Idea generation is one of the hardest parts of the job, no matter what your industry might be. It usually isn’t enough to get everyone in the room and ask them to come up with something on the spot. So how do you encourage creative thinking? The easiest answer is brainstorming, which everyone’s done at least once in their lives. Get your group together, warm them up with conversation, and then encourage them to suggest ideas with no fear of judgment. Throw a lot of stuff against the wall, and a few things will stick, right? But brainstorming often isn’t too effective—quantity over quality can get you a lot of suggestions, but not a lot of good ones. There’s a better, more rigorous way to inspire people’s thinking.
Give everyone’s a pen and paper and let their brain go to work.
Brain-writing might sound similar to brainstorming, but it’s a lot more structured, and a lot less random. It’s a method where technique really matters, and there’s an easy playbook for you and your team members to follow. It’s conducted privately, but as a group, and is much more reliant on writing things down rather than shouting them out. Unlike brainstorming, which gives a lot more attention to the more extroverted members of the group, brain-writing spreads responsibilities out more evenly. And rather than focusing everyone on the first few ideas that get shouted out (which can bottleneck creativity), brain-writing doesn’t encourage people who are less sure of their own concepts to self-censor.
Setting the stage
Before starting your session, give every participant the necessary info on how things will work. What’s the central question, or idea, that you’re looking for people to work on? What kind of limitations (based on budget or time) should everyone be aware of? Most importantly, reinforce that there are no wrong answers—the purpose of the exercise is to encourage people to put their craziest, most exciting suggestions down on paper.
How the writing works
1. Pass out cards.
Everyone gets a stack of index cards or post-its and a pen. Put a short amount of time on the clock—just a few minutes.
2. Start the clock.
Everyone starts writing as many ideas as they can down on as many cards as possible. There’s no need to provide extra details, that can come later. What’s important is that brain-writing is guilt-free: there’s no need to justify a wild thought you might have had or tie yourself in knots trying to explain how it would work.
3. Collect your ideas.
Sure, not everything you scribble on a notecard will be a winner. That’s not the point. Because brain-writing is anonymous, it encourages fearless thinking. When you’re not afraid of everyone instantly judging your idea the second it comes out of your mouth, you’re more open to the unique or the unconventional. Everyone in the room will chew over it later, but right now, you’re just filling out a suggestion card.
4. Open it up for discussion.
Go through the cards and present each idea to the group. If necessary you can collate them into various categories as you go along. Encourage voting on the best ideas at the end, and shout out praise for anything interesting as you go along. The more positive reinforcement, the better, even if you aren’t putting a name to every idea.
Why it works
It’s easy to run, and usually, it’s that much more efficient. Even with a tightly-knit team, any brainstorming session requires someone to be up at the whiteboard jotting down everyone’s ideas, corralling competing voices, and working through things one by one. With brain-writing, that busy-work is all taken care of: it’s much more collaborative. Pulling card after card out of the stack focuses everyone on each idea being presented, one at a time. Team members won’t be preoccupied with coming up with their own thoughts, since that part of the process is already over. It’s efficient, it’s diplomatic, and it can even be genuinely suspenseful and fun.
One special method of brain-writing is even more collaborative and focused. Instead of collecting everyone’s cards, you pass them around the group. Write down an idea, pass it to the right, and then your neighbor can embellish on it or add helpful notes. This is a form of brain-writing that requires even less talking out loud, but can generate more elaborate ideas.
Can’t gather everyone for one big meeting? Then space the same concept out over more time. Put a call for suggestions up on the board, leave a pile of index cards, and have people write their ideas in whenever they can. It’s a “suggestion box” approach that’s less intensive, but still anonymous, so that people aren’t afraid to propose something unusual.
A formalized approach that was invented by German professor of marketing Bernd Rohrbach in 1968, this is the most efficient way to get the highest quantity of ideas down. Here’s the method: Get your team together, ideally 6 people. Each person is going to generate 3 ideas per round. They’re going to have 5 minutes to do it in. Rather than note cards, give every person a form divided into 18 boxes, with three boxes per row. Start the timer. Everyone has five minutes to write down three ideas, one in each box in the first row. When time’s up, pass the form along, and everyone then writes three more ideas underneath the three they’ve just been handed. Repeat this until every box is full. In just 30 minutes, you’ve generated 108 ideas! There’s no better way to get people thinking freely. As the saying goes, there are no bad ideas—and brain-writing is the best way to turn that into maxim into action. Next time you’re thinking of leading a brainstorming session, break out the notecards instead.
Try it out!
To help you with get started with brain-writing, we’ve put together a free, downloadable template. Print it out, hand it out to your team and watch the ideas start to flow.