Brainwriting – An Alternative to Brainstorming

I make it a habit to visit several websites every day – smashingmagazine.com, lifehacker.com, twit.tv – because I’m a firm believer in learning something new every day. Yesterday I read a fascinating post on Smashing Magazine about brainwriting – an alternative to brainstorming.

Brainstorming is the go-to approach when a group wants to come up with new, creative ideas. However, it has the following drawbacks:

  • Favors ideas generated by loudest voices and alpha personalities
  • Participants might fear immediate peer evaluation or feedback “that’s a stupid idea!”
  • Serial nature of process – only one idea at a time

What is Brainwriting?

Brainwriting is simple. Rather than asking people to yell out ideas (a serial process), you ask them to write down their ideas about a particular question or problem on sheets of paper for a few minutes. Then, you have each participant pass their ideas on to someone else, who reads the ideas and adds new ideas. After a few minutes, you ask the participants to pass their papers to others, and the process repeats. After 10 to 15 minutes, you collect the sheets and post them for immediate discussion.

When to use Brainwriting?

Brainwriting is perfect for the following situations:

  • When you have a really large group. You can’t brainstorm with 500 people, but you could brainstorm by leaving a 3X5 card on each person’s seat.
  • You have quiet people who are intimidated by having to speak in a group.
  • You are working in a culture where staff are anxious about speaking openly in front of management.
  • You have a limited (short) period of time. Brainwriting can be successful with just 10 minutes of time.
  • You don’t have an experienced moderator.
  • You are worried about loud, forceful individuals dominating traditional brainstorming.

How to Conduct a Brainwriting Session?

Here are the basic steps for interactive brainwriting:

  1. Introduce the procedure.
  2. Hand out paper for each person to write down ideas.
  3. Provide a clear and legible problem statement. (You could print out a page with the statement at the top, project the statement on a slide, or write it on a board.)
  4. Describe the timing of the brainwriting (for example, three minutes for the first round, and two minutes for four subsequent rounds) and the process for passing the pages (for example, counterclockwise around a table). A page-passing process that is not clear could undermine the credibility of the method and waste time.
  5. Ask if anyone has any questions about the problem statement or the brainwriting process.
  6. Remind people to read the ideas quickly before entering their own ideas and to feel free to add, modify and combine ideas. Let people know that extra paper is around the room if they run out.
  7. Begin the rounds. Announce the end of each round, and ask people to pass their paper to another person.
  8. At the end of the session, collect the brainwriting pages and post them for comment, additional ideas or review.

There are lots of variations on this process, and it turns out that there are plenty of additional resources on the topic.

Brainwriting Resources

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