Updated Jan 26, 2024 - Business

Forget brainstorming. Try brainwriting.

Illustration of a pencil and pencil shavings in the shape of a brain

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Brainstorming sessions might be a bad idea.

Why it matters: Idea generation and discussion are essential elements of the workplace — whether remote or in person.

The intrigue: The age-old tradition of gathering in a room and spitballing ideas has been flagged for years by psychologists as a fundamentally flawed process.

  • The good news: Research suggests there's a better way, notes Eean Crawford, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business.

The big picture: It's called "brainwriting."

  • "Instead of sitting in a group and shouting out ideas," you write them down individually — and then discuss them as a group," Crawford says.

Zoom in: The basic idea behind the method has been around for more than 50 years, widely attributed to a German marketing professional named Bernd Rohrbach in 1968.

  • In 1991, researchers at Syracuse University and the Naval Training Systems Center put it to the test, comparing the output of brain storming and writing sessions.
  • "They found that the brainwriting group would generate 20% more ideas that are on average 20% better," Crawford says.

Of note: The concept gained steam in 2023 when writer and Wharton professor Adam Grant highlighted brainwriting as a better alternative to the verbal variety.

What they're saying: "In brainstorming meetings, it's too easy for participation to become lopsided in favor of the biggest egos, the loudest voices, and the most powerful people," Grant wrote for Time in October.

  • "The brainwriting process makes sure that all ideas are brought to the table and all voices are brought into the conversation. The goal isn't to be the smartest person in the room—it's to make the room smarter."

From a practical perspective, our brains aren't well suited for brainstorming sessions, according to Crawford.

  • "You're trying to get them to generate ideas, to listen to other people's ideas and to evaluate those ideas all at once," he says. "And that's just too much. Our brains will do better if you can separate those into their own focused phases."

The big question: Does brainwriting jive with remote work?

  • Crawford notes that there are digital tools, such as UseCandor.com, to facilitate the process.
  • "What's more important is the structure rather than the location," he says.

The bottom line: "There are people who speak first and think while they speak," Crawford says. "There are others who will form complete thoughts in their mind before expressing them. Those tend to be the people who get less microphone time."


Want more stories like this? Sign up for Axios Communicators

Go deeper