If you work in an office, you have most likely participated in a brainstorming session or two (or 12). Sounds very agile.
However, science has shown several times that brainstorming is a terrible technique. It’s cumbersome due to all the interdependent activities happening at once. Fortunately, a relatively unknown technique is starting to gain popularity called brainwriting. Simply put, brainwriting involves a group generating ideas alone and passing them around the group in short bursts. It's a combination of group and individual interactions. Incorporating it into your team events can produce more diverse ideas and provide a friendlier environment for collaboration.
Ideas are what keep companies innovating in the ever-evolving markets we operate in. These ideas generate new products for customers to purchase. They allow teams to innovate new ways of working and establish better norms. They also craft a vision for organizations that embrace change. More people are generating more new ideas today than ever before.
Unfortunately, many do so using a technique created over 60 years ago that limits idea creation.
Brainstorming is intertwined with the concept of idea generation. Without realizing it, every office will undoubtedly set up a session to “brainstorm for a bit”. Even after creating a workshop about this topic, I still slip and mention to teams that we should brainstorm on a given topic. Brainstorming has become synonymous with the concept of idea generation.
In this paper, I plan on providing more detail on the history of brainstorming and the man that created it. Then, I’ll introduce a concept many of you might not be aware of called brainwriting. This will allow readers to articulate the difference between the two methods for others.
We will cover some of the research data on the difference between the two methods. On top of the data, I will share some of my research into the social components of idea generation and how they may hinder the goal.
Finally, I will present how I use brainwriting for Agile team activities and how readers can do the same thing. What I’ve learned is that many coaches and scrum masters might already be using some of the techniques without realizing it. For those who don’t, there are some simple tweaks to ideation exercises to facilitate better ideas.
2. brainstorming vs. brainwriting
2.1 The History of Brainstorming
Alex F. Osborn was born in the late 19th Century in New York City. The newspaperman turned ad man (like my early career) eventually settled in Buffalo with the well-known agency of Barton & Durstine. He would later have his name added to the company banner after making partner.
Interestingly, his career isn’t known for the amazing work he did for clients. While crafting many an ad campaign, he started exploring the ways in which work was created. His published works on the topic of creativity are probably still used in classrooms.
In 1952, he published Wake Up Your Mind: 101 Ways to Develop Creativeness. In it, he describes imagination as a term that, “covers a field so wide and so hazy that a leading educator has called it an area which psychologists fear to tread.” The taboo nature of the topic only interested him more. The more he learned about how we create ideas, the more he wrote about them. His next work was published later that same year titled Your Creative Power: How to Use Imagination. My favorite quote from the book refers to our own creative power as, “an Aladdin’s lamp, and if we rub it hard enough, it can light our way to better living.”
His most successful writing came the next year when he published Applied Imagination. This is the textbook that introduced the concept of brainstorming. In it, he lays out four principles that would define the way many of us still generate ideas:
- Hold back criticism until the creative current has had every chance to flow.
- Quantity is more important at first in terms of idea generation.
- Be wild in exploring the topic and think outside of the box.
- These ideas should be combined and improved upon until we find the right one.
Figure 1. Alex F. Osborn
2.2 The Challenges of Brainstorming
In reading Osborn’s work, his framework for generating ideas really works. Focusing on cranking out a lot of ideas and refining them as a group sounds very agile. He himself said that brainstorming, “concentrates solely on creative thinking and excludes the discouragement and criticism which so often cramp imagination.”
From the UT-Arlington paper:
“The negative results for brainstorming are surprising in part because group interaction should be a source of cognitive stimulation. Ideas from others should challenge participants and stimulate them to think of categories of ideas they might not have considered or provide associations for additional ideas. Furthermore, group interaction provides an opportunity to build on the ideas of others and facilitates help seeking, help giving, and reflective reframing as well as cultivating a reflection in conversation, all vital to the ideation process.” 
Unfortunately, that is not what has become of the tool. What originally started out as an innovative technique for creativity is now stifling it.
When I ask groups what they think are the biggest challenges with brainstorming, here is what they said:
- Ideas from people with authority tend to count more.
- Voice biases tend to cause unnecessary friction in the group.
- The ideas generated are less diverse.
- Personality is more important than the ideas themselves.
- Introverts are usually marginalized.
- More time is spent listening than generating ideas.
It would appear from a clinical and lay perspective, the social aspect of voicing ideas in a group seems to have become the focus of these sessions instead of ideas. The groups voicing these concerns all agreed this was not the best ideation method, and yet over half the room has been in one such setting in the past month.
