Brainstorming is dead, long live brainwriting! 

If you’re a bit of an introvert like me, you’ve probably grudgingly taken part in some form of groupwork brainstorming-type session at some point, while thinking to yourself “I’d be better doing this alone”. And, well, you’d actually have been right to think that. A recent article based on research into brainstorming techniques states that:


The old brainstorming method infiltrated the American workplace over half a century ago, after an advertising executive named Alex F. Osborn coined the method in the 1940s. As companies all over the country adopted the method, psychologists started to wonder: Does brainstorming actually work? Many scientific studies later, they had their answer: a resounding no. Study after study found that people who use this group technique produce fewer good ideas than those who ideate alone”

So there you have it, throw that at your over-eager HR manager next time you and your colleagues are forced to ‘share’ ideas round a table like a group of toddlers at pre-school.

But wait a minute, I’m getting ahead of myself. Is thinking on your own really the best option, then? As it turns out, that’s also a resounding nope. Unsurprisingly researchers have found that a mixture of individual and group thinking produces far better results – so you don’t quite have that free pass to introvertsville yet. Specifically, researchers employed the use of group ‘brainwriting’ (already sounds better than brainstorming, right?) alongside individual thinking sessions to produce better results:

Ultimately, the researchers found that if you only had two options—to work in a brainwriting group or work alone—you’re better off in a group. The brainwriters came up with 37% more ideas than the loners. The team also discovered that if people did brainwriting in groups and then brainstormed on their own, they produced more good ideas than when they did the reverse scenario (i.e., working alone, then group brainwriting). “We’ve found that what happens is once you’ve been in a group for a while, interacting and sharing ideas, and then you’re alone, there’s a big jump in your creativity”

However, when there are only two options – brainwriting or individual thinking – the best option turns out to be the former, so us introverts aren’t quite off the hook yet. Nonetheless, as someone who can’t stand phonecalls (something I wish my PhD supervisor would realise) because it’s difficult to organise and articulate my thoughts when I’m also having to worry about the social and interactional aspects – the psychology – of working with others, brainwriting definitely sounds like an improvement. It also sounds like the library equivalent of group work, with fastidious silence and a focus on writing, not speaking. Writing is a great leveller when you remove all the personal factors like voice and physical appearance and just focus on the words and their meaning.

A final word about group work. What I liked about this research is that is forces both introverts and extrovert to question the assumptions of their behaviour and demonstrates that each of the different modes of thinking – brainwriting and individual thinking – have their merits, but that ultimately a combination of the two works best. Or put in other words, a compromise between introversion and extroversion is best for all.

I like this because it highlights the value that individual working can bring and the value of introverts being occasionally left to their own devices, but does so without totally trashing group work and the benefits it can clearly bring as well. I can only imagine that for some people used to brainstorming as a main method of producing ideas, the brainwriting approach might help them become more independent and therefore creative in their thinking, and that can never be a bad thing.

So next time you’re hassling your introverted friend to go to the club or your quiet colleague to take part in some dreaded group exercise, instead of feeling sorry for them, fill their heads with ideas then leave them to stew it over on their own – that’s apparently how you’ll get the best results out of us. Who knows, by forcing introverts to work with others permanently with no time for personal reflection, maybe we’re delaying the cure for cancer, or the answers to finding life on Mars. At the very least, you’re really, really annoying us, so take a leaf out of our book for a change.

The full article that inspired this post and details of the research I’ve referred to can be found over at fastcodedesign.com

I couldn’t find a source for the image I used at the start of this post. If it’s your image and you want it taken down, or would like it credited to you, then please get in touch.

Leave a Reply