Brainstorming 2.0: Generate Better Ideas with Brainwriting | TechWell

Brainstorming 2.0: Generate Better Ideas with Brainwriting

Agile team contributing in a brainwriting session

Blank faces, with the exception of the few who usually do all the talking: that’s what you are greeted with when you start your team’s usual retrospective. It feels like pulling teeth to get anyone contributing.

For decades we’ve used brainstorming to generate ideas. It’s our go-to method for ideation, and yet it probably holds back our success.

Brainstorming was built on four principles:

  • 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 the box
  • Ideas should be combined and improved upon until we find the right one

Sounds pretty agile. So what went wrong?

For one, the modern office has improved. Teams are more diverse. Feelings and emotions are valued (to a degree). Companies care more about creating the right environment around motivated individuals. Depending on your personality, though, meetings don’t often allow you to contribute.

If you are focused on generating ideas, you’re not going to be a very effective listener. If someone tosses out an idea and the reception from the room is icy because others are thinking, they might not be inclined to offer another. Or people may not speak up because their boss is in the room. Maybe someone comes from a culture where speaking out isn’t encouraged. Introverts always lose in environments like these, too.

As much as brainstorming cares about creating quality ideas, much of the office culture it resides in doesn’t.

What if we could take away the social aspect of trying to vocalize thoughts and refocus on generating ideas, allowing for personalities of all types to be successful and creating an inclusive environment for ideation?

Brainwriting—or silent brainstorming, as it’s sometimes called—intends to do exactly that.

Brainwriting involves writing ideas down on paper and passing it to a teammate. The neighbor reads your ideas and then iterates on them. The only thing that matters is generating as many ideas as possible in the timebox defined.

I’ve found this method helps with not only the quantity of ideas, but also the quality. In as little as ten minutes, I’ve seen a table generate 150 quality ideas that can be acted upon immediately.

Many of you might argue that you already practice brainwriting in your teams by using stickies on whiteboards. But you can’t forget to combine and refine.

When I worked in advertising, I loved the pitch sessions where people threw out ideas. Then someone would offer, “That’s cool, but what if instead we did this?” That was the beauty of verbally offering ideas. People would keep iterating on an idea until a gem was uncovered.

The same must occur in the silent version. Encourage teams to stay at the whiteboard and read everyone’s thoughts. It allows them to ponder things they didn’t originally consider, take two ideas and combine them, or refine the wording into something more powerful. Being silent also removes judgment, piques curiosity, and focuses you on more ideas.

The more people I introduce to this technique, the more I learn. Try brainwriting and let me know if it improves ideation sessions for your teams.

Chris Murman is presenting the session Brainwriting: The Team Hack to Generating Better Ideas at the Agile + DevOps West 2019 conference, June 2–7 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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