2.3 The Advent of Brainwriting
The technique of brainwriting was invented not long after Osborn published Applied Imagination. A German marketing professional named Bernd Rohrbach published an innovation process called 6-3-5 Brainwriting in a sales magazine called Absatzwirtschaft in 1968.
It consists of 6 participants supervised by a moderator who then write down 3 ideas on paper in 5-minute time blocks. The participants then pass the paper to their right and run the exercise again. When the paper comes back around to the original participant, the group could conceivably have 108 unique ideas to work with in 30 minutes.
On the surface, this can seem incredible to think that many ideas can come from such a short period of time. Depending on the depth of idea, it can seem like not many at all. My research revealed that 6-3-5 has been used for ideas of many types including marketing messaging, visual design, and problem solving.
The next iteration came in the early 1990’s when personal computing and the internet allowed for a new type of messaging in companies. Email, message boards, and instant messaging were all in their infancy. This allowed researchers to experiment with a technique called Electronic Brainstorming:
“Participants are in the same room and type their ideas on a computer keyboard. Their ideas can then be visualized and re-read several times on a screen at the front of the room, or visualized via text-based synchronous communication tools (e.g., chat rooms, instant messaging, micro-blogging) on the computer screen.” 
This allowed users to be co-located and share ideas in a more peaceful environment and simultaneously talk, in a sense.
The most recent research on the subject came from a collaboration in 2015 with professors from the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Tel Aviv. The study led to the paper mentioned at the beginning of this writing. In the study:
“We had an opportunity to examine brainwriting in a work setting that consisted of 80 people working in research and development for a multinational firm. The manager of this group felt that an increase in number of employees had not significantly increased the productivity of the unit. So, he was most interested in having us examine ways by which his teams could function more effectively.
We spent an entire day with the employees, conducting two studies and then providing them feedback about how to enhance team performance and innovation in a lecture/discussion format. Although this was an exciting setting for research, we had a limited sample size. Therefore, obtaining statistical significance would be a challenge. However, we felt that the trends we would obtain would be of practical and theoretical significance.” 
Figure 1. Example Brainwriting Session
The study utilized two different styles of brainwriting techniques. The first involved groups sitting in the same room. They were asked to contemplate a topic and write down some ideas on paper. They would then pass the paper to their neighbor and iterate on the ideas previously noted. After a few rounds, the group would disperse and then go off by themselves to contemplate what the group generated on their original paper. Ideas were collected, refined and then represented to the group.
The second involved the same activities, but in reverse. The group would start out in solitude to generate ideas based upon a common topic. They would then come together and pass papers around, iterating upon the idea. The variation on this technique is it allowed the group to collect and refine together as opposed to using the group for raw idea generation. Mind you, all this ideation was done silently. The only communication about ideas was done on paper.
The group then rated the quality of ideas based upon how novel the ideas were and how useful. The metrics were then added with the raw quantity of ideas to generate the baseline for success. In every group, it was found that starting in the group setting resulted in better ideas as opposed to starting out alone.
“The group-to-alone sequence led to 63% more ideas per person than did the alone-to- group one. Again, this is an impressive finding from a practical perspective. The questionnaire items also indicate that participants had more positive reactions to the group-to-alone sequence than to the alone-to-group one.” 
This fascinated me. From an outsider’s perspective, it would appear the activities are the exact same. If the group is coming together to write and pass papers, it shouldn’t matter if I’m starting out by myself to generate ideas or together.
The paper’s author posits that group idea generation has a more positive vibe rather than doing it silently. If study participants started out alone, they managed to get stuck at some point. The group setting managed to generate more raw ideas better, and allow people the chance to sit by themselves and groom the data.
Again, this was interesting to me because most of my social tendencies tend to be verbal. The suggestion is that non-verbal social graces are there to be mined without punishing those who are less verbal. It resonated with me because I’ve experienced the energy of being around with people regardless of my interaction with them. One of my favorite ways to write is on a Sunday morning inside Starbucks with my headphones on. I get the benefit of being around with people while still maintaining my space to think and work.
When I completed the reading and analysis of this research. I decided to try introducing the concept of brainwriting into team settings and experience the results with my own eyes.
3. Here’s how i got started using brainwriting
Many an Agilist is familiar with using stickies for team activities. A former teammate once joked, “our industry keeps 3M in business. We should own stock in them.” My initial thought was to utilize stickies for a few of the traditional team events I regularly facilitated, assuming it would accomplish the same goal.
3.1 Agile Events
For me, the most obvious event to start with is the retrospective. This is the one most in our community already utilizing silent idea generation. By teams taking a few minutes at the start of retros to jot down ideas and placing them on a board under certain headings, it allows the facilitator to quickly organize ideas for the next step.
