100+ ideas in 30 Minutes: The Benefits of Brainwriting Thomas Saraceno & Allison Boyajian

Written on: May 18th, 2015 in strategy, user experience, web design

All problem solving requires the right tools. Fixing a leaky faucet? You'll need a plumber's wrench. Framing a house? You'll need a speed square, a hammer and some nails. Web Strategy is no different. Each project has its unique dynamics and challenges; the more tools we have to solve for these challenges the better the project fares.

Understanding and solving the objectives of a website requires extensive planning and group thinking. Traditionally, during the strategy phase of a project there are a number of collaborative exercises performed to prioritize goals, exchange ideas and ultimately arrive at an effective solution. Traditional brainstorming, however, doesn’t come without its costs.

The Trouble with Troubleshooting

Chances are you’ve been involved in a group brainstorm where sequential ideas are expressed verbally. This tried and true method has worked for ages, but countless studies have proven that traditional brainstorming may not be the most effective means for idea generation. Have you ever been in a meeting where participants cannot get past those first couple ideas? Leigh Thompson, a management professor at the Kellogg School, explains, “As sexy as brainstorming is...when one person is talking you're not thinking of your own ideas." Research show that early ideas tend to have a disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation. This concept, called anchoring, cultivates the least creative ideas; A dominant speaker brings up an initial idea that everyone else then branches off of, leaving a lot of valuable thinking underdeveloped.

So how do you get the team’s ideas out quickly, without bias and equal voices contributing to ideation?

The Benefits of Brainwriting

Brainwriting is a written process where participants write down their ideas simultaneously. A problem is clearly defined and introduced to the team to solve. Paper is handed out to each participating member in the room. Each write down their ideas. Its really pretty simple. There are some variants on the process.


The 6-3-5 method involves 6 users writing down 3 ideas on a piece of paper within 5 minutes. When three ideas are recorded (or the timer hits 5 minutes), participants pass their paper to the person next to them. The clock is restarted and 3 more ideas are written on the paper; some working off of the previous idea, others completely new. The exercise is complete when the original piece of paper makes it back to the owner. In 30 minutes you have collected 108 ideas!


brainwriting 3

(Pro tip: Using your iPhone as a timer works really well. Set up 5 minute intervals as the participants fill in their ideas and pass the papers around the table.)

Another variant of brainwriting is the idea card method, and can work with any sized group. Each person writes down an idea on an index card or Post-It note and then passes it to the person on their right. The person who receives the card can either use the idea for inspiration, modify the idea, or simply pass it on to the next person.

Why Brainwriting

Brainwriting offers a lot of benefits over traditional brainstorming. Thompson's studies have found that with traditional brainstorming, a few people do 60-75% of the talking. With brainwriting, everyone gets a chance. Further, Thompson found that brainwriting groups generated 20% more ideas and 42% more original ideas as compared to traditional brainstorming.

Brainwriting is a great solution when:

  • You want a lot of unbiased ideas fast
  • The troubleshooting session has limited time; brainwriting can take as little as ten minutes
  • The group is too large for brainstorming to be productive
  • The group is not yet acquainted or may not feel comfortable exchanging ideas
  • The group includes shy or intimidated individuals who may not feel comfortable sharing their ideas out loud
  • The group includes outspoken individuals who tend to dominate conversation

So next time you’re working on solving a problem, whether it be planning a website or planning your lunch, gather a group, grab a pencil and get creative; write first, talk second.

"The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas." - Linus Pauling


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