A brilliant brainstorming technique

When it comes to brainstorming, especially with large teams,  one of the challenges is getting the loudmouths to shut up and the quieter members to speak up. Easier said than done. It gets harder still when a team is comprised of numerous disciplines or if the organization’s muscle memory defaults to a standard approach to problem solving, i.e. ad agencies think of ads, digital agencies forget about propagation, brands focus on products instead of social content.

But one effective brainstorming approach is the “shut up and write technique.”  Here’s how it works. Get everyone together — art, copy, strategy, mobile, tech, UX, media, social. Brief them on what you’re trying to do, the problem you’re hoping to solve, and the questions you need answered. (See this post on “How might we?”) Then don’t let anyone talk. Make everyone shut up for 10 full minutes and write down ideas.  If they can’t think of ideas have them write down questions or obstacles.  You’ll be surprised what you get back.  Instead of one or two or three of the “typical” ideas your teams usually generate, you’ll find suggestions that come from a wide range of perspectives.

Here’s why it works.

The most assertive voices are neutralized

We all know that the loudest ideas aren’t always the best. It’s true also that ideas from the most senior people aren’t necessarily better than those from a rookie.  By shutting everyone up the conversation doesn’t start with the boss or someone of rank saying, “Here’s what I think.”

No one has to compete for the floor

With large groups it’s common for people to think about getting their chance or planning when to chime in. That makes it harder to listen for anyone anxious to talk and it intimidates those who aren’t good at grabbing an opening.  With this approach folks know that their ideas will get heard, as everyone gets a turn.

People won’t be influenced by earlier comments

“Yes but,” or “How about if you did it this way instead?” can advance the conversation but it can also put all the emphasis on one or two ideas.  When everyone has a few minutes to think and focus there’s a tendency to come at it from one’s own perspective.  You get a wider range of undeveloped ideas rather than a conversation that builds on one or two.

Everyone feels important and equal

The “shut up and write technique” sends a message to everyone in the room that: a. they need to generate ideas and b. their ideas matter to the project. It’s a tactic that both demands and encourages participation.

It focuses people on their area of expertise

This might be the best reason of all. Getting people to write down what they think will work generally gets participants to draw on their their area of expertise. Developers don’t come up with ad ideas, they come up with programs, or platforms, or technological solutions. In an organization that defaults to one kind of solution, this can be quite refreshing.

We did this today on a new business project.  Two things happened.  We got lots of unexpected ideas that a traditional creative team would never have generated. And we got a ton of positive feedback from all who were invited to join.  Both good outcomes.  Got any other brainstorming techniques you want to share?

Oh, and a huge thanks to Tim Leake, who introduced me to this technique. Thanks, Tim.

Cartoon by Dave Walker

13 comments
tim_leake
tim_leake

Thanks for the thanks, Edward. For those who might be interested, I wrote a sequel to this which explores another (equally powerful) way to utilize the "Shut up & write" technique, beyond brainstorming. http://ow.ly/4I0QL

davidrosscr8s
davidrosscr8s

"pencils down." solid technique. we post and bucket 'em after so all can read and build on them. whole thing helps level the field immediately.

ibizenberg
ibizenberg

Hi, great post. I hope you don't mind my adding my two cents :-) There's a next step to this: after everyone's written for 5 - 10 minutes, have them pass their notecard (or whatever you had them write on) to the person on their right. Then, have that person read the card and build on the idea(s) written there. Again, pass to the right. Go around 2 - 4 times and then see what you've got.

I also recommend that people write one idea per notecard during their 5 - 10 minutes so that it's easier for the next person to build on. Thanks for the post!

Steve_Curran
Steve_Curran

Great post Edward. A lot of good stuff can get lost in the noise of a verbal brainstorm. We work on a lot of games, and you can imagine how a one liner tossed off in brainstorm can not always convey the full idea that somebody has when you are trying to describe something as complex as gameplay. As a result, we follow a variation of what you describe here, where each is asked to flesh out a number of ideas as paragraphs first. A helpful next step after narrowing it down, is to swap the ideas around, each person is fleshing out details on somebody else's idea. It gets people thinking beyond ownership, and instead of focusing effort on thinking why somebody else's idea won't work, they apply thinking to how it can.

Chris Wooster
Chris Wooster

This is excellent stuff, EB. I'm also a fan of the "bring 3 ideas to the brainstorm," no matter how incomplete (love the "first thought post-it" approach. It helps avoid the first 15 minutes being bogged down reviewing the brief, questioning the strategy, and generally getting mired in murk. BANG, right off you're talking ideas and starting to riff.

Tom_Matte
Tom_Matte

This sounds like a great idea. I am usually the one who starts the conversations. It will be nice to test a process that will mix things up a bit. We can try this in our next brainstorm session on Monday. I will stop back here later next week and leave an update. The AE's and Creatives are always asking the developers to jump into the conversation with some ideas or thoughts. They are usually met with cold silence. If they have any ideas they get emailed to me or the CD privately after the meeting. Sometimes days after. They are obviously not comfortable in this setting. I am very curious to see how this turns out. I am also looking forward to the next brainstorming session. Thanks for the suggestion.

WayneNH
WayneNH

We've been teaching this process for about 10 years in Destination ImagiNation (@IDODI) for student creative problem-solving teams. While the teams are made up to seven students, it does level the playing field for the reasons you addressed so well in your post. The next steps we offer as options is to group the ideas, and then - still keeping it quiet - allow people to place three stars on the ideas they like best. While in business, the majority may not win, it does show both the sentiment and what the team believes it possible. For student teams who can get no help in solving complex challenges, it serves the same purpose. The student teams then frequently discuss the remaining solutions.Best regards,

Wayne

PS: It's more fun when we teach the adults.

stevegravity
stevegravity

5-7 does seem like it might be better, and thanks .. it's hard to get people to communicate what they really believe and think will work, they're either afraid to look silly or somehow give the wrong answer. Fear is a killer. So, I'll try to guide them away from giving the usual suspects answer and really write from their unique perspective. Thanks for the help!

servantofchaos
servantofchaos

Great approach. After sending an initial high level brief in prep for the brainstorming, I ask people to write their "first thoughts" on a post-it note. Then they bring that along and we are able to cluster the ideas together.This adds a new dimension to the process. Must give it a go!

stevegravity
stevegravity

Thank you for the advice. I've struggled with this problem in several different situations with client teams and within our agency. Really, this was one of the most helpful blog posts I've read. Never thought of running a brainstorm session like this and I'm trying it tomorrow.

JeffShattuck
JeffShattuck

Love this, thanks for sharing.

My favorite has been Suns and Planets, but it can be undermined by those with VOLUME!

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@stevegravity Guarantee you'll get something good. People really liked it. 10 minutes might be a little long. Seven might be better. Also, try and get people to write what they believe, not what t they hope the CD or the organization is looking for.

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