Wherever you ask, when it comes to group problem-solving, brainstorming is always the default tool of choice. Brainstorming certainly gets all the fame and glory, but is it the most effective tool for groups to generate ideas? Not necessarily.
Traditional brainstorming pales in comparison with a technique called Brainwriting. Brainwriting can easily lead to more than double the ideas generated in a typical brainstorming session. Also, it’s not as tricky as brainstorming to work well for you.
The Shortcomings of Brainstorming
Brainstorming is by far the most widely used group idea generation tool. We all know the drill: get together in a room and let the ideas run wild while building on each other’s ideas.
One of the reasons brainstorming is so popular is because of the widespread notion that grouping people together is always more effective than letting participants work in isolation. On a first look that makes sense, but is it really so?
That’s not what some recent research shows. Several studies (notably Diehl and Strobe’s, from 1987 to 1994) tested brainstorming teams extensively and realized that participants working in isolation consistently outperformed participants working in groups, both in quantity and quality of ideas generated.
The fact is that brainstorming, the way it’s carried out, has some fundamental shortcomings that are hard to overcome. Here are the top 3 reasons why brainstorming usually isn’t as effective as you might think:
This is by far the number one deficiency in traditional brainstorming: only one person can speak at a time.
The problem with that lies in the fact that our short-term memory can’t effectively develop new ideas while keeping old ones in active storage. If we can’t announce our ideas because we have to wait for someone else to describe theirs, we will end up judging or editing them — or even forgetting them altogether.
Not surprisingly, this makes all the difference in our idea output. Even when we do get a chance to describe an idea, we may get to offer only one or two comments before someone else breaks in.
The larger the brainstorming group, the bigger the amount of “blocked” participants, and the fewer the ideas produced compared to an equal number of people generating ideas independently.
2. Evaluation Apprehension
This relates to the fact that some group members avoid expressing what they consider to be wild ideas based on how the other members will privately judge them.
“Suspend judgment!”, “Be wild and outrageous!”, “Speak with no fear!”: this is advice that is hard to take when you’re in company of an authority figure, such as the guy who gets to decide how small your annual bonus will be.
Despite the soundness of the advice to let ideas run wild, the truth is that many groups are not mature or prepared enough to follow it. “Maybe my idea” — they think — “will be seen as way off the mark, so why take any chances?”
3. Personality Face Off
Brainstorming sessions can easily become an arena of clashing human personalities. True, diversity is a necessary part of effective brainstorming, but it also makes fertile ground for all sorts of unproductive behavior.
Examples? Overpowering people trying to dominate the session. Passive people speaking the minimum possible to get by unnoticed. Stubborn people getting overprotective about their ideas and not accepting others’. Fearful people being reticent and evasive, and only presenting safe ideas. The list goes on and on.
The bottom line is that personality differences, if not dealt appropriately, can harm more than help problem solving.
If brainstorming groups are usually outperformed by individuals working alone, should we quit forming brainstorming groups then? Or is there a way to brainstorm together while sidestepping those fundamental shortcomings? Time to meet the Brainwriting technique.
As in traditional brainstorming, in Brainwriting everyone sits at a table together to simultaneously tackle a problem. The difference is that in Brainwriting each participant thinks and records ideas individually, without any verbal interaction. As we’ll see, this small change results in a fundamental difference in the idea generation effectiveness.
Here are the steps in a typical Brainwriting session:
- Participants sit around a table and each one gets a sheet of paper with the same problem statement written at the top. Just like in traditional brainstorming, you also need a moderator for the session.
- At the moderator’s signal, each participant has 3 minutes to write down 3 ideas on the sheet of paper. Just like in traditional brainstorming, the ideas should always go unedited. The difference is that now they are being recorded in private. The number of ideas and duration can vary, but I found that “three ideas every three minutes” works particularly well.
- When time is up (or when everybody’s done), each participant passes the sheet of paper to the participant to the left.
- Each participant now reads the ideas that were previously written and a new three-minute round starts. Each participant must again come up with three new ideas. Participants are free to use the ideas already on the sheet as triggers — or to ignore them altogether.
- Lather, rinse, repeat. The group can agree to stop after a fixed number of rounds (such as when sheets come to a full turn around the table) or when participants feel that contributions are exhausted.
- After the idea-gathering phase is completed, the ideas are read, discussed and consolidated with the help of the moderator, just like in traditional brainstorming.
So, what does this small change of having the ideas written, instead of spoken accomplish?
- The amount of ideas generated can be amazing. Since ideas are generated simultaneously, participants never get to block each other. With everyone generating 3 ideas every 3 minutes, a group of 5 people is able to produce 100 ideas in 20 minutes.
- Participants still get to cross-pollinate and build on each other’s ideas. That is, they still get the benefits of brainstorming in a group, while avoiding its main shortcomings.
- Ideas are recorded the moment you get them: no ideas are lost while you wait for a chance to speak.
- No one gets overshadowed and everybody contributes equally, regardless of personality type or personal agenda.
- Ideas are contributed in private. In less mature environments, there’s no fear of being openly judged by other participants. The ideas can be kept anonymous and participants have freedom to be truly wild with their ideas.
- Everyone’s given a clear task: to fulfill a specific idea quota in a specific time frame. The quota adds an element of healthy pressure that can help unlock your creativity, as it can be seen as a fun challenge.
To be fair, there are ways to make traditional brainstorming work better (that may be the theme for a future article). However, using Brainwriting is always my preferred choice, as it often generates many more ideas and it’s way easier to get it right.
Here are some additional recommended resources on Brainwriting:
- Mycoted Brainwriting Page: The Mycoted wiki is an amazing online resource of creativity techniques (make sure to check their index page). The Brainwriting page has several interesting variations of the technique. Highly recommended.
- Michael Michalko’s book Cracking Creativity. An impressive resource. It has a great wealth of thinking and creativity techniques, including Brainwriting. Michalko’s book always tops my recommendations of books on creativity.
- MindMeister online mind mapping tool. MindMeister is the best tool I found so far for web-based, real-time, collaborative mind mapping. Even though it wasn’t specifically designed to support Brainwriting, it works very well for that purpose.
Also, to make sure you don’t miss complementary content, such as templates for Brainwriting and idea-generation in general, sign up for the free Litemind Newsletter.
Over to you now: share your experiences with brainstorming and Brainwriting. Have you ever faced the problems I described with brainstorming? Have you tried Brainwriting? If you have any experience with specific online thinking tools (designed for Brainwriting or not), sharing your experiences here would be invaluable. Thanks!