Brainstorming sessions are popular but surprisingly ineffective. Research shows that people actually come up with more ideas working on their own than they do brainstorming together. According to business psychologist Peter Heslin, an alternative way for groups to generate ideas is called "Brainwriting", and early evidence suggests that it, unlike brainstorming, helps groups to spawn more ideas than the same number of people working alone.
There are several reasons brainstorming is thought to be ineffective. To give two examples: it's easy for members of a group to remain creatively passive while others bandy ideas around - a phenomenon dubbed social loafing. Or group members can worry that their ideas will attract negative comment - this is called evaluation apprehension - thus leading them to keep quiet.
Brainwriting aims to avoid some of these issues and is designed to encourage all group members to engage with each others' ideas. Briefly, it involves four group members writing ideas on slips of paper in silence. Group members pass the slips of paper between each other, reading others' ideas and inserting their own. Ink colour indicates who owns which ideas and when a paper slip has four ideas on it, it is placed in the centre of the table for all to see. This is repeated up to 25 times. The second stage involves group members withdrawing to the corners of the room and recalling as many of the ideas generated so far as possible - the rationale being that this encourages attention to the ideas generated. The final stage involves group members working alone for 15 minutes in an attempt to generate yet more ideas.
A study published in 2000 with student participants found that they invented more novel uses for a paper clip using the brainwriting technique than did an equivalent number of students working alone.
Peter Heslin is calling on more research to be conducted to find out whether brainwriting really is as effective as this preliminary study suggests, and to pin down under exactly which circumstances it is likely to be useful. For example, perhaps this technique would be more useful in some company cultures than others. Or maybe it would suit some personality types more than others. It's possible, for example, that extravert employees used to brainstorming would find the silent nature of brainwriting uncomfortable.
"A prime purpose of this paper is to raise awareness among scholars, practitioners, and managers of brainwriting as an alternative to the well-known brainstorming technique," Heslin said. "It also highlights the imperative for rigorous field research to investigate – and thus either confirm or refute – the validity of the contextual-based research ideas offered in this paper, so as to shed light on how and when organizations should consider using brainstorming instead of brainwriting."
Peter A. Heslin (2009). Better than brainstorming? Potential contextual boundary conditions to brainwriting for idea generation in organizations. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 82 (1), 129-145 DOI: 10.1348/096317908X285642