Creativity in meetings – a comparison of methods
The popular brainstorming
Probably you have already participated in a brainstorming session before. Few methods are so well established in everyday professional life as the brainstorming described by Axel F. Osborn in 1939. Osborn had observed that the productivity of groups in brainstorming is hampered by the early evaluation of ideas.¹ He therefore developed a method for drawing up a list of ideas, which will only be evaluated and used at a later stage. He saw group brainstorming as a complement to the ideas of individuals, not as a substitute. The basic idea of brainstorming is good. The approach uses chains of associations in which the participants develop ideas and work together to develop them further. But even if the participants adhere to the rules of brainstorming, which unfortunately often does not happen in practice, standard brainstorming is often counterproductive. A study by Taylor, Berry & Block² as early as 1958 suggested that individuals who used brainstorming alone collected more ideas than groups. Subsequent studies later repeatedly produced similar results. If you look at how brainstorming is done in most companies, it quickly becomes clear why it can’t work. Most of the time it’s like this: Someone is on the flipchart – often the boss. He asks the people involved to call him up with ideas. And what happens then?
- Not everything is written down. The person on the flipchart acts as a kind of filter. With many calls it happens that one or the other idea is not written down. Whether this happens consciously, because the idea does not fit the writer, or unconsciously, does not matter in the result.
- What the writer notes down is also filtered by him. He paraphrases, he writes down a voice as he understands it or wants to understand it.
- In brainstorming sessions, people who are otherwise more extroverted usually have their say. Introverts do not dare to speak in a larger group or deliberately hold back.
- The ability to concentrate varies. Some people cannot concentrate or only poorly concentrate when others intervene. As a result, participation is lower than it could be.
- The speed of thought triumphs. People who think and speak quickly are often preferred in brainstorming sessions. Or the other way around: People who may even have more profound ideas don’t get a chance because they develop ideas more slowly.
As a result, many good ideas are never written down on a flipchart. They thus remain in the minds of the employees annoyed by the many meetings. The good news is that there are alternatives like Brainwriting 635 and Braindumping that help to find good ideas.
The quiet brainwriting
The 6-3-5 method – often simply called brainwriting – is an improved version of brainstorming. In contrast to brainstorming, brainwriting is completely silent. Participants simply write or sketch their ideas on a piece of paper. This makes the method very efficient and fast. Over 100 ideas can easily be created in just a few minutes. The anonymity of the silent communication promotes very unusual ideas and offers rather modest participants the opportunity to contribute just like extroverted participants. In 1986 Bernd Rohrbach formulated the 6-3-5 method, in which six participants develop three ideas in five changes each. The process is very simple:
- The preparation and introduction. The participants sit at a table and are introduced to the task. Each participant receives a prepared A4 sheet with the task and six rows with three columns each, i.e. 18 fields. The participants do NOT write their names on the sheet, because ideas should be developed “anonymously”.
- The first round. Each participant enters his first three ideas in the top line of his sheet. It’s no big deal if he doesn’t have an idea in the first round, but he can’t write down more than three ideas in the first round.
- The five changes. After the first round and each subsequent round, the sheets are collected, shuffled for anonymity and redistributed. The participants add three more ideas each – either building on what is already on the piece of paper, or their own new ideas. In total, the sheets are passed on five times.
- The best ideas and the discussion. Up to 108 ideas (six rounds * 18 ideas) can be created in a complete run. Finally, the sheets are distributed again and each participant transfers the best two to five ideas to sticky notes, which can then be presented and discussed on a whiteboard.
As a result of anonymity and working with the written association chains, very creative ideas often emerge. In principle, the method is also suitable for groups of up to twelve participants, but it can also be carried out with fewer than six participants.
Our favourite: braindumping
We use braindumping in workshops and seminars as well as in our internal meetings, because braindumping combines the advantages of conventional brainstorming and brainwriting and is at the same time more dynamic than the 6-3-5 method. In braindumping, each participant writes down as many ideas as possible on sticky notes. By dumping ideas, participants can concentrate on their own thoughts and capture all ideas undisturbed. This is especially useful for the more introverted, reserved participants. The process is very simple:
- Each participant receives a pen and coloured sticky notes and writes down as many ideas as possible (one idea per sticky note) in a given time – usually two or three minutes.
- The participants then present their ideas to each other and attach the sticky notes to a flipchart or whiteboard. During the presentation, other ideas often emerge. These can also be written on sticky notes and supplemented.
Braindumping is the process by which many good ideas emerge, first through individual thinking, then through joint discussion. The method best suits our lively corporate culture and combines the advantages of brainstorming and brainwriting. The sticky notes have the advantage that the subsequent arrangement and bundling of ideas is very simple and quick.
The method is not decisive
The proper method alone is not crucial for an effective meeting. These methods all can help to foster creativity in meetings, but companies also need a culture that encourages creativity as such. For example, it is important that participants value each other across all levels of the hierarchy and that there is an open culture of error. It is inevitable to make mistakes when developing new products or services. If ideas are sanctioned in creative meetings that are crazy or at first sight meaningless, no one will soon dare to think out-of-the-box. Ideas build on each other and sometimes a bad idea is the basis for a really good one.
 „How to Think Up!“ from Alex Osborn, published by McGraw-Hill Book Company Inc., First Edition 1942, ASIN: B0007DR4EA
 Study of D. W. Taylor, P. C. Berry & C. H. Block, published 1958 im Administrative Science Quarterly, Ausgabe 6, Seiten 22-47
Christian Obad is an evangelist for innovation culture. As a consultant and coach, trainer and speaker at Lorenzo Consulting, he supports organisations in becoming innovative. He is convinced that a new innovation culture is important for the future in all areas of our society, as products, business models and work routines that worked yesterday are being questioned more and more quickly.