creativity by committee

It is a lot easier to kill an idea than to create one. Groups are often better equipped to critique than to create.

I was struck by a recent NY Times article on the challenges of group creativity: “The Rise of the New Groupthink“:

“Decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases … The reasons brainstorming fails are instructive for other forms of group work too. People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.”

However groups and teams can also make ideas a lot stronger. The best ideas are the sum of many diverse parts and perspectives.

The answer I think is to allow for different styles of creativity. Some prefer quiet reflection. Others thrive in chaotic groups sessions. I once heard former Goodby planner Pam Scott give a talk on six distinct archetypes of creativity, ranging from “still-mind intuitive” to “editor”. The trick of the organization is to recognize that everyone expresses creativity differently and to figure out the right environment to get the most out of all six archetypes, sometimes in a group session, sometimes alone. We are all creative, even if we show that creativity in different ways.

The greater issue that I see in group creativity is the nature of groups to be critical rather than creative. Unless a group is holding a cordoned brainstorm, the tendency is to look at reasons why ideas can’t work, rather than why they can.

I’m giving a talk on this dynamic this week in Los Angeles at a Deutsch/Brainjuicer conference on Invention. My main message to the attendees is the importance of creativity in execution, long after the brainstorm is over. That’s when creativity is most needed.

We shouldn’t let our creative teams turn into committees.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post. I’ll pick one comment by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

  1. Murali says

    There have always been many different ways of classifying personalities and find a suitable creative style, for example provides a self assessment and a bunch of techniques once you have found your bucket to enhance creative output or classifying for learning or decision making styles the classification system could be

    Really group behavior on beating (the hell out of) the idea can be ritualized to most extent, without getting too personal and in turn making the idea more broader and robust. And there are methods for this too, only committees never have the right set of people even for this.

    My experience with committees is, they tend to suck out the life out of ideas and the enthusiasm from the person with the idea with an end result of leaving him/her alone, which probably for the good and to prove another hypothesis.

    Thanks for reminding us to ask “Now what” after we get the idea, with or without the committee.

  2. Aysel says

    Some people are more creative when working alone, while others can be inspired by ideas of others and make them better. I agree that the larger the group the more likely for some members to sit and let others do the thinking. In my experience, best groups were with 3 people, when everyone feels responsible and has to comment/think/work in order not to be the odd one out.

  3. Jane Naylor says

    How to kill creativity in three easy steps.

    Parent says “No, you mustn’t do that”.
    Teacher says “No, that won’t work”.
    Employer says “No, we always do it this way”.

    Maybe they see it as a threat. Drum it into people enough times and eventually the ideas stop flowing.

  4. Kyla Lacey-Davidson says

    This discussionr eminds me of Sir Ken Robinson at TED talking about how schools kill creativity as they teach us to try to be right and never get anything wrong…

  5. Chris says

    Theres something soul destroying about presenting creative work to non creatives, it regularly falls into this scenario. Ive never had a good idea or plan come out of this way of organising things, its where creativity goes to die

  6. Nate Challen says

    Last year I went through innovation training with ?WhatIf! and they introduced the importance of “Greenhousing” to cope with this issue. The principal is that ideas are incredibly delicate when first born, and need protection so they can grow and develop, while too often they are killed off immediately by comments like “We did that before” or “That would never work”. Therefore you must create an environment instead where ideas are nurtured. May sound simple, and it has proven to be effective, but it definitely requires some retraining of your team. You can read about this and other creativity prinicpals in their book Sticky Wisdom.

  7. Bill Carlson says

    I worked with a research company who had what I thought was an interesting approach to focus groups which can suffer some of the same issues. The moderator would present some thought process, ask each participant to write down their thoughts, reactions, ideas, etc., and THEN he would then engage in the dialog. Forced 100% participation while avoiding the issue of participants being intimidated by sharing ideas with the group as well as not allowing a dominant personality to take control. At some point he would then refer to those notes which had become essentially anonymous to make sure nothing remained unsaid and if there was something interesting that may have been buried in group dynamics, he was able to bring it in.

