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Solitary geniuses were actually entrepreneurial leaders of  art teams. Historian William E. Wallace discovered that thirteen people collaborated with Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel and around two hundred people assisted the master on the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy. Michelangelo was not only a great artist, he was a CEO of other talent that collaboratively made the art that bore his name. To realize his vision of a full-length animated feature film, Walt Disney assembled a great team of diverse talents to create the breakthrough animated feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was Disney’s ability to tolerate diversity by allowing his group to retain their individuality while combining their talents that created the cooperative synthesis that made his vision a reality.

Group brainstorming, if done in the right spirit, can generate a rich variety of different perspectives and ideas about any given subject. That’s because individuals are magically different and unique from each other and share few common associations. I have discovered the following technique is one of the best designed to help groups create a cooperative synthesis:

BRAINWRITING. 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.

Horst Geschka and his associates 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. 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. Brainwriting, in contrast, allows multiple ideas to be suggested at the same time. This is parallel processing of information: i.e., many ideas produced at once in parallel. 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, “brainwriting” 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. You can design your own “brainwriting” format based on the two principles:

(1) Idea generation is silent.

(2) Ideas are created spontaneously in parallel.

Some examples are:

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.

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