Brainstorming is counter-productive: what if it was all done in writing instead?

Mar 30, 2021

4 mins

Brainstorming is counter-productive: what if it was all done in writing instead?
Pauline Allione

Journaliste independante.

It’s noon and the brainstorming session is about to begin. Your boss is expecting to see collective energy forming and brains bubbling over with genius ideas. All he gets, however, is a disappointment. Peter has his eyes glued to Twitter, Alice has nothing to say and Elsa seems to have lost her touch. Where is the productivity? Creativity? We’ve seen better. What if it is time to say goodbye to brainstorming and say hello to brainwriting? Well, grab a pen and paper, and see what you think.

Is brainstorming dead?

In the 1940s, Alex Osborn, an American advertising executive, developed the collaborative technique we know as “brainstorming”. Since then it has become highly valued for its ability to help people to come up with fresh ideas. Over time, brainstorming has become a standard managerial response to many problems in (too) many fields whether they need to set up a project, launch a product or just solve a problem. It is seen as a fun activity from the cool, creative world of advertising. Starting with a word or a theme, the technique consists of letting ideas flow until a pinnacle of creativity is reached, all in a fun atmosphere.

That’s the idea––though scientists have shown that it can have the opposite effect. In particular, psychologists Brian Mullen, Craig Johnson, and Eduardo Salas showed that groups that engaged in brainstorming were significantly less productive in terms of both quality and quantity than those that did not. In 1958, researchers even proved that such group discussions tended to inhibit creativity, all the more so if any superiors were present. “From the end of the 1950s and early 1960s, empirical studies showed that brainstorming was not effective,” said Olivier Sibony, a professor of strategy at HEC Paris, a respected business college, and author of Cracked It and other books on management. That’s because when there are a lot of people in a session not everyone can express themselves or feels comfortable doing so. There are also those the professor calls “stowaways”. These are people who avoid racking their brains and prefer to let others do all the work. (Clearly, nothing has changed since the days of group projects at university.) But there’s also the fear of being judged, which affects the suggestions made. “In this kind of situation, you always have a risk of self-censorship, especially with creative ideas,” said Sibony.

Let’s switch to brainwriting!

Putting ideas down on paper

To avoid these pitfalls, it’s best to drop the group work and ask participants to do the same kind of thinking, but each on their own. Creativity is most likely to blossom when you are armed with a pen and paper, and by yourself. In the 1960s, Bernd Rohrbach, a German professor of marketing, developed this variation, which is called the “6-3-5 method”.

Working in groups of six, each participant has five minutes to write three ideas on a piece of paper, then pass the paper around, and so on. In the end, everyone has had time to write three words on each of the six sheets: with 108 ideas gathered in half an hour, the method is productive and it keeps everyone involved. Once the ideas have been shared, all that’s left is to select the ones that will be used. Rohrbach suggests turning the sheets over so that each participant can tick off their three favorite proposals.

Brainwriting in practice

Of course, you don’t have to follow this method to the letter. For example, rather than waiting until you are at a meeting to think about a topic, why not ask participants to come up with a list of words or ideas beforehand? “I would suggest to a company that needs to generate ideas to ask everyone to write down 10 ideas on a sheet of paper and take an hour to think about them,” said Sibony. Whether you decide to use the 6-3-5 way or to prepare your ideas before the meeting, using these tips will let you set up effective brainstorming sessions and create space for those who usually stay silent at such gatherings to be heard.

1. Favor quantity over quality

This is brainstorming in a different format, but the idea remains the same. It is not a matter of racking your brains and doing some real work beforehand to propose fully-formed ideas, but rather using your imagination based on the theme of the meeting. Words, connections, ideas? Yes. Plans, projections, tables, budgets? No. We’re looking for creativity, not concrete results.

2. Avoid self-censorship

To encourage the development of original and creative proposals, keep it spontaneous. Write down whatever comes to mind and don’t be afraid to go off-topic. The aim is to bring up new and original proposals. From this point on, all suggestions are welcome. Don’t try to imagine ahead of time what others will think of your ideas. Otherwise, you risk self-censorship and missing out on some good ideas.

3. Don’t be afraid of judgment

Writing it down means you don’t have to speak out in front of a group, thus greatly reducing the fear of judgment. The easiest way to avoid anyone feeling embarrassed is to conduct the process anonymously. Suggest that all the papers are placed in a box. That way, those who are worried about being judged or who want to share their ideas but are shy will find it easier.

4. Write legibly

It may sound silly to make a fuss about handwriting. But having to spend five minutes deciphering your colleague’s scribbles is likely to slow down the process. To make it easier, it’s better to use sheets of paper, rather than post-it notes, so there is plenty of space to write and no excuse for illegible scrawls.

With just a simple pen and paper, brainwriting can yield original ideas in a short time––and who cares if your session doesn’t look like a gathering of Mad Men on Madison Avenue. Creativity is fostered because everyone’s brain is involved and everyone is given the same amount of time to express themselves, on top of being saved from the fear of judgment. Better yet, with this method, there is no chance of unintentionally favoring those who speak the loudest or excluding those who stay quiet as can happen in brainstorming sessions.

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Follow Welcome to the Jungle on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram, and subscribe to our newsletter to get our latest articles every day!

Topics discussed