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.
Why Brainstorming Doesn't Work
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.
This is surprising, since researchers have also seen that group interaction helps people build on each other’s thoughts and stimulate new ideas they hadn’t considered before. But group brainstorming has many downsides—chief among them is that only a single person can talk at a time, which means that one or two people can dominate the conversation. It also means that while someone is sharing his idea, others might forget their own ideas or the group may become fixated on the ideas people already shared. "Brainstorming is a complex process where people are trying to listen, think, add, collaborate, build," says Paul Paulus, a professor psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington. "It’s cumbersome, it’s difficult psychologically, and people don’t do it very well." The end result is that brainstorming does the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to do.
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."
Over the past 20 years, researchers have discovered a collection of group techniques that they’ve found are more effective than both brainstorming and working alone. One of the best ones they’ve devised is brainwriting—it’s a kind of like brainstorming, except that group members write their ideas on pieces of paper instead of sharing out loud. People then pass those sheets of paper around the group and read each other’s ideas while they continue to write down their own ideas. This method allows the kind of group interaction that’s constructive (i.e., sharing ideas and building on them), while avoiding the pitfalls of face-to-face brainstorming.
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.
Ultimately, the researchers found that if you only had two options—to work in a brainwriting group or work alone—you’re better off in a group. The brainwriters came up with 37% more ideas than the loners. The team also discovered that if people did brainwriting in groups and then brainstormed on their own, they produced more good ideas than when they did the reverse scenario (i.e., working alone, then group brainwriting). "We’ve found that what happens is once you’ve been in a group for a while, interacting and sharing ideas, and then you’re alone, there’s a big jump in your creativity," Paulus says. "That’s often when the greatest ideas come." He notes that the solitary reflection time should happen quickly after a group session. "If you take too much time, you tend to lose all that stimulation—all that brain activity dissipates," he says.
In a second experiment, with the same 57 employees, Paulus and his team tried out asynchronous brainwriting—that is, switching multiple times between group brainwriting and working alone. For the control group, they had some participants do normal group brainwriting without alternating. The other participants rotated between 8-minute individual writing sessions and 3-minute group sessions, where group members read over each other’s ideas. The researchers found that the asynchronous method worked much better—people who alternated techniques thought of .50 ideas a minute versus .29 ideas a minute in group-only brainwriting. Paulus says that it makes sense why switching between group interaction and working alone might work best. "Alone, you never get other people’s ideas. And if you’re in a group all the time, you may spend more time thinking about other people’s ideas than your own," he says. So you get the best of both worlds if you combine the two.
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.
It’s yet more evidence that you and everyone else in your office needs to stop brainstorming and start brainwriting. Or as Paulus explains it, "Just because you throw people together doesn’t mean wonderful things happen. It has to happen in the right way."