Traditional brainstorming involves bringing a group of people together to generate as many ideas as possible. Judgment of the ideas is suspended to encourage both their quantity and diversity. The ideas are later combined and improved. Unfortunately, this technique has a number of problems that diminish both the quantity and diversity of the ideas:
The Human Brain’s Limited Cognitive Capacity
It’s difficult to generate your own independent ideas while simultaneously listening to the ideas of others. By the time your turn comes up, your initial idea, if formed at all, is long forgotten and you merely build off another’s idea. The human short term working memory is limited and can’t juggle and process dozens of ideas. This means the group mostly works with the few ideas generated at the beginning of the session, which are often the most obvious and least innovative. The end result is fewer and less diverse ideas.
Although judgment is supposed to be suspended, the participants still fear the judgment of their peers and bosses. This fear isn’t completely unfounded because this requirement is unenforceable. There’s nothing to stop people from making silent judgments. It’s a simple reality that what people think of you affect their behavior and decisions regarding you. This social effect reduces idea diversity.
The Advantages of Brainwriting
Brainwriting circumvents the above two influences by requiring the participants to quietly write their ideas on their own separate sheets of paper. After a few minutes, each person passes their paper to the individual on their left (or right). Each participant then adds more ideas to the paper they received. Their ideas can either be independent, or influenced by what they see on their paper. This process is continued until the session is over. The ideas are then evaluated, improved, and consolidated by either the group or management.
Because people can anonymously generate ideas free from the distractions and social influences of traditional brainstorming, lots more innovative and creative ideas are produced. Brainwriting’s built-in inclusiveness allows everyone to contribute regardless of their position within the organization or their personality traits such as dominance or shyness.