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Better than brainstorming? Potential contextual boundary conditions to brainwriting for idea generation in organizations

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Abstract

Organizations and societies all need good, useful ideas to survive and prosper. People often enjoy brainstorming, though it is not as productive as they tend to believe. Groups can potentially generate more and better ideas when "brainwriting"; that is, silently sharing written ideas in a time- and sequence-structured group format. This conceptual paper identifies likely boundary conditions to the promising findings from brainwriting laboratory research generalizing to real-world organizational contexts. Important dimensions of organizational context may be revealed by drawing on the journalistic principle to examine what, who, when, where, and why certain outcomes result from particular organizational practices (Johns, 2006). Multiple potential contextual moderators are suggested in each of these five areas. Subsequent field research will inform the idea generation literature as well as those concerned with eliciting high quality, useful ideas to address particular organizational and societal challenges.
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Better than brainstorming? Potential contextual
boundary conditions to brainwriting for idea
generation in organizations
Peter A. Heslin*
Cox School of Business, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, USA
Organizations and societies all need good, useful ideas to survive and prosper. People
often enjoy brainstorming, though it is not as productive as they tend to believe. Groups
can potentially generate more and better ideas when ‘brainwriting’; that is, silently
sharing written ideas in a time- and sequence-structured group format. This conceptual
paper identifies likely boundary conditions to the promising findings from brainwriting
laboratory research generalizing to real-world organizational contexts. Important
dimensions of organizational context may be revealed by drawing on the journalistic
principle to examine what,who,when,where, and why certain outcomes result from
particular organizational practices (Johns, 2006). Multiple potential contextual
moderators are suggested in each of these five areas. Subsequent field research will
inform the idea-generation literature as well as those concerned with eliciting high-
quality, useful ideas to address particular organizational and societal challenges.
Creativity involves the development of novel, useful ideas ( Amabile, 1996; Thompson,
2003). Given complex, intractable business issues such as rapidly emerging
technologies and growing global competition – together with broader societal crises
such as terrorism, poverty, and global warming – generating creative ideas is imperative
for organizations, our ecosystem, and humanity to survive and prosper (Bandura, 2007;
Heslin & Ochoa, 2008; IPCC, 2007 ). When the stakes are high, group process
innovations that enable even modest increases in the quality of ideas available for
consideration could be of immense practical value.
1
The most widely adopted process for generating creative ideas within organizations
is brainstorming ( Devine, Clayton, Philips, Dunford, & Melner, 1999; Rietzschel, Nijstad,
& Stroebe, 2006; Sutton & Hargadon, 1996 ). Despite its immense popularity, when
groups of people interact for the purpose of brainstorming, they significantly
* Correspondence should be addressed to Professor Peter A. Heslin, Cox School of Business, Southern Methodist University,
Dallas, TX 75275-0333, USA (e-mail: heslin@cox.smu.edu).
1
The issues of identifying the most promising idea(s) from among the range of those generated – as well as successfully
executing them – are substantial challenges that lie beyond the scope of the present article. For an extensive review and model
of broader group innovation development and implementation issues, see West (2002).
The
British
Psychological
Society
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Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (2009), 82, 129–145
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DOI:10.1348/096317908X285642
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overestimate their productivity ( Paulus, Dzindolet, Poletes, & Camacho, 1993) and
produce fewer unique ideas than nominal groups of people generating ideas alone
(Diehl & Stroebe, 1987, 1991; Mullen, Johnson, & Salas, 1991; Paulus, Larey, & Ortega,
1995; Rietzschel et al., 2006; Taylor, Berry, & Block, 1958 ). Yet people insist on
habitually coming together for tasks such as generating ideas (Leonard & Swap, 1999).
Indeed, the fad of people in manufacturing, service, and public sector organizations
seeking team-based solutions to their most pressing problems is ‘soaring’ ( Luthans,
2005, p. 440). A key challenge for organizational scholars and practitioners is to identify
how group interactions for the purpose of idea generation can be made more
productive.
In contrast to the oral sharing of ideas in groups during brainstorming, brainwriting
involves a group of people silently writing and sharing their written ideas (VanGundy,
1983). Research has revealed that brainwriting yields superior idea generation than
either non-sharing or nominal groups (Gryskiewic, 1981; Paulus & Yang, 2000;
Thompson, 2003 ). Although findings from well-designed laboratory experiments often
generalize to field settings (Anderson, Lindsay, & Bushman, 1999), Locke (1986)
highlighted the need to empirically examine when and to whom generalizability occurs.
Simonton (2000, p. 156) concluded that research is needed to address the critical issue
in the creativity literature whereby :::the gap between scientific knowledge and
practical interventions is often so wide that doubts are cast on both science and
practice’.
Owing to the potential of brainwriting to be a more effective mode of group idea
generation than brainstorming, this conceptual paper critiques the likely generalizability
of brainwriting research findings to the workplace. The origin, nature, and potential
promise of brainwriting are first outlined. This paper then identifies specific, previously
neglected substantive contextual issues that need to be addressed by field research into
whether and when the promise of brainwriting is likely to be realized in real-world
settings.
From brainstorming to brainwriting
When a group of people shares ideas, Osborn (1957 ) observed that a widespread
tendency to instantaneously evaluate them probably inhibits group members from
sharing ideas they feel may evoke an unfavourable reaction from their colleagues.
