Traditional brainstorming sessions, in which employees gather in a conference room and "spitball" ideas in the hopes of hitting upon something brilliant, are a favorite tactic among managers. But new research shows they're not particularly effective. According to Fast Company's Co.Design, researchers have identified the flaws of brainstorming and have introduced an alternative, called brainwriting, which replaces verbal idea batting with the practice of writing down thoughts. The notes are then passed around, so that each member of the group can see—and be inspired by—their coworkers' thoughts before they add their own.
Traditional brainstorming dates back to the 1940s, when the strategy was developed by an advertising executive named Alex F. Osborn, Co.Design reports. The main issue with Osborn's technique, researchers have found, is that there can be a breakdown in communication when a group of people tries to do several things at once, or when the conversation is dominated by individual voices. "Brainstorming is a complex process where people are trying to listen, think, add, collaborate, build," University of Texas at Arlington psychology professor Paul Paulus said. "It’s cumbersome, it’s difficult psychologically, and people don’t do it very well."
Paulus and his team recently published a two-part study in the journal Human Factors and Ergonomics Society that evaluated brainwriting in a real work environment with 57 employees at a tech company. In the first part, some participants were asked to generate ideas on their own and then brainwrite with a group, while other participants met with the group first and then worked individually. The results showed that the workers generated 37 percent more ideas when they did brainwriting as a group as opposed to brainstorming alone. The study also showed that brainwriting first and then thinking alone immediately after works better than the inverse, because the initial group session boosts individual creativity.
In a related experiment, some workers were asked to switch between the two types of ideation sessions (brainwriting and solo thinking) several times, while others only did brainwriting. Those who did not make the switch were found to generate fewer ideas per minute than those who alternated. "Alone, you never get other people’s ideas," Paulus said. "And if you’re in a group all the time, you may spend more time thinking about other people’s ideas than your own."
So the next time you're in need of a bright idea, break out the pens and paper: Passing notes just might be the key to your big breakthrough.
Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.