Tip #613:  Brainwriting

“Brainwriting is brainstorming on steroids.”  Luciano Passuello

Brainstorming is not as effective as we thought. We discussed “question-storming” as a better alternative in Tip #610. In this Tip, we will come at brainstorming from a different perspective.

Extensive studies of brainstorming teams have found that participants who work in isolation consistently outperform participants who work in group. This is true in terms of both the quantity and the quality of the ideas generated.

There are three major reasons for this.

First, since all of the participants in a brainstorming group cannot talk at once, some ideas don’t get heard. This is called “production blocking.”

Second, some participants may hold back their most original ideas because they fear they may sound foolish. This is called “ego threat.”

Third, when a few ideas are raised that are popular with the group, there is a tendency to gravitate to those or related ideas instead of suggesting

Adam Grant, the author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, suggests that there is a more effective method for generating original ideas, called “brainwriting.” Have the participants work independently to identify their ideas, then:

“…bring the group together for what the group does best, which is the wisdom of crowds. The evaluating. The idea selecting.  The figuring out which of these ideas really has potential to be, not only novel, but also useful.”

Chauncey Wilson, the author of Brainstorming and Beyond: A User-Centered Design, uses a different approach to brainwriting. He has participants independently write down their ideas about a question or a problem on a sheet of paper. Then he has them pass their idea sheet to someone else, who will read the ideas and add new ideas. He repeats this process a few times over a period of 10-15 minutes. Then he collects and posts the idea sheets for general discussion. He calls this “interactive brainwriting.”

In my experience, the number of ideas generated from brainwriting often exceeds  what you’d expect from face-to-face brainstorming because you’ve reduced anxiety somewhat, followed a parallel process in which a dozen people may add  items simultaneously, and reduced the amount of extraneous talk that happens during brainstorming, which takes time away  from idea generation.”

The concept behind Wilson’s brainwriting method is very similar to that of rotating flip charts.

In rotating flip charts, small groups post their answers to different questions on flip charts. They then review the other groups’ postings in turn, revising, adding and/or eliminating ideas.

While brainwriting is essentially an individual activity focused on one problem or question, and rotating flip charts is a group activity focused on a number of problems or questions, they both result in a proliferation of ideas.

May your learning be sweet.


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