In order to overcome this problem, Osborn developed the now familiar brainstorming
guidelines which entail groups generating as many ideas as possible: (a) without
immediate concern for quality or evaluation; (b) within a set time frame; (c) by building
on the ideas of others; and (d) that are recorded publicly by a non-idea-contributing
facilitator/scribe.
People enjoy brainstorming ( Sutton & Hargadon, 1996 ), it satisfies their needs for
social interaction ( VanGundy, 1983), and groups that follow Osborn’s guidelines
produce more ideas than those that do not ( Parnes & Meadow, 1959). One reason for
this increased productivity is that participating in a brainstorming session provokes
cognitive facilitation, whereby the ideas of other people trigger novel associations that
would not have come to mind during a solitary idea-generation session ( Paulus, Larey, &
Dzindolet, 2000). A sense of excitement and synergy can also enhance creative idea
generation during brainstorming ( Paulus, 2000). However, novel associations only
facilitate idea generation to the extent that individuals pay attention to other peoples’
ideas (Brown, Tumeo, Larey, & Paulus, 1998; Dugosh, Paulus, Roland, & Yang, 2000 ).
130 Peter A. Heslin
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Limitations of brainstorming
The sequential nature of idea sharing during brainstorming and resulting ‘verbal traffic
jams’ (Brown & Paulus, 2002, p. 211) can lead to ideas being forgotten. People might
also decide, while they wait for their ‘turn’, that their ideas are not good enough to
share. Withholding ideas for this reason, or because of a concern not to upstage a higher
status brainstorming group member ( VanGundy, 1983), typically reflects evaluation
apprehension (Geen, 1985 ). Brainstorming also requires a skilled facilitator and can be
disrupted by one or more members taking more than their fair share of ‘air time’
(VanGundy, 1983). Trying to remember an idea until it can be shared, listening to
others, and interacting in accordance with the rules of brainstorming also consume
mental resources that could otherwise be devoted to generating more ideas ( Nijstad &
Stroebe, 2006 ). These inhibitory dynamics are each forms of idea production blocking
(Diehl & Stroebe, 1987, 1991; Nijstad & Stroebe, 2006 ).
The productivity of brainstorming groups is also reduced by social loafing,
downward comparisons, and illusions of productivity. Social loafing is a low level of
contribution that results from people feeling that they are not personally accountable or
that their efforts are not needed by the group ( Karau & Williams, 1993; Shepperd,
1993). Downward comparisons involve people matching the rate and type of ideas
they generate with those produced by the lowest performers in the group ( Roy, Gauvin,
& Limayem, 1996). Finally, people tend to exhibit illusions of productivity regarding
the superiority of group compared to individual performance ( Paulus et al., 1993 ), as
well as regarding their personal contributions relative to other group members (Paulus,
Larey, Putman, Leggett, & Roland, 1996 ). These are further sources of production loss
during brainstorming. Brainwriting has been developed to address these issues.
Brainwriting
Brainwriting involves silently sharing written ideas in groups. Relative to brainstorming,
brainwriting potentially minimizes the affect of status differentials, dysfunctional
interpersonal conflicts, domination by one or two group members, pressure to conform
to group norms, and digressions from the focal topic ( VanGundy, 1983). It might also
eliminate production blocking, reduce social loafing, and encourage careful processing
of shared ideas (Paulus & Yang, 2000).
VanGundy briefly outlined six different types of brainwriting. These are the nominal
group technique, the collective notebook, the brainwriting pool, pin cards, battelle-
bildmappen-brainwriting, and the SIL method. VanGundy identified the first four
techniques as pure brainwriting, as they do not involve group discussion of written
ideas during the idea-generation process. In contrast, VanGundy suggested that the latter
two techniques (i.e. battelle-bildmappen-brainwriting and the SIL method) are hybrids
insofar as they entail a combination of the oral brainstorming and silent brainwriting.
VanGundy offered heuristic suggestions about when each of the types of brainwriting
might be most suitable, though no empirical evidence to support his speculations.
Paulus and Yang (2000) further developed and systematically tested the outcomes of
the pin card brainwriting procedure discussed by VanGundy (1983), so this is the
prototypical form of brainwriting discussed throughout the duration of this paper.
The brainwriting procedure used by Paulus and Yang entails members of four-person
groups each sharing written ideas as they are generated. The first stage involves
participants being seated at a table where they write an idea on one of about 25 small
slips of paper and pass it on to the person seated on their right-hand side. Accountability
Brainwriting 131
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is increased and social loafing reduced by each person writing with a different colour
pen. Participants are instructed to read the idea(s) on each slip of paper they receive
from the person on their left, before adding one of their own ideas, and then passing it
on to their right. If participants cannot come up with an idea in a reasonable period of
time, they are allowed to pass the slip of paper on without writing anything on it. Finally,
when participants receive a completed slip with four ideas on it, they are instructed to
read those ideas before placing the slip in the centre of the table for all to see.
The second recall stage of Paulus and Yang’s (2000) brainwriting procedure involves
individuals being reseated in different corners of the room and asked to individually list
as many ideas as possible from the first stage, including their own. This second recall
stage is intended to encourage cognitive stimulation through careful attention to the
ideas generated by other group members during the first stage. In the final stage
participants remain apart and are asked to continue generating ideas individually
(without sharing) for an additional 15 minutes.
