Avoiding the wet blanket in creative collaboration
This article explores some effective practices that will support teams engaged in a collaborative creative process.
First off I need to say I’m not an advocate of the notion that all ideas are good ideas when striving to come up with a creative solution to a challenge. I mention this first because there is a strong pop culture myth probably stemming from over simplified brainstorm ‘rules’, that in order to be creative in a group, you just have to be open to “everything” and never use the critical thinking part of your brain. That’s false. As Carl Sagan said, “If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then it seems to me, no ideas have any validity.” For an effective creative process there needs to be both uninhibited brain-storm thinking and critical thinking. These two very different modes of thinking are often referred to as divergent thinking(uninhibited style) and convergent thinking(critical thinking). With divergent thinking you let loose and encourage wild ideas. Then in the convergent phase you activate critical thinking to figure out if an idea is relevant and worth acting on further. Often conflicts and wasted energy arises when a creative collaboration mixes those styles at the wrong times. For instance if in the divergent phase you get a naysayer, or critical perspective too soon, that can easily kill creativity and stifle fresh ideas. Likewise in the convergent phase if you get a dreamer suggesting another wild possibility right as a team converged on a single idea and started action planning, that also can be frustrating. It is tricky stuff and the more people know about how the two phases generally work and how to shift between them, the less frustration and more potential for cool things to be acted upon.
Some tricky stuff about the convergent phase
The convergent/critical thinking phase is the area where there is the biggest danger of stifling creativity, and throwing wet blankets on people’s creative fire. In the convergent thinking phase, even though we may accept that an idea we had is not relevant, when our ideas are criticized it can easily feel like a wet blanket was thrown on our creative enthusiasm and can deeply stifle future creativity and possible innovation. Giving critique in the wrong way can damage trust, relationships, and ruin an emerging creative organizational culture. The thing is, criticism and judgment come pretty easily to most of us, so most of us need to do some reflection and work around how we lead and offer critique of ideas. Partly I’m writing this article to also remind myself and get better at this because I’ve made my share of mistakes stifling others creative potential by offering critique in ways that damaged trust and creative relationships.
In order for there to be relevant creative ideas generated in collaborative efforts, there needs to be strong trust and openness among team members. Trust because people are not likely to share alternative points of view or different ideas that others could build on if there is fear of being shot down. A team needs to understand fear is creativity killer number 1 and therefore needs to be adressed skillfully or relevant creativity will not emerge. Fear makes us hold back, hesitate, and shuts down the creative problem solving parts of our brains. Doing actions that foster trust within a team can mitigate fears and set the stage for new thinking.
Actions that foster trust is the key
To be honest, I hate (maybe too strong… I deeply dislike) when people say we just need to trust each other. It is such a vague notion and often said by people in power positions that just want others to trust their advice and do what they want. You have to recognize that in most large organizations there is a certain amount of politics going on that can make people feel vulnerable and that they can’t trust each other. That’s a whole other article, but in a nutshell it is much more practical to foster trust by having a conversation with a think tank team where you ask everyone to say what actions people can do that convey they are trustworthy. Doing that gives people tools and practices to foster trust. You’ll also find that what breeds trust for some people is different for others. For instance in some think tanks I’ve led, many participants have said something along the lines of, “If people show up on time and do what they say they’ll do then that helps me trust.” I agree with that although if someone is a little late for a meeting, it usually doesn’t affect how much I trust them. But, if someone else says it deeply matters to them, I ensure I’m at meetings when I say I will be. For myself it’s a bit different, what fosters trust for me is when people seem to act like themselves, don’t use false flattery and speak genuinely… and share a bad joke or two. When people are honest and not trying to put on a facade to please others I feel like, “hey, this person has integrity and is trustworthy”. So, the team creates a list of all the things people can do that signals trust to others. The list might have things on it like…
-Follow through on what you said you would do
-Offer each other help
-Speak genuinely and honestly
-Show up on time
-Ask me what I meant rather than assume
-Active listening: Really try to listen to others, and not just wait for your turn to speak
-Share humour and jokes
“Humour plays a social function by liberating people from perceived constraints. It can help ease tensions and smooth difficulties” Lemons (2005)
Humour and playfulness
Don’t underestimate the value of weaving humour and playfulness into a creative organizational culture as a tool to foster trust and creative thinking. It doesn’t mean you have to create a contrived atmosphere where you break out hoolahoops and make people play. Valuing play and humour means you give people permission to be themselves and play. It means as a leader to model playfulness and not take oneself too seriously. Actually a true creative org culture is playful and full of spontaneous, humorous
“I think that when people play together, there is more of a sense of trust and sharing. For people, myself included, that are a little more reserved than say Larry [laughter], the laughter and the silliness we engaged in made it, as you said, Murray, comfortable to express creative ideas.” Think Tank participant (Weinlick, 2010)
“If you create an environment where serious play is the norm, eventually trust becomes the norm” (Palus & Horth, 2002).
