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Brainstorming Is Dead

Long live brainwriting! Three steps to silencing the windbags, undermining the politics, and letting your team’s best ideas thrive.
COLLABORATORS Leigh Thompson, Debra Kaye
Brainwriting
illustration by Todd Detwiler

Here’s a sobering statistic about team dynamics that we wish surprised us: In a typical six- or eight-person group, three people do 70 percent of the talking. That translates into less than four minutes of floor time for each of the remaining participants — those who aren’t hogging the conversation — during your next hour-long meeting.

“The topper is that the dominant people do not realize this,” writes Leigh Thompson, author of Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration, in Fortune. “In fact, they vehemently argue that the meetings are egalitarian. They lack self-awareness.”

So, if reasoning with them won’t work, how can we wrest control away from the meeting tyrants? Rules? Admonishment? No and no, says Thompson, who’s also a professor at the Kellogg School of Management and a team-building consultant. She has a better idea for fostering productive team democracy: brainwriting, which she describes as “the simultaneous written generation of ideas.” Here’s how it works.

Step 1: Write just one sentence each.

For the first five or 10 minutes of your next idea-generation meeting, every team member writes down one good idea or one proposed solution on, say, each of a small stack of index cards.

“I always like to use the smallest index cards I can find, so 3 x 5 or smaller,” Thompson explains in an interview with the HBR Blog Network. “Because if I pass out 4 x 6 or, heaven forbid, 5 x 7 cards, people write paragraphs, and I want one sentence.”

Step 2: Consider the idea, not the source.

When the timer goes off, all cards are submitted anonymously and taped or thumbtacked to a wall for the whole team’s consideration.

“I have two rules: no guessing and no confessions,” Thompson says. “No one signs their name . . . and I don’t want anyone guessing who said what.”

Step 3: Put it to a blind vote.

Team members signal their interest in an idea by marking it with a sticker or a Post-it note. Everyone gets a limited number of stickers and, if done right, the best ideas emerge quickly.

“It should really be a meritocracy of ideas,” Thompson says. “In other words, I shouldn’t be voting for the CMO’s idea; I should be voting for an idea that I really think is going to be exciting for our company or organization.”

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THE PLUS

“A brainstorming session is a great place to load up on baked goods and caffeine, but it’s not so great for generating ideas,” writes Debra Kaye (@DebraA_Kaye) in the Fast Company article “Why Innovation by Brainstorming Doesn’t Work.” If it were up to Kaye, author of Red Thread Thinking: Weaving Together Connections for Brilliant Ideas and Profitable Innovation, nary another moment or smudge of Sharpie would be wasted in traditional brainstorming sessions. That’s because our brains don’t make creative connections in rigid or high-pressure atmospheres. “Fresh ideas come when your brain is relaxed and engaged in something other than the particular problem you’re embroiled in,” she asserts. “Long showers, soaks in a tub, long walks, or doing chores are frequently when those synapses that find alternative solutions to a problem in new ways all hit together so that the big idea can spring.”

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