If I need to solve a thorny problem on one of my projects, I turn to brainstorming. My team and I get together, frame the problem and go for it – calling out different ideas and building on each other’s ideas. Sometimes we opt for the method where you write your ideas on sticky notes and hold them out to be collected. In fact, I prefer this because it means I don’t have to write them on the flip-chart. Still, it’s the same concept: I read out the ideas and stick them up.
But, according to research conducted a few years ago by Texas A&M University and reported on in Psychology Today, brainstorming doesn’t improve productivity. Turns out, brainstorming the way I am doing it causes as many issues as it solves.
The quietest people in the group don’t always share their ideas, either out loud or on sticky notes. There’s sometimes a fear in the room that the ideas will be judged – and of course that’s the point, we want to make a professional judgement on the workability of the idea to resolve our problem – but some worry about the judgement being unfavorable.
The Problem with Brainstorming
Brainstorming lets you deal with only one idea at a time, often in quick succession. You risk missing the ideas that come when you let suggestions bounce around in your head together for 30 seconds or so.
The discussion can also be slow to get going because no one wants to be the first to share their ideas. Or the noisiest people, or the most senior stakeholders, can easily dominate the room.
That’s not what collaboration should look like.
Recently I’ve been wondering if there are better choices for collaborative ideation. Brainwriting is an interesting technique and an easy alternative to brainstorming.
Brainwriting is brainstorming on paper, but with a twist. Instead of the sticky notes or the shout outs, the team writes their ideas down. You give them a few minutes to get all their ideas out, then the team swaps sheets. Each person writes their new, additional ideas on their new sheet, adding to what their colleagues have already done.
I have also done this with big pages of flip-chart paper on the wall, with small groups moving around the room reading and adding to the ideas on each page.
It doesn’t take long to get a lot of ideas this way, and you still get the collaborative effort of building on the ideas of your peers. Stick the finished pages on the wall and gather everyone around to review, categorize and discuss what’s there, as you would do with the results of a traditional brainstorming session.
Brainwriting saves time
It’s fast because you can work together to build on ideas, but it’s all happening simultaneously. There are also fewer distractions when you are concentrating on your own piece of paper, and less chat means more time to focus on ideation.
This makes brainwriting a solid technique to use when time is short: for example, when you have a few minutes to get feedback on an idea or to solicit suggestions from the team. You can build it in to the beginning of a regular project meeting, run the exercise for 10 minutes and still get everything else on the agenda completed.
Brainwriting lets everyone contribute
Many multi-disciplinary project teams involve stakeholders at all levels. That’s perfect for getting project work done and decisions taken, but less so for brainstorming. In my experience, when there is a director (or even a senior manager) in the room, the people lower down the hierarchy defer to their ideas and don’t contribute original suggestions of their own. Brainwriting gives everyone a bit of personal space to make their points without feeling as if their ideas will get shouted down.
Brainwriting even works with big groups – groups too big to do the traditional ‘call out your answers and I’ll write them on the flipchart’.
Because it’s fast and easy, you can get lots of different groups contributing. Instead of one massive brainstorming session, hold several smaller group sessions with different stakeholder communities. It’s a simple way to build a collaborative culture with your team. You’ll be able to see if their ideas diverge or converge, and that will give you useful insights into what challenges you may defining the scope of the work or in the months to come.
Brainwriting doesn’t require special skills
I often use a facilitator for brainstorming sessions because I want to participate myself, and it’s hard to do that and hold the neutral role of facilitating the discussion. In fact, it’s impossible. Sometimes I’ll ask two people to facilitate together: one to control the room, the other to take notes on the flipchart.
Brainwriting doesn’t require the same level of facilitation.
You don’t need extra people in the room to facilitate a brainwriting session because you are more than capable of handing out paper, setting a timer and asking team members to pass their sheets on to the next person. You can come together as a group to consolidate the responses or you can do it yourself later, depending on what makes most sense given the topic.
The Brainwriting Process
Here is how Brainwriting works in action.
- First, explain the concept of brainwriting and the goal of the session.
- Give everyone a sheet of paper to write down ideas. Tell them you can give them more paper if they run out. If your team is used to doing this sort of thing online, you could set up several laptops for them to work on instead or even you the chat & collaboration features of your software and have people contribute with their phones.
- Explain the problem you are trying to solve. I find it helps to write it up somewhere as people will always ask questions about it if they can’t see it to refer to the question.
- Tell people how long they have to write. Three minutes doesn’t sound like much time, but it’s plenty for the first round. Once the papers have swapped, you can have shorter rounds as they are only adding ideas, not starting from scratch. Tell people how many rounds there will be – this depends on the amount of time you have and the number of people in the room. Four is a good number to start with.
- Clarify that the team understand what you have asked of them.
- Set the timer and go! When the timer goes off, ask everyone to pass their papers to someone else and go again.
- Collect the papers or save your electronic files and then discuss them as a group.
That’s brainwriting in a nutshell. Once you’ve got your consolidated pages, you’ll need to store them somewhere so that everyone can access them. ProjectManager.com lets you file your project documentation with your plans, risks, resource and budget information so that everything related to your project is in one central online place. Collaboration is easy and it saves time, too. Start your free trial today.