    In a culture where “want it, want it now!” is the norm, we need to appreciate that some things don’t happen instantly… Brainstorming is just one tactic for stimulating creative thinking, opening minds to considering new challenges and opportunities, but one meeting rarely does it. In fact, I would contend that the mind processes new thinking over time, sort of “in the background”, and so-called “aha!” moments are really the result of that — letting the mind have enough time to play “connect the dots”. I.e. multiple rounds of brainstorming needed!

    I’ve never, emphasizing NEVER, seen an idea spontaneously arise from one person and be perfect. Basis for the eventual concept? Sure! But made better by group challenges to the thinking. So we need a balance between providing enough freedom for new thinking to emerge versus allowing for the fact that there are challenges and issues worthy of consideration.

    I’ve often said, perhaps in defense of my own lack of creativity :), that bad ideas are as valuable as good ideas — understanding why an idea is “bad” helps create the rationale for shaping one that’s “good.” So, as many would attest, I’ve never hesitated to toss a bad idea into the mix!

  8. Danielle Gignac says

    Group critique often comes from a place of wanting to be able to say: “I told you so.” People want to be right but risk appetites are usually pretty low.

    Adding to your suggestion of understanding different styles of creativity, part of the solution may be to change the way meetings are framed.

    I was always told that if I had an issue with something that I had to come equipped with at least one solution. I wasn’t allowed to knock an idea without at least offering an alternative or v2.0 idea.

    Coming at it from a constructive rather than destructive place might go a long way in changing the dynamic of the groupthink.

    Great cartoon and post!

  9. Jamie Kelly says

    I had to forward this to my team this morning when I saw it. It reminded me of deBono’s work with 6 Thinking Hats and the work we do with Emergenetics on WEteams (cognitive diversity). What I loved most about this is your thought around “the importance of creativity in execution, long after the brainstorm is over. That’s when creativity is most needed. We shouldn’t let our creative teams turn into committees.”

    In our role at work (Organizational Development)we often help folks think differently and build cognitively diverse teams for brainstorming, but rely on more tactical skills in execution. Brilliant thought about being sure the creativity remains throughout execution!!

    Thanks for a fresh perspective today!

  10. Andrea Baldo says

    In my experience for creativity to fluorish and generate value, two ingredients are key: a proper defined “creative process” (left brain) and a company climate that enable creativity (right brain). Process requires roles, structure, phases. Climate requires freedom of expression, challenging status quo, acceptance of conflicts. when you have both, you are at the top of your league.

  11. Susan Goewey says

    Just heard this on NPR: George Lois’ defining statement about creativity is that it can solve almost any problem. “The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything. And I really believe that. What I try to teach young people, or anybody in any creative field, is that every idea should seemingly be outrageous.”
    Here’s an example he used… Lois says he’s been thinking differently for as long as he can remember. Once, when he was enrolled in a design course as a teenager, his instructor told the class to do a study based on pure rectangles on an 18″ by 24″ sheet of paper. The assignment was worth half their grad for the season, but while Lois’ classmates nervously cut shapes out of their papers, Lois sat idly, looking out the window, not touching his paper at all.

    “Finally, after an hour and 20 minutes, he said, ‘Time’s up!'” Lois recalled. Just before the teacher looked at Lois’ blank paper, Lois said, “‘Excuse me, wait for a second.’ And I wrote ‘G. Lois’ in the corner of this perfect, 18-by-24 rectangle. And he tore it out of my hands … I came in the next morning and there were four or five teachers in the hallway… They said, ‘George, my God, George, what you did in Mr. Patterson’s class was brilliant!’ What I taught myself was that in any problem you get, you’ve got to come up with an innovative, brilliant, kind of unusual, stunning solution.”

    What I try to teach young people, or anybody in any creative field, is that every idea should seemingly be outrageous.

