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Using Brainwriting to Solve Project Management Problems

written by: Tara Duggan • edited by: Linda Richter • updated: 7/31/2011

The brainwriting technique, like the brainstorming strategy, allows project teams to troubleshoot project problems by thinking creatively. This technique is typically used with a group of people who dislike noisy large group workshops but still want to collaborate.

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    Problem Solving

    Brainstorming Horst Geschka of the Batelle Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, developed a set of creative-thinking techniques for groups known as brainwriting. Problem-solving sessions typically begin with a facilitator identifying, analyzing and clarifying the problem. After generating multiple ideas, the group screens and evaluates the responses to identify the ones worth pursuing further. Once alternative solutions are investigated, the team makes a decision about implementing the solution and makes plans to use the idea in resolving the problem. Using the brainwriting technique, problem solving is conducted on paper. Brainwriting pros and cons depend on the number of problems facing the project and the overall team dynamics.

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    Setting Up a Session

    To set up a brainwriting session, hand out sheets of paper with a problem definition at the top of the page and space for suggestions. Each person fills out a problem and passes the sheet to another person, who writes down ideas for solving it before passing it to the next person. This innovative problem-solving approach helps groups solve complex problems efficiently by allowing them to work on multiple problems at the same time. In a typical brainstorming session, the group debates a single topic. Ideally, only one person speaks at a time. In a typical brainwriting session, participants work on several problems. For example, if a brainwriting group consists of five members, at least five suggestions get generated for each of five problems. That's 25 ideas! You can see how brainwriting helps trigger numerous creative ideas.

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    Virtual Sessions

    Brainwriting works for workers in different locations as well. Virtual teams can use collaborative software tools, such as Google Docs Spreadsheets or Microsoft Sharepoint 2010 and Office Web Apps, to enter data simultaneously into an open spreadsheet. The project manager assigns each participant a row to enter solutions for problems entered in the top row’s column cells. Additionally, creative project managers use free online survey software to allow people to submit ideas for solving problems, see others’ responses and add their own problems needing resolution advice.

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    Solving a Single Problem

    You don't have to work on multiple problems using the brainwriting technique. To set up a session to solve a single problem, discuss the problem with the group and then distribute paper or 3 x 5 index cards to all participants. Instruct your team members to write a suggestion for a way to solve the problem. When a person completes a card, he sends it to the next person. That person adds an additional idea, if he has one. If he doesn’t have an idea, he passes it on. After an hour, the group facilitator takes the cards and displays them on the conference room wall. The first step is to eliminate the duplicates. Use markers to rate the ideas. Three stars indicates an excellent idea. Two stars indicates a good idea. One star indicates a poor idea. By the end of the session, you should have generated a few ideas that have merit.

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    Working with Large Groups

    If time is short, conducting brainwriting sessions with a large group is more efficient than facilitating a brainstorming session. This can be particularly true if participants exhibit a great deal of passion regarding the topic and have a lot to say. Keeping a large group focused on a particular problem can be difficult in a brainstorming session. People tend to get off track and the facilitator has to remind participants to adhere to the rules of conduct. Brainwriting, on the other hand, requires fewer rules and therefore requires less time to explain and get started. Additionally, in culturally diverse groups or groups with strong leaders and submissive subordinates, brainwriting works well because participants don’t fear exposure for their less well developed ideas. Everyone has an equal opportunity to convey their opinions in an anonymous way.

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    As compared with traditional brainstorming strategies, brainwriting offers a more structured alternative. Generating ideas on paper does not give an advantage to the person with the loudest voice. Participants don’t feel as shy about contributing ideas in a quiet atmosphere. Additionally, working on multiple ideas at once allows energetic participants to create several solutions in parallel. Ideas from one participant trigger related ideas from the next participant. This approach is most useful when everyone has different problems to solve. Large groups use the brainwriting technique to generate ideas for marketing, advertising, design, writing and product development teams. It lets people who don't speak the same language work together more effectively. Using the brainwriting technique minimizes the possibility of everyone agreeing with the most vocal participant.


    Brainwriting requires index cards or paper and pencils. This may require planning and prevent informal sessions. Using the brainwriting strategy takes time to write down ideas. People with poor spelling or bad grammar skills may be intimidated by more prolific authors. Because the responses can be anonymous, there’s no accountability. Participants may feel free to behave badly if not reminded to respond with respect, integrity and sincerity. Because ideas are generated in silence, enthusiasm and energy levels may be low. Participants may not be motivated to contribute ideas without fully understanding the problem. Typically, there is no chance to have an open dialog with the rest of the team members, as is done in traditional brainstorming sessions.

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    References and Image Credits

    Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons - Agripolare

    "CreatingMinds - tools, techniques, methods, quotes and quotations on all matters creative." CreatingMinds - tools, techniques, methods, quotes and quotations on all matters creative. (accessed July 29, 2011).