When silence is golden: The benefits of brainstorming without talking


Less talking, more writing on Post-It Notes. (Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg)

Let’s say your department or company has a problem and needs a creative solution. A common approach is to gather your best people in a room to brainstorm. Ideas are batted around, and, in theory, the best answer emerges.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Plenty of research has shown the limitations of brainstorming as members can only talk in turnGroups tend to generate fewer ideas than individuals.

Psychologist Tony McCaffrey has a solution to our troubled search for solutions.  He calls it brainswarming, which he has trademarked. His pilot research has found that brainswarming generates more than four times as many ideas as brainstorming.

A group starts with a large surface — perhaps a whiteboard — and puts a goal at the top of it. A few resources to address the problem are listed at the bottom. No talking is allowed. Participants communicate their ideas through Post-It Notes that are added to the work space.

While it may seem silly to not talk, the limits of conventional brainstorming make it clear we should be trying something different. There are several improvements with McCaffrey’s approach.

There’s a natural division of labor as people can focus on what they’re best at. A top-down thinker might work near the top of the chart, while others may work at the bottom on thinking of potential resources. This alleviates the inefficiency of traditional brainstorming, where the conversation is focused on a single topic.

With brainswarming, the ideas of introverts aren’t as likely to languish like in traditional conversations, where extroverts tend to grab the floor. All ideas stand on equal footing, a single Post-It Note placed on the board.

Worthy ideas brought up early in a meeting won’t be forgotten as a wealth of new ideas crowd the conversation later. These ideas will always be on the board, for everyone to notice and consider.

If you try this approach, let me know how it works for you. Here’s a video with more details:

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Matt McFarland | March 25