UI professor suggests ‘brainwriting’ is much more effective than brainstorming

IOWA CITY — Brainstorming sessions are used in all levels of the corporate world, but a University of Iowa professor of management and entrepreneurship suggests those sessions don’t work, and he has a better idea.

Professor Eean Crawford, in the UI’s Tippie College of Business, says brainstorming with a group often isn’t productive because it forces our brains to do at least four things at once, and that overloads us.

“One, you’re trying to come up with ideas, so you’re trying to think about them,” Crawford says. “Two, you are trying to listen to other people’s ideas. Three, while you’re doing that, you’re trying to remember the ideas you came up with. And then four, simultaneously, you’re trying to evaluate the ideas that people are suggesting.”

Brainstorming sessions may simply lead to meetings that go nowhere or, even worse, bad decisions. Instead, he suggests “brainwriting” sessions that start with a simple problem statement.

“Each of you individually sit down and write as many ideas as you can, quietly,” Crawford says. “Then having written them, you don’t have to remember them anymore, so you’ve relieved your brain from doing that. Then, you gather together and share those ideas. You just take turns going round robin around the group, and each person just reads off their ideas, and at this point, no one evaluates them, you’re just listening.”

After all the ideas are vocalized, everyone can discuss the pros and cons and pursue a solution with a fresher perspective. Crawford says it’s a more effective way to get the creative juices flowing.

“I was just this past weekend at a mini-conference and we had brain writing sessions, and it was awesome!” he says. “One of them started with not after the problem statement coming up with your best ideas, the facilitator suggested for the next five minutes, I want you to come up with as many bad ideas as you can, like generate the worst possible ideas to solve this problem. And in the 30 minutes that followed, when we shared those ideas, it was hilarious.”

By injecting humor and laughter, the positivity was evident, he says, and that led to another session of writing out -good- ideas, during which there were more ideas and of higher quality. While it may sound like a no-brainer, Crawford notes common sense isn’t often put into common practice.

“I don’t know why brainstorming persists in most organizations, other than it’s kind of the default,” Crawford says. “People don’t put a lot of thought into structuring a session where you need to generate ideas. They just kind of get in a room and say, ‘Okay, what ideas do you have?’”

The idea of brainwriting isn’t new, Crawford says, as it was first suggested in print in the late 1960s. He says studies find, brainwriting sessions can increase productivity and idea quality by 20-percent over traditional brainstorming.