The trouble with brainstorming - THINKERS Notebook

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The trouble with brainstorming

We've all been in brainstorming sessions.

Maybe it's been in person, with one person standing up at a whiteboard simultaneously trying to play the role of moderator, scribe, and air traffic controller as ideas are shouted out from every corner of a boisterous room.

Or maybe it's been online, on a video call or conference call, where the voices seem to oscillate between talking all at once and awkwardly waiting in silence.

While both methods of brainstorming can generate ideas, it's not always (or often) the most efficient and effective method for doing so.

Consider these drawbacks of brainstorming:

  • If only one person is talking, you're only generating one idea at a time.
  • If multiple people are talking at once, the entire process can descend into confusion and chaos.
  • The voice-dominated format means that loud extroverts are likely to dominate, while quieter introverts might not feel comfortable sharing.
  • The voice-dominated format all means that no one is doing much quiet reflecting or responding to other ideas, which is when we often do our best creative thinking.
  • It only works with a very narrow number of people: too few, and there isn't enough diversity of ideas; too many, and it becomes difficult to organize the firehose of ideas, energy, and side chatter.
  • You need someone leading the session with a specific set of skills to get the most out of it: authoritative and charismatic, quick on his or her feet, respected by everyone in the room, skilled at recording ideas on a whiteboard and possessing legible handwriting.

Which is not to say that brainstorming never has its place. It's just that getting the right conditions for a successful session can feel like trying to prepare for a space shuttle lunch. With the right moderator, the right group, in the right environment, and with a smartly defined problem or goal, brainstorming can be an effective way to generate ideas.

But what if there was a more consistently effective and efficient way do it?

There is. It's called brainwriting.

Below, in this week's THINKERS Roundup newsletter, you will find three resources to help you learn about this improved, but less widely known, method for idea generation.

And if you're a member of the THINKERS Workshop, I hosted a live webinar about brainwriting yesterday with THINKERS founder Sean Jackson.

The replay is available here: Why Brainwriting Is a Powerful Alternative to Brainstorming​

Sean and I cover:


  • The challenges and limitations of traditional brainstorming
  • What brainwriting is and why it's effective
  • How to actually execute a successful brainwriting session
  • How brainwriting works in groups and individually
  • Tools that help facilitate productive brainwriting
  • ​How technology has had both positive and negative impacts on our thinking

New people join the THINKERS Workshop every day, and it is already loaded with discussions, video lessons, and resources that will help you become a better thinker. We hope you'll join us.

Here are this week's resources to help you learn more about brainwriting so you can use it to improve your idea generation process.

Brainwriting: the strange term that delivers big results
The term “brainwriting” often brings forth smiles and quiet laughter because it is a strange word.

Brainwriting is simple. Rather than ask participants to yell out ideas (a serial process), you ask them to write down their ideas about a particular question or problem on sheets of paper for a few minutes; then, you have each participant pass their ideas on to someone else, who reads the ideas and adds new ideas. After a few minutes, you ask the participants to pass their papers to others, and the process repeats. After 10 to 15 minutes, you collect the sheets and post them for immediate discussion.

In my experience, the number of ideas generated from brainwriting often exceeds what you’d expect from face-to-face brainstorming because you’ve reduced anxiety somewhat, followed a parallel process in which a dozen people may add items simultaneously, and reduced the amount of extraneous talk that happens during brainstorming, which takes time away from idea generation.

Read: Using Brainwriting For Rapid Idea Generation (Smashing Magazine)

Here are five different methods for brainwriting

This website provides five detailed explanations for how to execute different brainwriting methods:


  • 6-3-5 Brainwriting (the most common version)
  • Brainwriting Pool
  • Idea Card Method
  • Brainwriting Game
  • Constrained Brainwriting

Read: Different Methods of Brainwriting (Mycoted)

Brainwriting delivers three critical benefits that brainstorming does not
For decades, leaders have relied on brainstorming to solve their toughest creative challenges. But simply throwing teams together with hopes they’ll produce a breakthrough idea is counterproductive.  

Not only does brainstorming often lead to conformity, but decades of research show that people tend to produce fewer ideas than they would working alone. And while certain adjustments can help, it’s time we gave brainstorming a much-needed fix.

Instead of everyone talking at the same time, try to get everyone writing at the same time–an idea generating process called “brainwriting.”

Read: Brainwriting vs. Brainstorming (Joe Hirsch)

Quote of the week

"Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game."

-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash​