I love the smell of dry-erase markers in the morning.When I’m not writing or presenting, I spend many of my working hours in team brainstorming sessions. You know the drill—a small group gathers in a room to solve a creative problem. A lively debate ensues, usually between the few people closest to the project. Everyone else jumps in now and again, offering outside perspectives. After an hour, the team taps out, leaving a trail of flip charts, stickers and Post-it notes in their wake.I enjoy these group activities, especially when we solve the issue. But I often leave feeling the opposite. That something was missing. That we didn’t quite uncover the big idea that we were looking for. Worst of all—ugh, that took too long.Brainstorms do more than drain brains. They drain budgets. Too many people sitting around talking without getting results is not a sound business plan.I decided to find a better way. Here’s what I discovered.
Brainstorming doesn’t work
“In a typical six-person meeting, two people do more than 60 percent of the talking,” says Leigh Thompson, a management professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in a video by Harvard Business Review. “Increase the size of the group, and the problem only gets worse.”Thompson has been touting this theory for years. Perhaps because she’s so right. Back in 2014, she elaborated in this fantastic Fast Company article:“As sexy as brainstorming is, with people popping like champagne with ideas, what actually happens is when one person is talking you’re not thinking of your own ideas. Sub-consciously you’re already assimilating to my ideas.”This means that the traditional approach to brainstorming—where everyone shares their ideas out loud—is wrong and inefficient. Why? It inadvertently suppresses creativity.
Brainwriting is better
“Thompson found that brainwriting groups generated 20% more ideas and 42% more original ideas as compared to traditional brainstorming groups, she writes in her book Creative Conspiracy,” according to the earlier referenced article in Fast Company.More, better ideas. That’s what I’m talking about.
How to brainwrite
To lead a great brainwriting session, you need to:Step 1: Assemble the Right TeamMake sure you have enough diverse perspectives but try to limit it to 10 people max. That’s the ideal size for meetings like this. If you have trouble whittling it down, you could always hold two separate sessions.Step 2: Define the ProblemBefore you get everyone thinking creatively, you have to get them on the same page. Start the discussion by aligning on the audience and challenge you’re facing. You want to give enough background information for people to be helpful, but you don’t want to start brainstorming solutions out loud.Step 3: Create Areas of FocusAsk questions that start with “Why,” “How” and “What.” Those will get you the best responses. Things like:
- Why would our audience want to buy this product?
- How can we improve the onboarding process for new employees?
- What should be the theme of our company holiday party?
Step 4: Time ItThis is the most important part of the activity. Set a time limit. Go heads down. No one talks. The amount of time can vary depending on the group size and the question at hand. We like to brainwrite for roughly 5 minutes per question.Step 5: Share IdeasOnce everyone has finished brainwriting, it’s time to reconvene the group. Now that everyone has their ideas written down, each person takes turns sharing theirs aloud. One teammate captures the feedback on a flip chart or whiteboard. If people have duplicate ideas, just put a check next to them. Once everyone shares, the session is complete.I found brainwriting to be an effective way to generate more ideas in less time. I hope you do, too.Let me know how your first brainwriting session goes, or if you have any other tips for leading brainwriting exercises.