Sometimes Brainstorming Doesn’t Work: Try Brainwriting at Your Next Meeting

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Brainstorming, in its current form and by many metrics, doesn’t work as well as the frequency of “team brainstorming meetings” would suggests it does.

Early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation.

Sharing ideas in groups isn’t the problem, it’s the “out-loud” part that, ironically, leads to groupthink, instead of unique ideas. “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,” Leigh Thompson, a management professor at the Kellogg School, told Fast Company. “Sub-consciously you’re already assimilating to my ideas.”

That process is called “anchoring,” and it crushes originality. “Early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation,” Loran Nordgren, also a professor at Kellogg, explained. “They establish the kinds of norms, or cement the idea of what are appropriate examples or potential solutions for the problem.”

Because brainstorming favors the first ideas, it also breeds the least creative ideas, a phenomenon called conformity pressure. People hoping to look smart and productive will blurt out low-hanging fruit first. Everyone else then rallies around that idea both internally and externally. Unfortunately, that takes up time and energy, leaving a lot the best thinking undeveloped. We’ve all been in meetings like this: Some jerk says the obvious thing before anyone else, taking all of the glory; everyone else harrumphs. Brainstorm session over.

To avoid these problems, both Thompson and Nordgren suggest another, quieter process: brainwriting. (The phrase, now used by Thompson, was coined by UT Arlington professor Paul Paulus.) The general principle is that idea generation should exist separate from discussion. Although the two professors have slightly different systems, they both offer the same general solution: write first, talk second.

Brainstorming works best if before or at the beginning of the meeting, people write down their ideas. Then everyone comes together to share those ideas out loud in a systematic way. Thompson has her participants post all the ideas on a wall, without anyone’s name attached and then everyone votes on the best ones. “It should be a meritocracy of ideas,” she said. “It’s not a popularity contest.” Only after that do people talk.

Nordgren, via an app he developed called Candor, has people record their thoughts before the meeting. Then, everyone goes around in a circle saying each idea.In most meetings with traditional brainstorming, a few people do 60-75% of the talking. With brainwriting, everyone gets a chance.

This write first, discuss later system eliminates the anchoring problem because people think in a vacuum, unbiased by anyone else. Of course, people still jot down the most obvious ideas, which aren’t necessarily bad ideas. But in brainstorming the goal is quantity, not quality. To avoid spending too much time on repetitive suggestions, people using Candor only present ideas someone else hasn’t already said.

In her studies, 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. “I was shocked to find there’s not a single published study in which a face-to-face brainstorming group outperforms a brainwriting group,” she said. In Nordgren’s research he has found that the process leads to more diverse and candid ideas.

Discussion still has its merits, but should only take place after the group has generated a variety of distinct ideas with which to work. Raw ideas rarely work. It’s the permutation and combination of the outlandish and banal that lead to the best proposals. “Usually the best idea that is selected at the end isn’t exactly what anyone came up with at the beginning; the idea has been edited,” Nordgren added.

The best part of introverted thinking, however, is that it cuts down on what I’ll call the “loudmouth meeting-hog phenomenon.” You know the type: the person who, along with one or two other people, dominate the conversation. (Here Fast Company‘s Baratunde Thurston acts out this very scenario with Behance Co-Founder Scott Belsky.) Thompson’s studies have found that in most meetings with traditional brainstorming, a few people do 60-75% of the talking. With brainwriting, everyone gets a chance.