Richard Feynman, while working at Los Alamos on the first atomic bomb, noted that only one problem was fed into the computer at a time. Instead of thinking of more efficient ways of solving one problem at a time, he thought of ways of processing multiple problems in parallel, spontaneous sequences. He invented a system for sending three problems through the machine simultaneously. He had his team work with colored cards with a different color for each problem. The cards circled the table in a multicolored sequence, small batches occasionally having to pass other batches like impatient golfers playing through. This simple innovation dramatically increased idea production and accelerated the work on the bomb.
BRAINWRITING. In traditional brainstorming groups, people suggest ideas one at a time. This is serial processing of information: i.e., only one idea is offered at a time in a series. Horst Geschka at the Batelle Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, developed a variety of group creative-thinking techniques called Brainwriting which, like Feynman’s innovative problem-solving approach, are designed to process ideas in parallel, spontaneous sequences. If a brainwriting group has 10 members, up to 10 ideas will be generated for every one generated in a typical brainstorming session of 10 members. Brainwriting increases idea production dramatically.
The basic guidelines are:
1. First, discuss the problem to clarify it. Write the problem in a location visible to all group members.
2. Distribute 3X5 index cards to each participant and instruct them to silently write their ideas on the cards. One idea per card. Whereas group brainstorming involves participants shouting ideas out loud, has people silently writing down ideas.
3. As participants complete a card, they pass it silently to the person on the right.
4. Tell the group members to read the cards they are passed and to regard them as “stimulation” cards. Write down any new ideas inspired by the stimulation cards on blank cards and pass them to the person on their right. Within a few minutes, several idea cards will be rotating around the table.
5. After 20-30 minutes, collect all cards and have the group members tape them to a wall. The cards should be arranged into columns according to different categories of ideas, with a title card above each column. Eliminate the duplicates.
6. Evaluate the ideas by giving each participant a packet of self-sticking dots and have them place the dots on their preferred ideas. They can allocate the dots in any manner desired, placing them all on one idea, one each on five different ideas, or any other combination.
Only one person can offer an idea at a time during brainstorming, and despite encouragement to let loose, some people hold back out of inhibition or for fear of ridicule. Brainwriting ensures that the loudest voices don’t prevail, participants feel less pressure from managers and bosses, and ideas can’t be shot down as soon as they are offered.
Following are some popular variations of brainwriting:
IDEA POOL. Ask participants to silently generate ideas on 3X5 cards and place their cards in the center of the table instead of passing them to the person on their right. Whenever a participant wants or needs a stimulation card, they simply exchange their cards for cards from the pool.
GALLERY. This technique reverses the normal process. Instead of moving ideas around for people to examine, the gallery moves people around. Post sheets of flip-chart paper around the room, one per participant. Participants stand silently and write their ideas on the sheets (one sheet per person) for 10 to 15 minutes. Then the participants are allowed 15 minutes to walk around the “gallery” and look at the other ideas and take notes. Now, using the other ideas to stimulate further thought, participants return to their sheets and add to or refine their ideas. After about 10 minutes of additional writing, the participants examine all the ideas and select the best ones.
Another option for the gallery technique is to ask participants to draw or diagram their ideas instead of listing them. Drawing and diagraming is useful in creative thinking to recover information from memory that would otherwise be unavailable. For example, how many windows are there in your house? Diagraming your house allows you to go inspect and count the windows. Creative insights sometimes occur as a result of drawing or diagraming a problem, because they help us notice certain features that may be overlooked.
Post sheets of flip-chart paper and then ask the participants to draw a sketch or diagram of how the problem might be solved. Then the participants are again allowed to walk around the gallery and take notes. Using the notes, they return and refine their own sketches. The group then examines all the sketches and constructs a final solution from parts of different sketches.
WALL OF IDEAS. Each participant silently writes ideas on Post-It notes. While the group is writing ideas, the leader collects and pastes them on a wall. Then:
When the group is finished generating ideas, the leader reads aloud all the ideas to make sure everyone understands them. If written comments are necessary to clarify the idea, the leader writes it on the note in a different color.
The next step is to organize the ideas. Ask the group to come up to the wall and sort the ideas out in some meaningful way.
The leader labels each set of ideas with a topic card and pastes it over the idea set. Do this for each separate set of ideas. Some topics can be divided into sub-topics for further sorting of ideas.
Participants can elaborate on ideas or express concerns by writing their thoughts on additional Post-It notes and pasting them next to the idea or idea set.
Prioritize the ideas by giving each participant ten Avery self-sticking dots. The participants prioritize the ideas by placing a dot or dots on the ideas. They can place as many as they wish on an idea.
The final step is to capture the end result of the group into a document that is typed and distributed to each of the participants.
NOTEBOOKS. In art, there is a group of artists who call themselves futurists. They collaborate on a work with each artist working on it separately at different times and when the picture is finished cannot tell who painted what. The result is usually a remarkable product that reflects several different points of view combined into something different over time. Collaboration over time creates a different dimension and different understanding of a subject in art.
Similarly, a small group can collaborate over time in problem solving to create a deeper understanding and appreciation of the possibilities. The guidelines are:
Participants are each given a notebook containing problem information and instructions. Each participant writes at least three ideas per day in the notebook for one week.
The participants exchange the notebooks with each other every week. Participants can then use the ideas in the new notebooks to trigger, through association, new ideas.
The exchange of ideas should stop after four weeks, even if all notebooks haven’t made the rounds. The coordinator collects the notebooks, categorizes the ideas and prepares a summary. The participants gather in a group to discuss the ideas generated.
TWO-WEEK BRAINSTORMING. A variation of the notebook technique is to first brief the group about the problem or subject to be brainstormed and then to ask participants to work on the problem alone for a week and to record their ideas in a notebook. Then:
At the end of the week, there is a group session to which the individuals bring their notebooks. Each participant expresses his or her ideas verbally (approximately 10 minutes each). The rest of the group is encouraged to verbally discuss the ideas and to develop new ideas around them. Participants are encouraged to record relevant points and ideas in their notebooks. At the end of the group session, participants are then asked to spend another week to do further creative thinking. They can now consider the new concepts and ideas they heard from others or improve their own ideas in light of what they have learned from the group session.
At the end of the second week, the group meets again to harvest the ideas, which are then shared, prioritized and evaluated.