How well does brainwriting work?
An experiment by Paulus and Yang (2000) compared the idea generation of a
brainwriting group, with a nominal group, and a memory group. The nominal group
generated ideas alone. The memory group completed the same procedure as the
brainwriting group, except for also being warned that they would be tested for their
memory of the ideas developed and exchanged during the brainwriting session.
During the initial session, the brainwriting groups generated a greater number of
unique ideas – calculated by excluding repetitive ideas – than either the memory groups
or the nominal groups. During the third solitary idea-generation stage, the brainwriting
and memory conditions both produced a greater number of unique ideas than the
nominal group, though the brainwriting and memory groups were not significantly
different on this uniqueness criterion. Finally, as predicted, the number of ideas recalled
(during Stage 2) from the first session mediated the effect of initial group performance
upon subsequent (Stage 3) solitary idea-generation performance.
Paulus and Yang (2000) concluded that exposure to others’ ideas followed by a
recall/incubation period is cognitively stimulating. An alternative explanation for their
findings is that the sense of competition induced by frantically passing around slips of
paper marked with personally identifying ink could have created social pressure to
continue generating more ideas.
Dugosh and Paulus (2005) strived to disentangle these alternative explanations by
experimentally manipulating both cognitive and social facilitation. Dugosh and Paulus
found that both the number of ideas to which participants were exposed (i.e. cognitive
stimulation) and the extent to which the experimenters made social comparisons salient
(i.e. social stimulation), each had both individual and interactive effects on the quantity
of unique idea generation.
Implications for idea generation within organizations
Paulus and Yang (2000) provided the first and only known experimental evidence that
brainwriting enhances idea-generation performance, relative to nominal groups, which
in-turn are generally more productive than traditional brainstorming groups ( Diehl &
Stroebe, 1987, 1991; Mullen et al., 1991; Paulus et al., 1995; Rietzschel et al., 2006;
Taylor et al., 1958). This study suggests that cognitive and social stimulation may occur
132 Peter A. Heslin
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when production blocking and social loafing are minimized and the careful processing
of shared ideas is encouraged. Such findings have apparent promise for facilitating idea
generation by groups working in organizations. However, they were obtained on the
basis of having randomly assigned unacquainted first year university students earn
course credit by completing the relatively trivial task of generating possible uses for a
paper clip (Paulus & Yang, 2000). There have been subsequent investigations into
internal validity issues such as the relative role of cognitive versus social stimulation
during brainwriting (e.g. Brown & Paulus, 2002; Dugosh & Paulus, 2005). In contrast, to
my knowledge there have been no substantive published conceptual or empirical
analyses of the potential effectiveness of brainwriting beyond the laboratory setting.
Next an illustrative array of contextual issues likely to affect the utility of brainwriting for
eliciting useful ideas to address real-word challenges beyond the laboratory setting are
outlined.
Research needed on potential contextual boundary conditions
Context involves the set of situational opportunities and countervailing constraints that
affect the occurrence, meaning, and outcomes of certain behaviours (Griffin, 2007;
Johns, 2006; Rousseau & Fried, 2001 ). Owing to the absence of a widely accepted
taxonomy of context ( Griffin, 2007; Rousseau & Fried, 2001 ), the following discussion
is guided by Johns’ suggestion that important dimensions of context may be revealed by
drawing on the journalistic principle to examine what,who,when,where, and why
certain practices have particular outcomes. Adoption of Johns’ organizing framework
does not imply endorsement of it as a comprehensive taxonomy of potential contextual
factors. As Griffin (2007, p. 860) noted, ‘The raw number of possible dimensions for
context at different levels of analysis and across theoretical domains means a simple
consensus about dimensional structure is unlikely.’ Thus, Johns’ approach is adopted
merely as a parsimonious approach to identifying and organizing the suggested potential
contextual boundary conditions to brainwriting outcomes.
The discussion that follows has also been guided by the imperative for future
brainwriting research to adopt a meso perspective ( House, Rousseau, & Thomas-Hunt,
1995; Rousseau & House 1994 ). This involves investigating how a range of micro-,
meso-, and macro-level variables might directly and interactively affect the behavioural,
affective, and idea-generation outcomes from brainwriting. Finally, no formal model or
propositions will be offered. My intention is to stimulate research focusing on boundary
conditions that researchers deem most applicable in the specific field settings in which
they study brainwriting ( Latham, 2007; Rousseau, 2007 ), rather than merely empirical
tests of the particular potential moderators discussed in this manuscript.
What does brainwriting yield?
Based on the experimental finding that the quantity and quality of ideas tend to be highly
correlated (Ada
´nez, 2005; Diehl & Stroebe, 1987; Mullen et al., 1991 ), the quality of
ideas is routinely operationalized within the brainstorming/brainwriting literature as the
number of unique ideas that are produced (e.g. Dugosh & Paulus, 2005; Larey & Paulus,
1999; Paulus & Yang, 2000; Taylor et al., 1958). There are, however, several problematic
issues with this approach to discerning idea quality. First, recall that Paulus and Yang
calculated the number of unique ideas by subtracting the repeated ideas from the total
number of ideas generated. This approach yields an estimation of idea quality
Brainwriting 133
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(i.e. uniqueness) that is insufficiently independent and thereby contaminated
(Campbell, Dunnette, Lawler, & Weick, 1970 ) by the quantity of ideas produced.