There are many books, articles and TED talks on the subject of play, humour and positive emotion fostering creativity (see the end of the article for links).
The myth of expressive-openness “fixing” everything
Peter Senge who arguably wrote one of the top leadership books of all time The Fifth Discipline (2006), warned against the pop culture myth of expressive openness being the cure-all to team challenges. The expressive openness myth started in the ’80’s with the “Me” generation and essentially is the notion that if people are allowed to simply voice any criticism, disagreement or upset feeling, then a team will be transparent and that will fix any issues there may be. That idea and practice failed… big time. But you still hear remixes of the idea today in board rooms and offices. It’s there when people say things like, “Lets just get everything out on the table, and tell each other how we feel about this idea.” Senge wrote how sharing more critical views in the spirit of being open usually just offends others, erodes trust in a team, and ironically fosters a lack of openness with others. The main issue with expressive openness is that team members do not truly listen, but simply wait to ‘talk at’ each other, which makes true reflection, and true critical thinking impossible.
What works instead when engaging in critique?
I’ve made plenty of my own mistakes in this area by being too harsh in critiquing others ideas, harmed trust and thrown a wet blanket onto plenty of peoples creative potential. I’ve learned from mistakes and now have the experience that you really have to watch out for expressive openness killing a developing creative organizational culture. So, rather than expressive openness, Senge recommends engaging in reflective openness, which is essentially about acknowledging one’s biases and describing how one is seeing a situation. Senge described it as follows:
“Reflective openness leads to looking inward, allowing our conversations to make us more aware of the biases and limitations in our thinking, and how our thinking and actions contribute to problems” (p. 261).
In our think tank space we actually have the following quote from Senge posted on a wall to remind participants to be careful when critiquing ideas.
“Rather than saying nothing or telling the other person why you think he or she is wrong, you can simply say, That is not the way I see it. My view is, . . . Here is what has led me to see things this way. What has led you to see things differently?” (Senge et al., 2005, p. 33)
It’s not like in our think tanks we quote Senge verbatim in a kind of cold, robotic, calculated way, but we agree together to describe where our critique is coming from, and what might be influencing it. It is way more effective than simply tyrannically judging an idea as wrong. Always remember subjectivity is at play and colors how we see and experience new information we encounter.
We also have a reminder on the wall that fostering trust is not something others do for us, but something that we all need to take responsibility for. The reminder note says,
“What are you doing to sustain trust with others.”
If we want a think tank team or creative collaboration to sustain creative output over time, it means the group has to be mindful and engage both divergent and convergent thinking styles at the right times. Make sure to be extra vigilant when facilitating critical thinking and ever mindful of acting in ways that sustain trust.
Being careful when giving necessary critique is not about beating around the bush, or being overly polite and too “Canadian”… You can still keep it real. This is about good stewardship of creative organizational cultures and effective communication where you are fearless enough to admit you don’t have all the answers, and where you admit biases, sustain trust and help others understand where your critical perspective is coming from. If you simply shoot down ideas, you’re likely being a wet blanket and will end up taking one step forward and 3 backwards. If there is no trust, there will not be a creative culture and people will default to doing what is safe, old and not relevant to meet complex challenges we face in our work.
Lastly, seriously remember to not take yourself too seriously. It goes a long way to fostering trust. Do stuff in your organization that is playful. Speaking of a playful culture, below was a good prank I’m proud of where a colleague and myself exchanged the computer keyboard of a co-worker with a better “keyboard”… a full sized organ keyboard that is.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2003). The value of positive emotions American Scientist, 91, 330-335.
Lemons, G. (2005). When the horse drinks: Enhancing everyday creativity using elements of improvisation. Creativity Research Journal, 17(1), 25-36. doi: 10.1207/s15326934crj1701_3
Palus, C., & Horth, D. (2002). The leaders edge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Senge, P. M., Scharmer, C. O., Jaworski, J., & Flowers, B. S. (2005). Presence: An exploration of profound change in people, organizations, and society. New York: Currency/Doubleday.
Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. Toronto, ON: Currency/Doubleday.