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Studies show it produces fewer good ideas than when people think on their own. What could be the reason? Our research found that oftentimes during brainstorm sessions, not everyone’s voice is heard over the dominating individuals who speak up the most. Thankfully, there’s a better way to work in groups and inspire your team. Most are starting to call it, “brainwriting.”
If you work in an office, your boss has probably forced you into a brainstorming session or two (or 12). Brainstorming, after all, is supposedly a killer way to come up with ideas, and businesses want to take advantage of all that collective creativity. But it turns out that brainstorming is actually a terrible technique—in fact, people generate fewer good ideas when they brainstorm together than when they work alone. Thankfully, there’s a better way: a technique called brainwriting (think brainstorming, but with a pen and paper and less chitchat). And in a new study, researchers tested out variations of this method to understand exactly how to help people come up with their best ideas.
Does brainstorming really work? Why not?
The old brainstorming method infiltrated the American workplace over half a century ago, after an advertising executive named Alex F. Osborn coined the method in the 1940s. As companies all over the country adopted the method, psychologists started to wonder: Does brainstorming actually work? Many scientific studies later, they had their answer: a resounding no. Study after study found that people who use this group technique produce fewer good ideas than those who ideate alone.
A Smart Alternative To Brainstorming
Once scientists realized brainstorming didn’t work, they started looking at other methods of idea generation—ones that took better advantage of group collaboration. As Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explains, “It’s not that people working together are never good, it’s just that the technique that Osborn developed was lousy.”
The Evidence For Brainwriting
While many researchers have already studied brainwriting, none has studied it in an actual workplace. So in a recent study, published in Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Paul Paulus and his team tested the brainwriting technique in a real-world office—they worked with employees at a tech company that’s rated among the top 20 businesses in the world. But Paulus wasn’t only interested in whether brainwriting worked or not—he also wanted to know if there’s a certain way of doing brainwriting to maximize the number of good ideas people think up. So the researchers organized 57 employees—mostly engineers and computer scientists—into different groups. In one trial, they had some participants brainwrite in groups and then brainstorm alone, while the other participants first worked alone, then did brainwriting in groups. Using the initial session, Paulus could test whether people came up with more ideas while brainwriting or working in isolation. And by combining two ideation sessions, he could study what’s the best way to do brainwriting: working in a group first and then alone, or vice versa.
Since the sample size was so small, many of the findings weren’t statistically significant (except for the asynchronous brainwriting trial). But according to Paulus and other scientists, this is typical for studies in real-world workplace environments because it’s difficult to recruit enough participants compared to a lab experiment. Paulus’s study is still an important contribution, especially since other researchers have already found that brainwriting is an effective method. “The important thing is that this was a real company with real people, working on real ideas, and we got many more ideas of out them,” says Paulus. “So practically, it was significant.” Leigh Thompson, a professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University, agrees (she was not involved in the study). “They’ve given us more confidence than what has been found in the lab can be meaningfully applied in the real business world,” she says.
Read about an opposite view on this article here.