Monday, December 13, 2010

Brain Writing: quiet creativity

This is a guest post by Meena Arivananthan, my colleague and Knowledge and Information Management Specialist in FAO's Office of Knowledge Exchange Research and Extension.

Brain writing as a facilitation method is an excellent way to get creative juices flowing in a group with individuals who tend to be introspective in their thinking. A time-saving method to obtain solutions for several questions or issues at one-go, brain writing enables people to share their ideas in a quiet, conducive environment.

At last week’s OEK Knowledge Sharing Team’s Trainings, Gauri and I organized a session on brain writing as a method to share knowledge in a calm, structured way (as opposed to Brainstorming, its anarchic cousin!).

What better way to learn a method other than to let people try it out? Once the introductions were out of the way, the sixteen participants who sat in groups of 5 or 6, were asked to write out their individual problems on A4 paper provided. For this session, we asked all participants to focus on questions related to knowledge sharing and communications. Each participant then shared their A4 paper with the person sitting next to her, who in turn would read the question and try to write a suggestion or an idea to solve the problem. Each A4 paper was passed around the group every few minutes to allow the next person to provide their suggestions on it.

The point here is to build on the suggestions being written on the A4 paper. So in effect, the second person who looks at the A4 paper will see both the question and one suggestion to solve the problem. This person now has the choice of either:

a) developing on the suggestions written by an earlier colleague or
b) writing out a completely new idea.

In this session, participants took home at least 4 ideas/ suggestions to help solve their problem.

That’s a total of 64 ideas churned out in 30 minutes!

As always, there were very interesting discussions with the participants around the use of this method:
  • Everyone agreed the problem question being written on the A4 paper is of utmost importance. How the question is worded determines the quality of the ideas received. Unlike methods such as brainstorming, there is no opportunity to discuss the issue/ problem.
  • After the first round, where participants see a question for the first time, more time should be allocated for the subsequent rounds in increments, because each person now has to read the question and the suggestions written below it.
  • Brain writing is useful to overcome conflict within a group. Being a non-verbal session, each individual sees only the question before them, and not a specific person.
  • Some participants saw its potential for use with online tools such as Twitter and Wiki, mind maps and other facilitation techniques.
Here are some of my insights from facilitating this session:
  • When new groups are formed, there is what I call a teething period, when people are unsure of the individuals in the group. Brain writing helps keep the calm and allows all voices to be heard, without anyone feeling left out. It’s a great way to build trust!
  • Brainstorming is a method people turn to when they want creative solutions to problems, and that’s fine. However in a brainstorming exercise, people who enjoy speaking, who have louder voices tend to drown out the more introspective thinkers. Brain writing eliminates that problem while still being a creative technique.
  • Being such a simple method, it’s easy to over-use it. I’d suggest, use it sparingly and in groups of no more than 6 to maintain creativity. Any more, and you risk exhausting the participants.
To know more about Brain Writing, please visit the CGIAR/FAO/UNICEF Knowledge Sharing Toolkit:

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