When setting the stage for the session, I would draw whatever metaphor would help drive the ideas. Sailboats, hot air balloons, quadrants, three questions, and many more can pique the interest of group members. They would then write down their ideas, and then we would discuss.
Giving them a time box allows for silent ideation can be done in a couple of ways. I could give a long time box to fill out all the sections in the illustration. That way, participants can jump around as they see fit and feel less time sensitivity. Another way is to provide shorter time boxes for each individual section. This provides an opportunity to focus participants on a specific area. There is more of a time crunch, but can be extended of people are having an issue completing their thought.
There is benefit to beginning the session this way because the environment for writing ideas down is very peaceful. It sets the tone for safety, as well as letting everyone equally express themselves. From there I would utilize dot voting to prioritize the topics for discussion, and spend time on as many as we could in our time box.
Planning was my next event to experiment then. I used the same format as retrospectives to suggest goals for the next iteration. It allowed for some interesting ideas from the team that I wasn’t expecting. Product would always lead with business priority, and the development team would often use things like dependencies and blockers to suggest another path. I then used this as the opening for discussion and voice all the reasons for suggesting the goal. Many would voice support or concern, and then we would dot vote.
Stand ups were almost the easiest way to introduce the concept, although in full transparency it wasn’t necessarily used for idea generation. By using HipChat or Slack with teams, we would just ask team members to send what they were working on and any concerns they had remotely. This was one of the more popular ideas, mainly because I allowed it to be whenever they got into the office. The only stipulation was that it had to be before a set-aside time.
For the iteration demo (or showcase), it’s hard to use brainwriting for showing working software itself for obvious reasons. What I did do, however, was set up a big piece of flipchart paper near the door and ask everyone to write down at least one thought from the event.
It could be encouragement, or frustrations with what they saw. It could also include something they would like to see us show next time. Provided useful information to take into our retrospective and planning events.
3.2 Challenges in Implementation
The biggest thing I noticed with each of the events was even though brainwriting was used in every single session, there was still the same social component introduced eventually.
- During retrospectives, I would ask for clarifications on specific ideas. This introduced verbal interactions and the extroverted ones on the team still dominated conversation. Feelings would still get hurt even though we hadn’t given the idea a chance.
- For planning, it was very odd for teams to discuss goals in this manner. Product owners were also very used to being the sole owner of the goal. It did provide an opportunity for some helpful coaching on the entire team owning goals.
- Stand ups were productive being run this way. Team members appreciated the flexibility in when to “report in” and were more precise in their wording. Of course, there was no real collaboration with this activity. Disparate posts in the channel also didn’t allow for timely follow up questions.
- The same can be said for posting feedback after the demos. The comments are often out of context, and because we have no idea who wrote them so there is no opportunity for follow up. This led to feedback being disregarded by the team.
When moving back and forth between brainwriting and traditional brainstorming and all the social norms, it sometimes did more harm than good. Team settings created scenarios where stickies are scrutinized before really discussing them. Often, I would see the people who wrote the ideas shrink from them when they were criticized.
3.3 How I Pivoted
They key failure of my experiment was trying to have my cake and eat it too with teams. Rather than explaining the mission of the technique I tried to keep some of the cadence the same while introducing part of brainwriting. As this community knows first-hand, people won’t really change unless they have a reason to.
One of the more mature teams I worked with was given this information and a challenge. Can we run a retrospective and come to the top 1-3 items we want to work on without talking?
We tried with legal pads at a table, which worked as far as refining the ideas. The challenge came to voting. The best illustration came when I facilitated a brainwriting workshop at Agile and Beyond 2017. There were seven groups running the exercise to come up with ideas then vote on the top three. Only two tables could finish during the time box.
Then someone showed me the tool IdeaBoardz. It’s a simple and free online tool for running retrospectives. By creating a custom board, everyone on the team can fill out their cards and interact with others at the same time. Teams can see the ideas of others in real time without knowing who said what and iterate. You also can vote up the card you like most. I was amazed at the number of quality ideas that were generated in a short period of time. Well before the time box was up, the team could give me what they wanted to talk about the most. I decided to use the board for things other than just retros. With a little work, cards can be used for just about any need.
Ultimately, there’s no full proof method to teams. People will speak up, or feel like they can’t and feelings will become bruised. It’s healthy to have a little friction around idea generation. The point of this report is to point out some simple issues that can be avoided with a little thoughtful planning.
Brainwriting is a method that aims to avoid the pitfalls of its predecessor. Titles, personality, politics and other issues in offices today can be avoided and focus on the most important thing: quality ideas.
