Remember in school, when the teacher would break you into small groups and everyone would sit around nervously without saying much, or one person would end up doing everything, or there would just be a lot of confusion about what you were supposed to do?
Do you remember that? Yeah, I do too.
So, at a recent strategy meeting, when we were asked to break into small groups to generate ideas on our own then decide with the other members of our group which ideas to present to the rest of the group, I secretly rolled my eyes and thought, “God, not this! Anything but this!”
I know, I know. I’m all about collaboration. I truly am. We are far better together than we are as isolated little beings. I really think it was a throwback reaction to those school days where things rarely turned out well when we broke into groups.
In this case, I was 100 percent wrong. The small group exercise proved to be fruitful and inspiring.
Breaking us up was an efficient way to surface a lot of ideas in a short amount of time. While my group was working on one problem, several other groups were working on other problems. By the time we reconvened, we had a number of focused solutions to pressing problems. It was kind of amazing.
A few days later, I stumbled upon a FastCo article about how brainstorming is not a good use of time, but that brainwriting—which is essentially what we did at the beginning of our small group exercise when we individually wrote down a bunch of our best ideas—is really valuable.
The gist of the piece is that, in brainstorming sessions, where everyone is expected to chime in with thoughts, solutions, arguments, etc., a lot of energy and ideas get left on the table.
In brainstorm sessions only one person can speak at a time, too much time is spent pursuing ideas that may not go anywhere, and the most outspoken people tend to dominate the conversation.
Brainwriting, on the other hand, where everyone writes down their best ideas then presents them to the group to decide which ones to move forward on, is an effective way to generate ideas and innovative solutions.
All the participants come up with their own ideas without any creativity-stilting pushback, they can then choose the best ones to share, and the group then has everyone’s best ideas to collectively choose from.
I recently read the excellent book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz from Google Ventures. The book is an empowering and very actionable guide to test ideas and move from the idea-generation stage through a prototype, with a group, very quickly.
One of the key strategies in Sprint is to have everyone write down their best ideas. The book doesn’t call this brainwriting, but after reading the FastCo piece, I realized that’s what they’re doing. And it works really well. In fact, brainwriting is key to a successful sprint.
So, next time you’re working in a small group, or generating content ideas with your team, or just trying to find new ways of looking at a problem, give brainwriting a try. You may never go back to brainstorming again.
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