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Team Creativity at Work

Brainwriting Techniques

Brainwriting approaches that yield exciting ideas.

By Edward Glassman, PhD | Updated July 17, 2018

During brainstorming, many people hold back because ideas lack anonymity. By 1970, research had shown that people who sit privately writing their own ideas generated more ideas as a group than a comparable team using brainstorming. An explosion of new brainwriting techniques followed.

Basically, people write their own ideas anonymously. Because no one knows the originator of the ideas, status differences do not matter, and people don't hold ideas back as much as during brainstorming. The ideas, while numerous, often lack breadth. However, one can obtain multiple benefits by using both brainstorming and brainwriting techniques in sequence.

A True Story:

One of the participants in a workshop told me during a break that even after I requested non-evaluation and freewheeling idea generation, she still evaluated and held back ideas. She did this even during a brainwriting session where no one would see or judge her ideas. An internal gauntlet.

Here are some Brainwriting approaches that yield exciting ideas. They can be used by people in groups or working alone.

Idea Gallery Brainwriting

Write six to ten problem statements at the top of flip chart papers, one problem statement per sheet. Attach the flip chart papers to the wall for idea gallery.

People walk around and write ideas and solutions directly on the papers on the wall. The ideas that accumulate on the paper frequently trigger ideas in other people as they wander around.

Try this variation: Hang a paper with a problem statement written at the top outside your office door at work and invite people to write their ideas. Some useful ideas will appear.

Idea Card Brainwriting

Sit quietly for about 30 to 40 minutes, and write one idea per card on 5 x 8" colored index cards with a dark marker so you can read it pinned to the wall. Do not evaluate your ideas. Use the non-evaluative listing and automatic writing principles. Write an absurd, bizarre, exotic idea to trigger other ideas. Exchange cards with other people, relax, and allow someone else's idea to spark new ideas. Record the first idea that comes to mind when looking at each of their cards.

An interesting variation: everyone writes an absurd, bizarre, exotic idea on an index card. Pass the idea card to the person on your right. Write down the first idea that comes to your mind as you read the idea on the card you received. Use that idea as a trigger-idea to spark a better idea.

Another variation: Idea card can help produce an outline for a report or talk. Non-evaluatively list the ideas you would like to include on 3 x 5" index cards, one idea per card. Sort your cards in the order you want them to appear in your report or talk. Now prepare your report or talk.

A True Story:

I led a four-day problem-solving creative thinking meeting for managers, supervisors, and key professionals from five plant sites of a large Fortune-500 Company to help solve some problems associated with "world class manufacturing." By the end of the meeting, they made committed action plans for five major new approaches and a number of smaller ones. They considered this an outstanding accomplishment.

The following week, a small team made up of people from three plants met to consider the hundreds of ideas that they had overlooked. The process consisted mainly of sorting ideas written on index cards and using these ideas as trigger-ideas to spark better ideas. The process worked. What they scheduled as a two-hour meeting lasted until 3 a.m. They identified many new paradigm shifts and developed ten major new proposals.

Idea sorting looking for trigger-ideas after idea card makes a powerful procedure.

Clustering Brainwriting

Write a nucleus-word representing your problem in the center of a piece of paper or a flip chart so all can see. Draw a circle around it. Write rapidly whatever comes to mind in a cluster of words or short phrases around the core nucleus-word. Draw a circle around each word or thought as you write it, and link it to the previous circle. This forms a series of words inside linked circles to form a flow chart of ideas.

Do not think about what you write. Do free intuitive writing. Don't seek connectedness; you want randomness in the early stages. Go off on wild tangents. Shift paradigms. Look for different mind funnels. Seek the bizarre. Stay non-evaluative.

Cluster phrases and words in linked circles around interesting thoughts. Write clusters of words and phrases in linked circles as long as ideas flow freely. When you run out of ideas, stop a while before you add new words or thoughts.

Study the cluster of words and phrases in the linked circles you created. Non-evaluatively list ideas you might want to try. Draw lines between word clusters to form new, synergistic approaches to the problem. Show the clusters of words to someone else to trigger new ideas.

Set a quota for a minimum number of ideas. Settling for less than five new ideas accepts the obvious, the quick fix.

To force combinations between unrelated concepts, use two or more word-nuclei at opposite corners of the same page. This will force a combination or create a usable metaphor between these concepts as you fill the page.

Brainwriting Circles

A useful variation of clustering.

Write a word or phrase that captures the spirit of the problem in a small circle in the center of a blank sheet of paper on a writing pad or on an easel. Write an entire problem statement if you wish.

Write words close to the circle that you associate with the concept within the circle. Use non-evaluative listing and automatic writing principles in a process of progressive free association.

When no more room exists next to the circle, move outward a bit and start writing a new circular layer of words. Continue filling the page with concentric circular layers of words triggered by free association with the original word or phrase, or with any of the words and phrases that you write on the paper.

Stay creative throughout. Use linear and nonlinear creative thinking. Do not evaluate. Go off on tangents. The words you write do not have to connect or make sense.

After you fill the paper, make connections and remote associations by circling and drawing lines between words or phrases that define patterns of new paradigms and ideas that seem useful in themselves or as triggers to new ideas. Use different colored pencils or pens. Make creative associations.

Stay patient. Allow this process to work. It sometimes seems fragile to me, shattering into a useless jumble unless I carefully nurture it by not forcing the words and phrases to make sense too soon. Stay with it. This procedure can help your creative thinking in marvelous ways.

Next: Building Teams to Help Creativity at Work

©2011 Edward Glassman. All rights reserved.

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Edward GlassmanEdward Glassman, PhD was the President of the Creativity College®, a division of Leadership Consulting Services, Inc., and Professor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he headed the Program For Team Effectiveness And Creativity ...

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