Brainwriting versus Brainstorming

Developing Great Ideas

By special request (you’re welcome Angela) I want to revisit a way of coming up with new ideas that I mentioned a year or so ago. When faced with the need to develop multiple options for solving a problem, many leaders use the tried and true methods we have all learned for “brainstorming.” The theory is that, using the creativity of a group to build on one another’s ideas, the outcome of a brainstorming session can be both innovative and practical. The reality however is often different. Just suggest to your team that you are going to do a brainstorming exercise and watch their faces. Often you will see lots of rolled eyes and exasperated expressions of “Here we go again.”

Brainstorming is no more or less perfect than any other facilitation technique. In fact, as a creativity process, there are some typical problems with traditional brainstorming:

  1. The one who is the loudest is heard the most
  2. The one who is documenting the contributions is unable to fully participate
  3. The one who is documenting the contributions has editorial power
  4. We don’t know what to do with the ideas once we get them

Brainwriting addresses these concerns. As a process, you should consider brainwriting when you have one or two dominant people who typically take over the session or when you simply need to change up the process for generating ideas. Brainwriting follows these steps:

  1. Brainwriting groups should be 4-6 people. If the team is larger, break into smaller groups.
  2. Give each person a sheet of paper to start the process
  3. Each person puts their first idea at the top of the sheet using as clear and concise a sentence as possible.
  4. When the idea has been written, it is put in the middle of the table. If the participant has additional ideas they can take an additional sheet, write their idea, and put it also in the middle of the table. This continues until everybody has contributed as many ideas as they can easily come up with
  5. Once all ideas have been added to the pile, each person randomly takes one sheet. Reading the idea at the top the sheet, the participant now adds any variation of that idea, or relevant comment related to the idea that comes to mind.
  6. When finished, each sheet is passed to the left.  This continues until the sheet has made at least one full circle. It continues on around the table until there are no more ideas to add
  7. When a sheet is finished it is set aside and the next sheet is taken from the middle of the table. This process continues until all sheets have been examined.

 If done correctly, each person in the group has now contributed ideas and perceptions on other ideas. If sheets are identical or near identical, they can be combined. The group can also now take the sheets and put them in order of an agreed upon priority, whether it is “Most Effective,” or “Easiest to Implement,” or “Most Engaging.” The group can decide on the criteria for prioritizing either before or after the brainwriting.

The biggest challenge to this approach is that some people will inevitably decide that it is too much “process” to wade through. These are almost always the same people that would have dominated the conversation in a brainstorming session. Commit to at least giving it a try and see if the ideas are more in depth and more diverse in viewpoints than usual. If so, this is a tool worth having in your toolbox.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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