Second, as noted in the opening sentence, creativity involves the development of novel,
useful ideas (Amabile, 1996; Thompson, 2003 ). Subtracting non-repeated ideas from all
ideas taps non-redundancy, but not necessarily novelty relative to the existing ideas that
are already known for addressing the issue(s) at hand. Third, even more significantly,
non-redundancy indicates nothing about the practical usefulness of the ideas generated.
Fourth, the quantity of ideas produced is not necessarily empirically related to the rated
quality of ideas (e.g. Pearsall, Ellis, & Evans, 2008 ). These four issues suggest construct
deficiency (Campbell et al., 1970 ) in how the concept of idea quality has often been
operationalized in idea-generation laboratory studies. This provides reason to question
the ecological validity and thus generalizability of brainwriting research to the realm of
generating the novel, useful ideas needed to address serious real-world challenges.
A critical question for field research is whether, relative to brainstorming,
brainwriting yields higher quality (i.e. truly novel, useful, and/or effective) ideas, as
well as merely a greater number of ‘unique’ (i.e. non-redundant) ideas. Meaningful
indicators of idea quality could include: (a) ratings by subject matter experts regarding
relevant design, manufacturing, marketing, and service delivery issues; (b) salient
innovation characteristics such as user assessments of the perceived ease of use,
perceived usefulness, sustained adoption of ideas generated through brainwriting
(Davis, 1989 ); as well as (c) whether the ideas generated are ultimately effective for
addressing key organizational challenges.
Rogers’ (1962, 2003) diffusion of innovation theory highlights that the likelihood
of an idea being successfully implemented can be analysed in terms of its relative
advantage, compatibility, complexity, observability, and trialability. Relative advan-
tage is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as being better than its
precursor. Compatibility is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as being
consistent with the existing values, needs, and past experiences of potential
adopters. Complexity is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as being
difficult to use. Observability is the degree to which the results of an innovation are
observable to others. Finally, trialability is the degree to which experimentation is
possible before adoption.
Overall, the construct validity with which ‘idea quality’ is operationalized within
field settings will be increased by assessing it using a range of organizationally relevant
criteria such as those just outlined, as guided by the precise nature of the challenge
regarding which ideas are being generated (Rousseau, 2007). Should brainwriting be as
useful in field settings as suggested by VanGundy (1983), as well as Paulus and Yang
(2000), other potential fruits of brainwriting are increased group cohesion and potency,
as well as satisfaction of group members’ social interaction needs. With regard to the
latter, VanGundy (1983) suggested that unless there is dysfunctional group conflict, the
highly structured and silent nature of brainwriting means that social interaction needs
are more likely to be met through brainstorming than brainwriting. In lieu of any known
direct evidence in this regard, research could usefully examine the impact on groups
and group members of brainwriting versus brainstorming. Relevant outcomes might
include group cohesion (Lee & Farh, 2004 ), self-efficacy (Heslin & Klehe, 2006 ), group-
efficacy (Whiteoak, Chalip, & Hort, 2004 ), group identification (Aharpour & Brown,
2002), and satisfaction of social interaction needs ( VanGundy, 1983 ), as potentially
mediated by the perceived quality of the insights that result from the idea-generation
process adopted.
134 Peter A. Heslin
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For whom is brainwriting suitable?
In contrast to traditional brainstorming, brainwriting is typically a more structured and
constrained process. When engaging in the Paulus and Yang’s (2000) brainwriting
procedure, participants are not allowed to speak. They are assigned a certain colour pen
that increases their accountability by making their personal contributions clearly known
to all brainwriting participants. I have observed some brainwriting participants
experience immense pressure to maintain the pace of idea generation of those seated on
either side of them. Finally, participants are physically isolated for the last 20–30 minutes
of the exercise. Next the potential role of individual, group composition, and group
process factors in determining for whom this type of brainwriting might be most
suitable are outlined.
Individual factors
VanGundy (1983) suggested that a bad experience with brainstorming could make
individuals relatively more eager to proactively engage in brainwriting. Alternatively,
people who enjoy brainstorming might resist the strong situation ( Mischel, 1968 )
imposed by the more structured brainwriting procedure, perhaps reflecting
psychological reactance ( Brehm & Brehm, 1981 ) to perceiving that they are being
unduly controlled. While studies have emphasized the importance of perceived
autonomy in innovation (e.g. Cohen & Bailey, 1997; Krause, 2004), Paulus (2000,
p. 252) observed that :::there have been no systematic studies of this factor
(perceived autonomy) on the creative process of teams or groups’. Research is needed
on whether, particularly for those who cherish their autonomy, low outcome
expectancies (Bandura, 1986; Latham, 2001 ) that brainwriting will be enjoyable
(Nijstad & Stroebe, 2006; Sutton & Hargadon, 1996 ) and intrinsically rewarding (Ryan &
Deci, 2000) serve to demotivate active engagement in brainwriting.