4. What I Learned
4.1 My Facilitator Stance
As previously noted, I’m a verbal person. Because I process most of my thoughts in that fashion, many of my team events were ran this way. Colleagues I spoke to were already using the stickies method I wanted to try, which revealed a personal bias I might have been using to steer my team in a certain fashion. So, the first lesson I learned had to do with myself as facilitator.
Reading research like this was super important to my skills as a coach. We all have personal preferences in terms of running sessions, and often we consider our comfort level when setting the agenda. The struggle comes when we consider what works best for us instead of the group. It also doesn’t take into consideration the type of session or result needed.
I was crafting sessions and teams to fit around me and my presentation style as opposed to adapting to groups and their needs.
Once I realized that, it encouraged me to reach out to other coaches to learn their various stances and personas they take on for the sessions and teams. My colleague Billie Schuttpelz is a wizard at adapting her coaching and facilitator stance to fit the need. Some useful conversations helped me change my mindset, as well as some tips for session preparation.
4.2 Support for Remote Activities
Next, utilizing the brainwriting research allowed me to be better prepared to discuss remote Agile activities with teams and leadership. We think of things like stand ups as something that must be done in person, or at least looking at each other.
Combining the research data, I found to pair with my own experiences helped managers understand. Silent collaboration was not only possible, but often better than setting up social constraints that get in the way. Setting up an instant messenger channel for stand ups allows people to communicate with each other in a time that makes sense on remote days, as well as create a natural information for leads and external stakeholders (for example). Planning sessions where teams collaborate on priorities and dependencies create better team buy in and more refined iteration backlogs. Some of my most successful retrospectives were done on the phone because it was efficient and safe to share when done silently.
The move to expand brainwriting to other activities created very interactive and tactile exercises. Leadership planning, problem solving exercises, product ideation, and so many more benefitted from silently working as a team combined with thoughtful reflection .
4.3 Delay Verbal Interaction.
Finally, I looked at the difference between silent brainstorming and a full brainwriting session. I assumed that teams were writing down ideas on stickies and putting them on the wall, that meant we were brainwriting.
Even if you start out jotting down ideas in silence, I learned that the challenging social components of brainstorming still come out if you gather and refine ideas verbally.
That’s not to say some verbal interaction isn’t valuable in a brainwriting session at some point. Planning and retrospective sessions are always valuable to see and hear a team agree on next steps. The difference between my initial attempts and now are I delay the verbal interaction.
Groups are quite capable of generating ideas in mass quantity in the right session. If you create the right session to refine into novel and useful ideas, the team will be perfectly set up to put those ideas into action.
This research truly helped me understand how important behavioral economics into coaching teams. It’s led me to read other books in the subject area, and in turn a better coach. The next time you need to generate some ideas for your team, why not try brainwriting?
I was first introduced to this topic in a Fast Company article listed below by a friend of mine named JB Chaykowsky. He’s an extremely talented designer who has challenged and encouraged me for the past four years.
When we were on the same team, I would remember him pulling me aside and questioning everything we did daily. Not because he disagreed with the decisions I made, but understanding the why behind it helped him engage. I had to be on top of my game if he was in the room for sure. We all need people in life that challenge the status quo we believe to be always true. Thanks, JB, for being that person in my life!
- Paulus, Paul B. “Asynchronous Brainstorming in an Industrial Setting: Exploratory Studies” Human Factors, Vol. 57, No. 6, September 2015, pp. 1076-1094 (Paul B. Paulus, Runa M. Korde, and Jubilee J. Dickson, University of Texas at Arlington, Abraham Carmeli, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel, and Ravit Cohen-Meitar, Tmurot Ltd., Tel Aviv, Israel)
- Nichinov, Nicolas “Is Electronic Brainstorming or Brainwriting the Best Way to Improve Creative Performance in Groups? An Overlooked Comparison of Two Idea-Generation Techniques” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, December 2012
- Sneed, Annie, FastCompany Design “Brainstorming Is Dumb”, https://www.fastcodesign.com/3062292/evidence/brainstorming-is-dumb
- Greenfield, Rebecca, FastCompany “Brainstorming Doesn’t Work; Try This Technique Instead”, https://www.fastcompany.com/3033567/brainstorming-doesnt-work-try-this-technique-instead
- Wheeler, Russell A., RussellAWheeler.com “Alex F. Osborn: The Father of Brainstorming”, http://russellawheeler.com/resources/learning_zone/alex_f_osborn/
- Wikipedia “6-3-5 Brainwriting”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/6-3-5_Brainwriting
- IdeaBoardz, http://ideaboardz.com/
Copyright 2017 is held by the author.