5 ways for any team to be creative.
I was with the tech guys of a StartUp recently. They retreated into their shells when I started asking about the brand concept. Once I’d got their confidence, the told me they couldn’t do that stuff – they were not creative, they were programmers, they were rational.
There is a mystique about creativity. The creative industry, myself included, often reinforces this, and why not? It is in its commercial interest to do so. But everyone is creative. Including our programmers.
Part of creativity is about seeing patterns and opportunities, about not being intimidated by the weight of a problem. The more experience you have of problem solving the easier it gets. I’m told that’s why at Harvard Business School they make students work through three case studies every day. Repetition gets the brain to see patterns, which creates efficiency and the illusion of excellence, even genius.
Broadly speaking though, most smart people can gain that experience and whilst some will do it better than other, most can do it.
In my experience, most of the people who are called ‘creative’ use reference points. Sometimes, the more remote that reference point is, the more inspired the idea becomes. It was Picasso who said: Good artists copy, great artists steal.
He also said: All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. Kids don’t self-edit. They just say what’s in there.
Clearly, as well as an excellent drawer and colourer-in, Picasso was a veritable quote machine. What I don’t think he talked about is what we might call the politics of creativity. Let me put that into a quote so I too can get onto Brainquote.com:
Creativity is as much the force of will to convince others to make something, as it is the force of the idea.
It isn’t easy getting an idea made. Good creative people know this. They know the guy on the other side of the table is sometimes intellectually lazy, or worried about his job, or just bitter and will give it two seconds thought before rubbishing the idea. It’s not about the idea, it’s about them. Good creative people have strategies to overcome that. It might be shouting, or belittling, or occasionally patiently explaining, but it always involves being stubborn for weeks and months until the thing is made.
(That doesn’t mean they don’t adapt and listen to other people. Knowing when to listen is key to getting it made, and being able to hear the ideas that will make it better elevates the idea further.)
But the act of coming up with ideas in the first place, I still believe anyone can do.
Our brains are designed to solve problems from birth. I’m involved in a lengthy anthropological study my wife calls fatherhood and anyone who has observed children slowly learn how to solve problems would surely accept the universality of creativity.
The personality traits that drive creativity exist within us all – like curiosity, puzzle solving, being right. They might need fine-tuning and they might need a pat on the back/kick up the arse. But they are there.
Then there are the thinking-structures that come from experience, the ways our brains see patterns. Whoever you are the more your do it, the better you get.
I accept that there will still be degrees of quality. Some people have a better combination of the experience/confidence/conviction thing. But everyone has it to some degree. Given the right framework any team can make a good start to most problems, meaning asking the right questions.
So how can you and your team be creative?
Here are five suggestions to make anyone creative.
1. Do like Picasso and steal. Look for influences and examples you can build on, from anywhere. Business, novels, music, art, science, The Simpsons. The build might not be immediately obvious but if you know why you like that influence you can create parallels that will take you somewhere: they did x so what would our equivalent be? Use anyone or anything that has a distinct way of thinking or doing. What have they done we think is cool? How would they approach our problem? So…how would John Lennon think about sales? As daft as it can sound, it works.
2. Structure. Don’t just dive in. Work out a structure beforehand. Start with the broad, exploratory themes and then get more precise. Get to principals before you get to the detail of execution. Define the headline questions and then figure out which questions need to be answered before you answer the headline ones. Let that shape the conversation.
3. Make sure everyone says something. You want everyone to put it out there. So give everyone space to talk. Get people to write down thoughts so it is not only the loudest voice that gets heard. Or get them to draw it. Whatever makes them comfortable expressing themselves. If some people are not joining in, make them the critics of everyone else’s output to begin with, until they find their positive voice. People find it much easier to criticize than to create so use that to strengthen ideas. Also, have a laugh. People talk more when they are relaxed. Play a game. Get some cookies. People say more with cookies.
4. Time. Spend a decent amount of time on it…and let people know how long you’ll spend doing it. People relax more over time. Be clear they are in there for a while: even the most reticent will say something eventually. If you are running the session, go silent. It’s amazing how others will want to fill that quiet.
5. Figure out how to agree as a group. Any suggestion is a worthwhile suggestion but you’re going to have to come to a precise agreement at some point. Fudging the solution is worse than having no solution at all. So before you start, spend quality time discussing what you are trying to achieve in the session and then agree the judgment criteria. If some criteria are more important than others, weight them. Use this to score ideas 1-5. Many people don’t like scoring ideas but the way it works best is to use that score to prompt a debate, not to give you the answer.
So having said all that, if there’s one take-away for any StartUp it is: if you want to get creative, get some cookies.