Brainwriting – when a brainstorm is just too slow


Having worked on 20th Century Fox for the past 2 years I’ve run a huge amount of brainstorms. Last week I was set the challenge of running a 5 hour brainstorm in which I had to generate ideas for 5 different films (with 12 sub challenges). I just wanted to share some of the learnings from the session.

With 12 challenges in 5 hours, I had less than 25 mins for each question which was always going to be tough, so rather than run a standard “Stand at the front and write stuff down” session, I decided to use a brainwriting technique that I had adapted from one I read about online (see herefor details of the basic technique).

My Adaptation of the technique is focused on getting people to improve a build upon ideas in order to deliver workable detailed solutions rather than wooly fantasies. It is described in detail at the bottom for those who are interested – it is really quite simple – a bit like those games you played as a kid where a group of people had to write a story but you had to take it in turns to write a line.

I found that this approach was incredibly effective for the first half of the session. When it was working properly, we had 15 different people all creating or improving upon ideas all at the same time. Compared to a standard brainstorm when only one person can talk at any one time and only one person is writing, this was an incredibly efficient use of people’s time.

This technique also avoided any negative influences such as the dominant personalities that love the sound of their own voices or the recessive personalities who might have great ideas but don’t like to voice them. It also means that people don’t judge the ideas on issues of practicality, instead they are encourage to make the idea workable.

A Note of warning however, this technique worked really well when the group had compelling stimulus and some clear hooks on which to generate their ideas. For the later part of the session, we were all a bit stumped for ideas to solve the problem and so getting 15 people to work in isolation really didn’t help as people needed much more hand-holding. So make sure that you are comfortable that it is a rich source of ideas.

A Second watch out – Don’t try to answer 12 questions in 5 hours! We probably answered 6 effectively, 3 half heartedly and 3 not at all. A Shorter brainstorm with fewer challenges would have been a much more efficient use of people’s time.

The Technique

1) THE TASK Set out the key problem as defined with the client
2) EXPLODE THE TASK: Take one attribute of the problem and as a group “explode” it. So if the problem is “How do we make this feel like a premium experience” then to “explode” it you should ask a question like “How do other categories create premiumization within their portfolios” or ” what is it about the current experience that feels less than premium”. Basically you need to get the group to start to think laterally about the idea.

3) A FIRST APPROACH: Keeping the results of stage (2) on the wall/flipchart then you can start the Brainwriting stage. Hand out a piece of paper to each person. Then give them 1-2 minutes MAX to write down just ONE good idea to address the TASK.

4) The ANGLE: Once stage 3) is finished get them to pass the idea to the person to the right of them and allow them to read the idea they have received. Then go back to the results of stage (2) and pull out an example of a brand or a category that excels in solving the problem that you have. Spend a few minutes discussing how that brand/category works and then ask the question “How would X improve the idea that you have in front of you”. Then give the group another 2 minutes MAX to improve and build upon the idea that they now have in front of them. It is important that they do not try to create new ideas at this stage, but focus on making the idea in front of them better, whilst focusing on the angle that you have selected.

Repeat stage (4) upto 2 or 3 times each time passing the idea along and introducing a new angle.

5) Go round the table getting people to summarise the idea and developments. You will find that you have a surprisingly high number of well worked through and imaginative ideas. This is also the opportunity for the group to build on the ideas that they hear.

Finally – ensure you have some kind of filtering process in place to whittle down the ideas to the best ones. I’ll talk about this again in the future, but it is vital

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