Creativity is a like a muscle. If it doesn’t get exercise, it can atrophy, and a weakened muscle can’t be called upon to lift at the drop of the hat. That’s a problem in the office: we’re just not using our brains creatively at work all that much. In fact, on average, people only spend 25 percent of their time at work in creative endeavors.[1. “The Global Creativity Gap,” http://www.creativityatwork.com/2012/04/23/the-global-creativity-gap/] That makes it really difficult for people to be suddenly creative when they need to be, like during a brainstorming session. You’re asking people to suddenly do a deadlift, and it often leaves them stumped when it comes to conjuring up new ideas. Has your team hit a collective creativity snag? How do you get those muscles working again and overcome creative block for a successful brainstorming session?
In one of my first jobs, my team had a weekly brainstorming session. We were told that it was “where ideas would be planted and watered.” Unfortunately, the field where we were meant to grow them had been salted and poisoned. In my first meeting, I noticed there was a ton of silence and a lot of hemming and hawing, except from two people who dominated. At one point they called on me to see if I noticed anything with my fresh eyes. I pointed out one way I thought we could communicate better between departments, and before I had even finished, I was shut down with “Tried it. Didn’t work.” Needless to say, I almost never opened my mouth again, and joined the ranks of people whose only creativity was exercised in imagining emergencies that could cut the meeting short.
The process of ideation during brainstorming is crucial to get the ball rolling on projects, but if you find that your team is self-censoring too much, that could halt the brainstorming process. If, during brainstorming sessions, some team members are immediately shooting down ideas as they are being offered by other members of the group, it will intimidate other members — until you have no one contributing ideas at all. Not to mention that the processes for creating and editing are different, and even involve different areas of the brain.[2. “Morning-Evening Variation in Human Brain Metabolism and Memory Circuits,” http://jn.physiology.org/content/109/5/1444.abstract] Conflating the two processes during the same meeting means you won’t get innovative, refined ideas from your team.
To kick start creativity during team brainstorming sessions, team leaders should schedule separate team meetings for ideation and editing. During your initial brainstorming meeting with your team, focus solely on coming up with ideas, and reinforce the tenant that no idea is “too crazy.” Encouraging team members to offer up even their most out-there ideas fosters creativity and a judgment-free atmosphere, and you may just hit on a “crazy” idea that turns out to be the best solution or approach to your project. Then schedule another editing meeting at least a few days after your first brainstorming meeting, where the group can refine and rule out unsuitable ideas as a team. To amp up the creativity even more, try to schedule your brainstorming meeting earlier in the day, and your editing meeting during afternoon hours. Studies have found that we’re at our most creative in the morning, while our analytical side operates at full cylinders later in the day.[3. Morning-Evening Variation in Human Brain Metabolism and Memory Circuits,” http://jn.physiology.org/content/109/5/1444.abstract]
Has this ever happened to you? Your team gathers for a brainstorming session, churns out a few ideas that at first blush seem to be brilliant, only to realize later that the idea everyone rallied around in the meeting was mediocre at best? It used to drive me crazy. Someone would speak up in the beginning, and even though there were other good ideas later, energy would flag and no one would care. We once launched a terrible initiative to encourage volunteer participation by measuring your volunteer hours against your peers (which became the opposite of volunteering), just because it came up first in a meeting.
Why does this happen so often? In traditional brainstorming meetings, the ideas that are presented first are given disproportional consideration and weight, and end up setting the tone for the ideas that follow. This is called “anchoring” — and it’s a common brainstorming conundrum that leads to a creativity shortage. That’s because the first ideas bounced around in a meeting are often the most obvious, not the most creative and insightful.[4. “Brainstorming Doesn’t Work; Try This Technique Instead,” http://www.fastcompany.com/3033567/agendas/brainstorming-doesnt-work-try-this-technique-instead] Nervous to be the first to speak during a meeting, a team member will offer up an idea that won’t rock the boat too much. While not technically bad, the ideas first offered up in a meeting would often benefit from closer scrutiny — but because of anchoring, these first mediocre ideas are inflated and too often adopted as the best course of action.
To wean your team from latching on to uninspired ideas, try “brainwriting” instead of brainstorming — a term coined by UT psychology professor Paul Paulus. In brainwriting, team members come to the brainstorming meeting with a list of ideas already written out, or the team devotes time at the beginning of the meeting to writing out ideas individually before sharing them with one another.
Management professor Leigh Thompson has found major success with brainwriting, particularly with this strategy: after writing down their ideas, the team members post the ideas on a big white board without their name attached. The anonymity of this strategy means that ideation doesn’t devolve into a popularity contest. Thompson’s studies have found that when using this method of brainwriting, teams generate 20 percent more ideas and, more importantly, more than 40 percent more original ideas.[5. “Brainstorming Doesn’t Work; Try This Technique Instead,” http://www.fastcompany.com/3033567/agendas/brainstorming-doesnt-work-try-this-technique-instead]
Brainwriting works because it allows team members to develop ideas without being influenced (via anchoring) by the ideas already suggested. Another benefit of brainwriting? It supports introverted team members, who may retreat into their shells during a traditional brainstorming idea free-for-all. Brainwriting allows team members ample time to think through their ideas before sharing them with the group, which is an introvert’s preferred method of operating. By supporting different personality types and eliminating the detrimental effects of anchoring, brainwriting could be the technique that rockets your team to new heights of creativity.
Encouraging creativity and ideation is a crucial way for business leaders to support a positive team environment, but creativity isn’t the only criteria teams need to meet in order to thrive. If you’re interested in developing effective team leadership skills, learn more about our “teamship” programs.