Individuals with a high need for achievement ( McClelland, 1956 ) value
challenging tasks and explicit feedback about individual accomplishments. Given
the challenge, competition, and immediate individual feedback inherent in
brainwriting, research could also fruitfully explore whether individuals’ need for
achievement is positively related to their experience of brainwriting as challenging,
enjoyable, and stimulating. Conversely, do those with relatively high social evaluation
anxiety (Leitenberg, 1990 ) or neuroticism (Costa & McCrae, 1997 ) find that
personal accountability during brainwriting makes it an unduly stressful and anxiety-
provoking activity? Individuals’ inclination to ponder novel perspectives is positively
related to their openness to experience ( Costa & McCrae, 1997 ) and negatively
related to their need for closure ( Kruglanski & Webster, 1996 ). Research is
consequently warranted on whether openness to experience and a low need for
closure positively predict individuals’ inclination to build upon others’ unique ideas
while brainwriting.
Studies along these lines could also examine psychological states that mediate the
relationships between (a) dispositions that make employees (dis)inclined to engage in
and/or enjoy brainwriting and (b) their resulting idea-generation performance. One
possibly relevant mediator is threat rigidity, whereby stress and anxiety can restrict
information generation and processing via over-reliance on initial hypotheses and prior
expectations. Threat rigidity also increases attention to dominant cues and away from
peripheral cues ( Staw, Sandelands, & Dutton, 1981 ). Given these cognitively
constraining characteristics, it seems plausible that threat-rigidity would be negatively
related to the generation of creative ideas.
Brainwriting 135
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Group composition
Creative stimulation during brainstorming can benefit from group members with
different professional backgrounds and experience ( Stasson & Bradshaw, 1995).
Indeed, groups that contain people with diverse but overlapping knowledge domains
and skills tend to be particularly creative ( Borrill et al., 2000; Dunbar, 1995). To what
extent do these findings generalize to brainwriting? One can imagine, for instance, a
human resources (HR) professional being more perplexed and frustrated than
cognitively stimulated by reading a finance analyst’s ideas that they find
incomprehensible or oblivious to key HR issues. Similarly, a ‘::: research team
composed of a statistician, Marxist sociologist, quantitative organizational psychologist,
social constructionist, and political scientist may be so diverse that they are unable to
develop a coherent and innovative programme of research to discover under what
circumstances nursing teams on hospital wards will implement an innovation’ ( West,
2002, p. 364). Given the greater processing of others’ ideas mandated by brainwriting
compared to traditional brainstorming, perhaps brainwriting participants are relatively
more distracted by other’ ideas they find incomprehensible or irrelevant. Research is
thus needed on whether the optimal degree of group diversity in professional
background is higher in brainstorming than brainwriting groups.
More nuanced subsequent research is required to explore when higher levels of
diversity in group composition are advantageous, rather than an impediment to idea
generation during brainwriting. One conceptual framework for guiding such research is
faultline theory ( Lau & Murnighan, 1998, 2005), wherein faultlines are defined as
‘hypothetical dividing lines that may split a group into subgroups based on one or more
attributes’ (Lau & Murnighan, 1998, p. 328). Faultlines are commonly based on
demographic differences in gender, ethnicity, age, managerial status, education, tenure,
or functional area. Pearsall et al. (2008) reported that gender faultlines negatively
affected the number and overall creativity of ideas generated during brainstorming, but
only when the gender faultlines were ‘activated’ by the gender salient task of generating
new designs for a men’s electric razor. Interestingly, emotional conflict mediated the
effects of activated gender faultlines on the number of ideas generated.
Future research may seek to examine whether the findings of Pearsall et al. (2008)
can be replicated during brainwriting, wherein the verbal interactions through which
gender faultlines may manifest and be exacerbated are constrained by the silent nature
of the brainwriting procedure. Alternatively, the source of brainwriting participants’
ideas is nonetheless prototypically made evident by the use of different colour pens.
Even if anonymity is aided by everyone using the same colour pen or unidentified
contributions during silent electronic brainstorming, intragroup demographic
differences (e.g. in status) can still be communicated by the way participants write
(Weisband, Schneider, & Connolly, 1995). Research is needed on the extent to which
activation of faultlines based on salient demographic characteristics affects the
enjoyment and productivity that results from brainwriting.
Group processes
West (2002) argued that interacting groups are typically characterized by varying
degrees of participative decision-making, initiatives to build commitment to shared
objectives, effective conflict management, intragroup safety, and reflexivity. West
proposed that these group processes help prevent substantial diversity-based
differences from leading to conflicts, fear, and consequent group member inhibition.
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Research is warranted on whether the productive group processes identified by West
increase the ‘optimal’ level of diversity within groups engaging in brainwriting.
Research addressing such questions could benefit from assessing the range of potential
outcomes suggested earlier – as well as potential mediators like threat rigidity – of the
extent to which brainwriting is adopted and useful within institutions over a sustained
period of time. Owing to the potential benefits of group member diversity on creativity
(Bell, 2007; Bell & Berry, 2007; Borrill et al., 2000; Stasson & Bradshaw, 1995 ), research
on the interactive role of individual differences, group composition, faultlines, and
group processes within brainwriting groups could have substantial theoretical and
practical importance.
When is brainwriting suitable?
