Meetings & Your Brain

What Is Brainswarming?

What's a good alternative to brainstorming?

Just about anything, according to Tony McCaffrey, Ph.D., chief technology officer of Innovation Accelerator and a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for e-Design. “The scientific evidence from 1958 to the present day,” McCaffrey told Convene, “shows that it doesn’t produce more ideas than people working alone in their cubicles and then coming together to share and build on them.”

McCaffrey’s solution? Brainswarming, a process for generating and refining ideas that “was inspired by a little branch of computer science called ‘swarm intelligence,’” he said, “in which they’re inspired by how insects solve problems.” Just as ants that are foraging for food drop pheromones along the way so other ants can later follow the trail, McCaffrey wondered, “is there a way to change problem-solving so it’s a visual environment in which people can leave traces of their ideas in a structured way that others can build on?”

Through the Brainswarming process, people working on a problem make suggestions that are placed on a graph “where the goal grows downward as people refine it and the resources start at the bottom and you interact them upward, and when the two connect, your solution or potential solution has emerged.” People find the graph intuitive because it combines top-down and bottom-up thinking, McCaffrey said, and it “has this ability to record the entire history of the problem-solving activity in a structured manner.”

When McCaffrey conducts a Brainswarming session in person, he uses Post-It notes to add people’s contributions to the graph, which has an advantage in that “kind of like Twitter enforces 140 characters, Post-It notes enforce short phrases.” But Brainswarming can also happen remotely. “I had someone write a blog [post] that they tried Brainswarming with a group that was not assembled in the same room,” McCaffrey said. “They used an online whiteboard, and people just contributed whatever they had and the graph grew, and they were amazed at how well it worked.”

McCaffrey is working now to create an online platform for Brainswarming, rolling it out for laptops and tablets, and then smartphones, allowing people to operate in parallel and make contributions to a common graph. “When people brainstorm together, they tend not to share until they have a complete solution or a nearly complete solution,” McCaffrey said. “What Brainswarming does is break the problem into very small pieces.”

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.