For decades, leaders have relied on brainstorming to solve their toughest creative challenges. But simply throwing teams together with hopes they'll produce a breakthrough idea is counterproductive. Not only does brainstorming often lead to conformity, but decades of research show that people tend to produce fewer ideas than they would working alone. And while certain adjustments can help, it's time we gave brainstorming a much-needed fix.
Instead of everyone talking at the same time, try to get everyone writing at the same time--an idea generating process called "brainwriting."
Bump Up Ideas
With brainwriting, individuals are given time to think about and propose ideas before they're swallowed up by group discussion. Say your marketing team is trying to come up with a brand message for a new campaign. Give each person a note card or Post-It to jot down a few working concepts. Some variations of brainwriting follow a "6-3-5" rule: a team of six people must come up with three ideas in five minutes. Once the cards change hands, a similar process unfolds--but instead of coming up with new ideas, each team member proposes new angles (a process that closely resembles the "plussing" approach popularized by creatives at Pixar, who bump up story ideas with different concepts). The card-swapping exchange of ideas continues until every member of the team has a chance to review and revise all the options.
With some of my clients, I've tried a "skinny" brainwriting exercise in which cards or Post-Its are shared, at random, just once--but without any names or clues that give away someone's identity. (In this version, there are only two rules: No guessing and no judgment.) After this first pass, all of the ideas are made visible to the entire group (sticking them on a physical white board or collecting them in a shared doc works well) and are evaluated collectively. Patterns and themes begin to emerge. More structured debate can suddenly unfold. Teams start thinking together--all because they had the chance to think apart.
Benefits of Brainwriting
Whatever form it takes, brainwriting supplies three critical elements that too-often go missing in traditional brainstorming sessions:
Equity: Every member of the group gets a voice, not just the loudest and most assertive individuals.
Ideation: Ideas are received and revised in real-time, accelerating the time it takes to move from divergence (a range of views) to convergence (a shared view), the power cycle of innovative thinking.
Teamwork: Rather than compete for airtime or idea superiority, team members work together to bring the idea count up, not down, and strengthen each other's positions rather than defeat them.
Allowing people a chance to ideate without interruption promotes more ideas--and more original ones. Leigh Thompson, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, found that brainwriting groups generated 20 percent more ideas and 42 percent more original ideas as compared to traditional brainstorming groups. "When one person is talking you're not thinking of your own ideas," Thompson said. "Sub-consciously you're already assimilating to my ideas."
There are some great digital tools that lend support and structure to brainwriting, but whether it drives more creativity and collaboration among your team comes down to three caveats:
Explain the process: To avoid falling victim to "fad fever," brainwriting needs a clear rationale. Make sure your team understands why you're encouraging a shift from the familiar mode of brainstorming and the benefits it will bring. Clarity greases the wheels of change.
Set a clear target: Brainwriting works best when there's a specific problem to solve. "Increase sales by 10 percent" and "Generate 10 times page visits per month" are clearer targets - and thus more solvable challenges - than "Improve employee happiness" and "Elevate customer service."
Act on ideas: People shut off their creative thinking when they suspect their ideas fall down the rabbit hole. Don't elicit ideas from your team unless you're prepared to act on them. Seeking their input but failing to execute on it will deplete the creative capital of everyone around you. And in the event that one of these ideas turns out to be a winner, be sure to credit the person or team responsible for it.
Staying ahead of the curve is never easy, but brainwriting can strengthen your team's creative dynamics by providing a time-efficient, equitable solution that lets all voices be heard and the best ideas succeed. When we work together, the results we achieve can surpass anything we might produce on our own.