Vroom and Yetton’s (1973) leader-participation model (see also Vroom, 2003 ) identifies
boundary conditions on the suitability of having employees interact for the purpose of
contributing their ideas. These well-known contingency factors include the availability
of time, the importance of making a high-quality decision, the likelihood of conflict
among employees in reaching a decision, the relevant expertise of leaders relative to
their employees regarding the issue(s) at hand, and the importance of employees’
acceptance of the decision adopted. The Vroom and Yetton model implies that it is
prudent for leaders to have followers interact for the purpose of contributing their ideas
to the extent that time allows, decision quality is important, congenial interactions
between group members are likely, group members possess more relevant expertise
than the leader, and decision acceptance by group members is needed.
Relative to brainstorming, brainwriting requires a greater temporal, personal, group,
and logistical investment. For instance, Paulus and Yang’s brainwriting procedure
requires that furniture be organized for group members to be able to work first at a table
adjacent to each other, and then apart. To assess when brainwriting is worth the
investment, field research might examine whether the incremental utility of
brainwriting over brainstorming is limited to, for instance, situations characterized by
a high need for quality ideas, the absence of restrictive time–pressure, and/or in which it
is important that brainwriting participants accept the idea that is adopted. Research
could test VanGundy’s (1983) suggestion that the highly structured nature of
brainwriting makes it less likely than brainstorming to trigger or exacerbate intragroup
conflict during the highly competitive idea-generation process. Studies might also
examine whether the potential group dominance by extroverts during brainstorming is
mitigated by the brainwriting procedure.
Organizational climates characterized by perceived threat, uncertainty, or other high
levels of demand generally undermine creative processes ( West, 2002 ). Field research is
needed on whether these factors tend to be either more or less detrimental to the utility
of the highly structured brainwriting procedure, relative to the more widely known and
free-flowing traditional brainstorming technique.
Where is brainwriting likely to be successfully adopted?
Dysfunctional consequences can result from ‘deadly combinations’ (Becker, Huselid,
Pickus, & Spratt, 1997, p. 43) of otherwise useful managerial practices applied within
incongruent organizational cultural contexts. The suitability of brainwriting within a
particular organization could be a function of the extent to which it has, for instance,
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either a prototypical market or clan organizational culture ( Kerr & Slocum, 2005 ).
Defining characteristics of market cultures (e.g. Bayer, Daewoo, & PepsiCo) include
independent and competitive goals, initiatives, and rewards, in contrast to the more
collegial and interdependent nature of prototypically clan cultures (e.g. Asda, BMW, &
Southwest Airlines). Research could fruitfully investigate whether the competitive
frenzy of exchanging ideas that are personally identified by the colour of one’s ink makes
brainwriting more acceptable and effective in interpersonally competitive market than
in clan organizational cultures. Related research might examine whether in more
egalitarian clan cultures, a process of providing anonymous contributions is more
acceptable, less threatening, and thereby more productive than Paulus and Yang’s
brainwriting protocol. Such research may fruitfully investigate if there is a personal
accountability by organizational culture interaction, whereby superior outcomes result
from high accountability brainwriting within market cultures, and from the less
pressured anonymous brainwriting within clan cultures.
Chatman and Jehn (1994) observed more variation in culture between industries
than among firms within industries. Nelson and Gopalan (2003) reported that national
culture constrains variation in organizational cultures. Thus, perhaps industry (e.g.
accounting vs. advertising vs. manufacturing) and national cultural differences (e.g. in
values such as power distance and risk avoidance; Hofstede, 1980, 2001) moderate the
acceptability and usefulness of different types of brainwriting (e.g. with or without high
personal accountability), more than moderators focused at the organizational culture
level of analysis. For instance, people in collectivist cultures tend to avoid disrupting
group harmony by outperforming their colleagues. A hallmark of high-power distance
cultures is an aversion to outshining one’s boss. Research might explore whether in
collectivist and/or status stratified groups – particularly within high-power distance
cultures – anonymous brainwriting yields better results than either brainstorming or
brainwriting in which individuals’ contributions are identifiable.
Why conduct brainwriting?
Beyond meeting a need to generate a large number of creative ideas, based upon their
case study into brainstorming at the legendary IDEO industrial design firm, Sutton and
Hargadon (1996) observed that other potential benefits of brainstorming include
supporting the organizational memory, providing skill variety for participants,
supporting an attitude of wisdom, creating a ‘status auction’, impressing clients, and
providing income for the firm. Research is needed on which of these broader socio-
economic benefits of brainstorming also result from brainwriting. Research indicating
that such benefits accrue less from brainwriting than brainstorming could represent a
boundary condition to the value of brainwriting in organizations. Contrary findings
would, of course, bode well for the potential practical usefulness of brainwriting. Some
of the major potential boundary conditions to the effective, sustained use of
brainwriting outlined in this paper are summarized in Table 1.
While the abovementioned illustrative issues have been categorized for the sake of
explanatory clarity, it is recommended that field research examine multiple issues from
across these categories, as dictated by the prevailing research opportunities and state of
the literature at the time the research is conducted. Such research would contribute to
the extant idea-generation literature and have clear implications for managers and
practitioners concerned with how to elicit the most useful ideas for addressing
particular organizational and societal challenges.
138 Peter A. Heslin
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Implications for research and practice
Paulus and Yang (2000) concluded that brainwriting is a potentially useful idea-
generation technique within organizations. Key reasons why organizational innovations
are not more widely tried and adopted in organizations include managers being
disinclined to leave their comfort zone to experiment with alternative approaches
(Pfeffer & Sutton, 2006 ), if indeed they are aware that such approaches exist ( Rousseau,
2006). VanGundy (1983) discussed how and why brainwriting could be a valuable
process for creative idea generation, though lamented that :::most people who could
benefit from it are not aware of it’ (p. 68). Little seems to have changed in this regard
over the last quarter of a century.
