Solving Brainstorming's Loudmouth Problem

The most dominant person in a group likely won't have the best ideas. So how can you get everyone to be creative?

One problem with people is that they're loud.

As Leigh Thompson notes in Fortune, in your standard four-person group, two people will do 62% of the talking, while in a six-person group, three people will do 70% of the talking.

This "uneven communication problem," the Kellogg professor and Creative Conspiracy author observes, springs from a particularly extroversive form of unmindfulness.

The dominant people think the meetings are egalitarian. They lack self-awareness. And this portends a negative spiral, she notes:

The dominant people begin to feel that the silent people are unprepared or simply don't have any opinions, so they dominate more; similarly, the quiet folks feel that it is futile to try to be heard, so they stop trying.

As we've learned before, the loudest person isn't the one with the best ideas. What we need then, Thompson says, is to skillfully neutralize the too-dominant people and encourage the too-submissive people.

Enter: brainwriting

You already know brainstorming, which has (appropriately) caught some heat. Brainstorming's function is to generate buckets of ideas, but as Thompson's research suggests, the aperture of that idea creation gets contracted by overly dominant and submissive personalities.

The key, then, is to circumvent that ever-befuddling interplay between introverts and extroverts. One way to do that is with the written word. Thompson calls it brainwriting—"the simultaneous written generation of ideas."

Over at Inc., the Build team breaks the process into three steps:

1) Just one sentence

At the beginning of the session, everybody has a stack of small index cards in front of them. Set a timer. Then each person writes one idea or solution on each card—beware the paragraph.

2) Focus on the idea, not the author

Then, after said timer goes off, gather the cards anonymously. Then stick them to a wall or a whiteboard—free of any guessing at or confessing of authorship.

"A shy person, a new person, a young person, they don't have to worry that they're going to get interrupted," Thompson told HBR. "When I do brain writing, I have two rules, no guessing and no confessions. So I don't want anybody to sign their name on a card. That's the no confessions. And when we tap the cards on the wall or thumb tack them on the wall, I don't want anyone guessing who said what."

3) Make a blind vote

Then, finally, you can vote for whatever idea (on whatever tiny index card) by marking it with a sticker. Everybody gets the same limited number of stickers, allowing the best ideas to rise to the top.

"It should really be a meritocracy of ideas," Thompson says. "In other words, I shouldn't be voting for the CMO's idea; I should be voting for an idea that I really think is going to be exciting for our company or organization."

In this way, the uneven communication problem gets evened out. The spiral—having been written out, stuck on a wall, and stickered—goes upward.

Hat tip: Fortune

[Image: Flickr user DucDigital]

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  • Bill Youngdahl

    The most important point is that you allow for brainwriting first. That said, being able to recognize handwriting is a potential problem. Consider using Teamput (, a cloud-based sticky-note app that integrates brainwriting, voting, and collaboration. You can toggle names on/off so nobody will be able to identify the person attached to an idea when voting.

  • Stitched

    Except that the ideas written on a card can be identifiable by handwriting (or lack thereof). Better to transfer it to a digital slide or other uniform, homogeneous format before voting on it's merit.

  • goldman

    More important than having ones handwriting being known is that going directly to a vote (or 'mult-ivote') misses an important step and that is 'sharing intelligence.' What I mean here is that having two intermediary steps between idea generation and voting may serve better decision-making. Here me out. First, helping the group to determine 3 - 5 criteria (i.e. supports our strategic goal, will significantly impact all stakeholders positively, etc.) as to what might make a choice better than another may help to focus the group towards a better choice. Second, having a robust discussion as a large group (going round-robin) to discuss which choices meet the criteria the best has the chance of clarifying what people wrote as well as raise the intelligence level of those who have limited understanding of the choices and their impact. Following this, having the vote as Drake pointed out would be the final step. Food for thought for enhancing ultimate buy-in.