for a way to generate a lot of ideas in a short time? If you have a large group to work with, 6-3-5 is a great option: groups of six generate three ideas per round, with each round lasting five minutes. Download our helpful 6-3-5 Brainwriting PDF Worksheet for free to use in your session. Here are the steps to follow:
- Create a form. You will need to create a form for every participant. Put the problem or question to be addressed at the top of the form, and then create three boxes for each of six rounds (for a total of 18 boxes).
- Set your timer, then start your (silent) timed rounds.
- Round one: In the first 5-minute round, each participant will write one quick idea in each of the three boxes at the top of their form.
- Round two: Now participants pass their papers to the next person in their group. The second person reads the first set of ideas, and then jots down another set of three ideas below them. This second set of ideas may be new ideas, or they may build off of or be a variation on the ideas already described.
- For the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds, participants continue to pass around their forms and fill them out with new and/or improved ideas. When each participant gets their own form back, the process is complete.
- Sort ideas. This can be accomplished either by the group or by decision-makers. One possibility is to transfer all the ideas onto post-it notes and allow group members to silently organize the notes into “clusters” which can then be given names.
- Choose a direction. Again, final decisions can be made by management based on team input, or by the group. If group decision-making is preferred, the group may vote on the clusters they’ve created.
In some situations, a group meeting may not be practical or appropriate. In that case, brainwriting can be accomplished collaboratively:
- Select a space that is generally accessible but not in the middle of the workspace (an alcove, a hallway, etc.).
- Post a large piece of poster paper on the wall, and make markers available.
- Write the question/problem at the top of the paper.
- Invite participants to jot their ideas down on the paper when they have the time and/or inspiration. Participants may also comment on or build on ideas that have already been written on the paper.
- After a set period of time, remove the paper and collate ideas or replace the paper with post-it notes and encourage participants to work on clustering ideas as time is available.
Best and Worst Situations for Brainwriting
Brainwriting has many advantages, and is ideal for certain types of creative work. Choose brainwriting when you’re working with:
- Larger groups in which anonymity is realistically possible.
- Time-limited situations in which you need to generate a large number of creative ideas in a short amount of time.
- Politically charged groups that have the potential to silence some voices or allow other voices to become dominant.
- Groups that include many levels of management.
- Relatively simple questions to respond to (“how can we improve the speed at which we respond to customer questions” versus “what’s a better way to organize our startup”).
- Situations in which many points of view are truly possible and meaningful (i.e., there really are many possible solutions, and the managers haven’t already made their expectations clear).
- Groups that do not have access to a trained brainstorming facilitator.
There are also situations in which brainwriting is unlikely to work well – or in which other creativity strategies may be more appropriate or useful. Specifically:
- Your group is too small (fewer than six is probably too few).
- You're working on a complex creative project that requires true collaboration.
- The ideas you’re asking for are too complex to be communicated in a few words or developed in a few minutes.
- Your group members are not comfortable writing (or have mixed writing abilities).
- There are really only two or three possible solutions to the question at hand.
- You don’t have the time to review all the ideas.
A Risk-Free Approach to Idea Generation
While brainwriting may not be an ideal approach for all occasions, it’s a risk-free way to engage your team in the creative process. With its open-ended flexibility and inclusivity, it’s bound to expand your creative pool while providing your team with some much-needed opportunity to try something new.
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2016. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.
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