A prime purpose of this paper is to raise awareness among scholars, practitioners,
and managers of brainwriting as an alternative to the well-known brainstorming
technique. However, as Pfeffer and Sutton (2006, p. 5) observed, :::if doctors
practiced medicine the way many companies practice management, there would be far
more sick and dead patients, and many more doctors would be in jail’. This call for a
more evidence-based approach to management (Rousseau, 2006; Rousseau & McCarthy,
2007 ) underscores the need to question the popular assumption that group
brainstorming is the ‘best’ way to generate creative ideas. It also highlights the
imperative for rigorous field research to investigate – and thus either confirm or refute
the validity of the contextual-based research ideas offered in this paper, so as to shed
light on how and when organizations should consider using brainstorming instead of
brainwriting.
Table 1. Sample contextual boundary conditions to the utility of brainwriting within organizations
Contextual factors Illustrative potential moderators
What does brainwriting yield? Criteria of ‘useful’ ideas
Who evaluates usefulness
Group cohesion
Perceived usefulness and enjoyment of brainwriting
For whom is brainwriting suitable? Psychological reactance
Need for achievement and closure
Openness to experience
Social evaluation anxiety/neuroticism
Diversity of group composition
Group processes
When is brainwriting suitable? Time available
Importance of high-quality ideas
Uniqueness of participants’ expertise
Innovation acceptance needed
Social interaction need satisfaction
Where is brainwriting likely to
be successfully adopted?
Organizational culture (e.g. market vs. clan)
Industry (e.g. accounting vs. advertising)
National culture (e.g. power distance, collectivism)
Why conduct brainwriting? Need for highly creative ideas
Importance of ancillary benefits, such as creating
a ‘status auction’, building organizational wisdom,
and impressing clients.
Brainwriting 139
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In practice, organizations may adopt variations of the techniques discussed in this
paper. Brainwriting may be conducted via networked computers, commonly known as
electronic brainstorming ( DeRosa, Smith, & Hantula, 2007 ), as well as by using the
range of other brainwriting procedures identified by VanGundy (1983). Brainstorming
can be modified by using instructions to ‘stay focused on the task (do not tell stories or
explain ideas), keep the brainstorming going, encourage others to contribute, do not
criticize, and return to previous categories’ (Paulus, Nakui, Putman, & Brown, 2006,
p. 209). A recent laboratory study by Paulus et al. found that this supplemented
brainstorming protocol led to improved idea-generation productivity relative to the
standard Osborn (1957) brainstorming guidelines.
Given the scope for such variations, together with potential organizational resistance
to following precise research protocols, field researchers are encouraged to become
intimately acquainted with the history, objectives, and organizational cultures in which
they plan to study issues such as those outlined in this paper. Doing so may facilitate
building collaborative relationships with brainwriting participants and other
stakeholders ( Latham, 2007 ). This in-turn will ultimately yield research findings that
have both locally useful and generalizable insights ( Rousseau, 2007) that enhance the
productivity and enjoyment derived from brainwriting. Collaborative partnerships can
also facilitate creatively adapting experimental protocols in accordance with what is
deemed acceptable within a particular organizational or societal context (Rousseau,
2007). To yield useful research, however, such creative adaptations should be
accompanied by thorough documentation of the context and precise procedures
actually adopted ( Johns, 2006; Rousseau & Fried, 2001), and not deviate from the range
of research designs (cf. Cook & Campbell, 1979 ) that enable inferences to be reasonably
drawn from field research.
Given the paucity of direct evidence regarding the real-world usefulness of
brainwriting and the resulting speculative nature of this paper, together with the
present emphasis on the need for contextual sensitivity in future brainwriting field
research, grounded theory development methods (cf. Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Suddaby,
2006) might fruitfully complement the more positivist approach implied throughout
this manuscript for better understanding, evaluating, and ultimately improving the use
of brainwriting. Grounded theoretic approaches could be particularly suitable for
discovering emergent multi-level issues (Kozlowski & Klein, 2000). These might include
how the complex, interactive dynamics of group members’ identities, interpersonal
histories, patterns of interaction, and anticipations regarding future relationships tend
to manifest and affect their approach to, engagement in, and outcomes from engaging in
brainwriting.
Such research will probably reveal that the relative usefulness of different forms
of idea generation are ultimately contingent upon a range of contextual factors, such
as those identified throughout this paper and exemplified in Table 1. Prior to the
results of this research, Table 1 can be viewed as suggesting a tentative range of
issues that managers and practitioners might ponder when deciding what they
could expect brainwriting to yield, together with whom,when,where, and why it
would be prudent for them to try brainwriting. Proactive collaboration between
managers, organizational practitioners, and scholars ( Latham, 2007; Rousseau,
2007), focused on conducting preferably randomized field experiments
investigating issues such as those outlined throughout this paper, are likely to
yield the most useful reciprocal advances in the science and practice of groups idea
generation.
