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The art of brainwriting

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Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 10/2022 vom 21.09.2022


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“We are all human and we all judge”

You know the feeling. It’s time to give a special treat to a customer or co-worker — maybe the holidays are coming up; maybe you just want (or need) to give them a boost. The problem is: you don’t know what to do. You might have some ideas, but perhaps they’ve been done before or they’re just not practical. You need new ideas, and you need them fast.

And what do we normally do in the corporate world if we need some new ideas? We brainstorm. We invite team members into a meeting room. On a whiteboard or flip chart, we write down the question: “What can we do to surprise our customers this time?” And the brainstorming begins. Or, rather, the drama begins.

The chatty, dominating colleagues throw out their ideas, while others sit silently, hoping not to be noticed. As soon as the boss makes a suggestion, people jump on it, and that often ...

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... determines the direction the brainstorming session will go in. In the end, the ideas on the flip chart are either ideas you expected to hear or the same ideas from the last brainstorming session. Really new or inspiring ideas rarely make it on to the flip chart.

Why doesn’t brainstorming result in new ideas?

In brainstorming, people must feel free to speak without fear of judgement. But, of course, we are all human and we all judge — even if we don’t want to. We may not say anything out loud, but even a change in body language is often enough. We might shake our head slightly or let out a little sigh when one colleague (let’s call him Joe) makes a suggestion.

“People open up and realize that they can a lot of ideas”

Obviously, this will have a negative effect on Joe’s creativity. What’s worse, the same negative effect may spread to the rest of the team. If people don’t feel accepted and respected, they become defensive, and this is demotivating and can lead to conflict. It’s certainly not uplifting to spend an hour together, and the result is a collection of stale, uninspired ideas. In extreme cases, brainstorming sessions can fail before they begin — if people have had bad experiences before, they’ll probably have a negative attitude from the start.

It is not surprising then that numerous studies of brainstorming in groups have shown that it’s frequently a waste of everybody’s time. Another problem is the failure to build on the ideas of others. In brainstorming sessions, people tend to present ideas they’ve always wanted to share and don’t pay much attention to what other people are saying. This means produce that potentially good thoughts are not developed into practical suggestions.

More often than not, brainstorming sessions end in frustration and no original ideas. But there’s hope! Allow me to present an alternative to classic brainstorming. It sounds similar but is actually very different. I’m talking about “brainwriting”. There are a number of variations out there, but I like the 6-3-5 technique: six people write down three ideas in each round and pass on their ideas to others five times.

How does brainwriting work?

Imagine your team has six members. Each of you has a piece of paper and draws two vertical and five horizontal lines, making a table of three columns and six rows. Of course, you could prepare a beautifully printed-out table, but in my experience, it’s good have people draw their own. Wiggly, hand-drawn lines suit our purpose for this session: collect ideas, be quick and don’t overthink it. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Everyone writes the question or problem or challenge at the top of the sheet. Explain the rules of the session: don’t censor yourself; build on existing ideas; wild ideas are welcome; work quietly.

Before you start, it might be helpful to warm up your colleagues’ creativity. In their daily work, they may not be used to coming up with wild ideas. My preferred warm-up:

• Think of a thing that is as big as your hand.

• Write down the ideas you have about how to use this thing. Wild and unusual ideas are welcome. Two minutes for that.

• How could you earn money with this thing? Two minutes. You’ll notice that people start to open up and realize that they can produce a lot of ideas in a short period of time.

Once everybody is warmed up and feeling creative, the first round of brainwriting begins. In five minutes, you write down three different ideas in the top row. After that, you pass on the sheet to the next person.

In the next round, you read the ideas already written on the sheet you’ve been given, then you write down three new ideas. Encourage everyone to build on the suggestions that are already there. Five minutes later, you again pass this sheet on and the third round starts. You get the idea.

What are the results?

If you do a quick calculation, you’ll see that, in 30 minutes, you generate 108 ideas. Awesome! More importantly, the shortcomings of classical brainstorming are eliminated. Everybody participates. As you work in silence, there’s no judging. And people automatically build on the ideas of others, as they first read the existing ideas on their sheet before writing down new ideas.

If your team does this, you’ll not only get lots of ideas to work on in the next days, but there are also some cool side effects:

• You’ll have also done something for your team spirit.

• Your team will feel proud of having produced so many new ideas so quickly.

• Some members may feel like they’ve been creative for the first time in their careers.

• Furthermore, there are almost always some funny or quirky ideas that will make you laugh.

So, the next time you feel like brainstorming, remember this article and invite your team to a 30-minute brainwriting session. Your team will be grateful. And your customers, too.


Be creative

• Let your imagination run wild.

• Imagine that money is no object.

• The sky’s the limit.

Build on existing ideas

• What would happen if we took that a step further?

• Expanding on John’s suggestion. Why don’t we…?

• You’ve just given me another idea.