140 Peter A. Heslin
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Conclusion
Despite a concern for application, tool-oriented research in industrial-organizational psychology
and HR has not given enough attention to context. In particular, much research :::(has) ignored
the social context in which various techniques and instruments are applied. Equally important,
they have also assumed a very narrow, non-systemic conception of what the functions or
outcomes of these processes should be ( Johns, 2006, p. 390).
All organizations and societies require good, useful ideas. They also need efficient,
politically and culturally acceptable processes (Rousseau, 2007 ) for eliciting those
ideas. While brainwriting appears promising based on an experimental study conducted
with students in the laboratory ( Paulus & Yang, 2000), this conceptual paper has
identified numerous contextual issues that could limit the generalizability of this
technique for discovering great new ideas for addressing pressing organizational and
societal challenges. Multi-level field research along the lines proposed will help clarify
the conditions under which brainwriting is likely to be a practically useful technique, or
whether it ultimately has minimal if any real-world applications.
Acknowledgements
The author thanks Jay Carson, Mickey Quinones, and Glenn Whyte, three anonymous reviewers
and the editor John Arnold for helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.
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Received 9 May 2007; revised version received 14 January 2008
Brainwriting 145
... Using the principles of design-based research is another strength, as design-based research studies can play an important role in the advancement of theory and practice in designing or redesigning workbased learning environments and assessment programs [14]. Although exact data on its validity and reliability are still lacking, the method of brainwriting has been presented as a novel and efficient alternative to brainstorming that can rapidly inform program implementation at minimal time and cost [36][37][38]. ...
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Background A quality framework for hospital-based physiotherapy is lacking. This study aims to design a framework, building on the currently available literature, to improve the quality of hospital-based physiotherapy. Methods A multidisciplinary panel of six representatives of hospital-based physiotherapy and their key stakeholders (patients, medical specialists, hospital management and professional association) was set up. We used brainwriting to sample ideas and the ‘decision-matrix’ to select the best ideas. Results The first round of brainwriting with an online panel of six experienced participants yielded consensus on seven possible methods for quality improvement of hospital-based physiotherapy [1]: continuing education [2] ,feedback on patient reported experience measures and patient reported outcome measures [3] ,a quality portfolio [4] ,peer observation and feedback [5] ,360 degree feedback [6] ,a management information system, and [7] intervision with intercollegiate evaluation. Placing these methods in a decision matrix against four criteria (measurability, acceptability, impact, accessibility) resulted in a slight preference for a management information system, with almost equal preference for five other methods immediately thereafter. The least preference was given to a 360-degree feedback. Conclusions In the design of a framework for improving the quality of hospital-based physiotherapy, all seven suggested methods were perceived as relevant but differed in terms of advantages and disadvantages. This suggests that, within the framework, a mixture of these methods may be desirable to even out respective advantages and disadvantages.
... Brainstorming [22] is a group technique focused on idea generation that frees its participants from criticism [27]. Osborn's brainstorming guidelines for the generation of ideas: no immediate concern for quality or evaluation, in a set time frame, encourage building on the ideas of others, and recorded by a non-idea-contributing facilitator/ scribe [28]. Although brainstorming is a very old concept, it is still widely used. ...
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The chapter investigates the role of brainstorming as an educational tool on the basis of the author's experience in transnational education, and a review of the literature. Brainstorming is an ideation technique invented by Alex Osborn in the 40s. Still popular today, it has found numerous applications in education. Despite its diffusion, a large body of literature dismisses brainstorming as less effective in comparison to individuals working alone or other techniques in terms of quantity and quality of idea produced. Advocates of brainstorming claim that when done properly it can be very powerful in generating breakthrough ideas, and studies show that factors such as the presence of a facilitator, training, and the right time and type of problem assigned can greatly change the outcome of a session. After reviewing this contrasting literature, the author concludes that these studies ignore the cultural origin of brainstorming and attention should be paid to the cultural implications of the technique in transnational contexts outside the US.
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This shortform book defines and situates the role of Public Relations as a creative industry and discusses the trends and issues that the sector is facing within the wider context of the Creative Industries. Traversing and distilling both industry and scholarly research, the author will call on perspectives from a range of areas, including creativity, psychology, advertising, and marketing. Creativity and innovation are crucial elements in times of profound transformation such as those being experienced nowadays by the PR industry. The ability to generate new ideas is a competitive advantage of organizations. Nevertheless, although traditionally the focus has been on individual creativity, this book highlights the importance of organizational creativity in PR, becoming a result of team-work and social interaction. This book will be a valuable resource for researchers and scholars looking at how creativity is an important asset in Public Relations. It will also be useful for students of Corporate Communication and Public Relations studies, for both undergraduate and postgraduate programs and PR practitioners who want to increase their creativity, learning from creative techniques and case studies.
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Full-text available
Research on group brainstorming has demonstrated that it is less effective for generating large numbers of ideas than individual brainstorming, yet various scholars have presumed that group idea sharing should enhance cognitive stimulation and idea production. Three experiments examined the potential of cognitive stimulation in brainstorming. Experiments 1 and 2 used a paradigm in which individuals were exposed to ideas on audiotape as they were brainstorming, and Experiment 3 used the electronic brainstorming paradigm. Evidence was obtained for enhanced idea generation both during and after idea exposure. The attentional set of the participant and the content of the exposure manipulation (number of ideas, presence of irrelevant information) influenced this effect. These results are consistent with a cognitive perspective on group brainstorming.
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