  12. Dave Morell says

    We are trained at an early age, and consistently through our lives, to de-select options based on our biases and make our consideration sets smaller, thereby making it easier to get to the “best” option. The pace of change makes this worse – technology and information is expanding, so we fight harder to shrink what we have to consider just to be able to process at all. Groups need strong facilitators to battle this inclination, and be effective at generating developable ideas.

  13. Susan Abbott says

    As both a focus group moderator, and a facilitator of innovation sessions, I see both sides of this issue, the strengths of brainstorming and the weaknesses.
    Clients sometimes hope that consumers (e.g. focus group participants) can come up with the answer to some problem (e.g. think up a new product). This is not likely to happen, and not the best use of the insights of consumers.

    There are a number of ways in which a good moderator can help a group. One of them is the anchoring technique mentioned by Bill Carlson in his comment above. This approach forces the participant to consider their own reaction first, before engaging in group discussion.

    Another important approach, when having participants look at a new idea or concept, is to get well past the “like it, don’t like it” discussion. Better questions for discussion are things like: what does the idea bring to the table, how might someone use it, what would make it better, etc. In recent years, I have found that consumers are so well schooled in the language of marketing that they will tell me all about how the product is “positioned incorrectly”, or “the execution is weak”, or needs “a fresher design aesthetic” etc. As you note in your article, there is a certain amount of negativity as well, as our “slow thinking” analytical processes kick in.

    All of this does not mean that you cannot get great insights from consumers in a group, but it does mean you need clever and thoughtful approaches to setting up the discussion and interpreting what you get.

    As a facilitator, I do agree that brainstorming all by itself is unlikely to get you where you want to go. Brainstorming is ONE creative thinking method, and it should not have to carry the full load. It is best used within a framework where we might help the team get immersed in the customer experience, look at parallel worlds (e.g. how others address similar challenges), and a multitude of other methods that prime the pump. These approaches take time, and planning – but they do pay off in a huge way if done well.

    What does not work well is pulling people from the middle of a busy workday, plunking them in a boardroom for an hour, and asking them to just brainstorm. The only people who are good at this are those who have a lot of experience with creative thinking work, and can effectively self-facilitate.

    Thanks for another thoughtful graphic, and a great post.

  14. Karen Wertman says

    A work environment where people feel that they are valued for their unique contribution and insight, rather than just the tasks they must perform, is one of the best indicators of group effectiveness.

    Bringing a group of people together to meetings who rarely feel free to express their individual opinions or give creative input day-to-day and expecting a healthy process is a classic mistake I’ve seen made in both large and small organizations.

    When you put a roomful of people together who are rarely asked to provide their feedback, there’s a pent up need to simply express. Critique is easier than creativity, which is riskier. Providing regular opportunities that allow people to train their creativity, rather than toe the line, builds skill and confidence and an environment where group collaboration becomes a valuable tool.

    Organizations led by charismatic and creative leaders are often the biggest culprits here. The environment appears highly creative on the surface, but the culture is creatively top-down.

  15. David Sprogis says

    Great ideas are often disruptive and that scares people. I believe most people are content with the “devil they know”.

    Old habit, old ways, are linked to old systems of control. Folks in power don’t want to lose control so they hang onto and often propagate old ways. It’s not just new ideas that suffer but entire new landscapes of change.

    Polaroid was a prime example – to Polaroid, “instant film” meant “instant chemicals” – while they won the battle (patent suit), they lost the war. Outrageously, Kodak, forced out of “instant chemicals”, forced into digital, also lost the war for the same reason.

    I can’t help but reflect on IBM’s motto “Think” followed by Apple’s motto “Think Different”. I find it sad to consider the possibility that “New Groupthink” is the next step of evolution.

  16. Courtney Moyer says

    While I generally agree with the arguments in this piece, I have to propose that creativity in groups is largely a product of the members of the group. If you’re a business that values creativity and collaboration at the same time, you have to hire employees who share those values. Embed them in your culture and probe for those qualities during the interview process. You’ll build a staff that works well together and encourages idea sharing. Snagajob has done this and it’s led to us doubling in size while creating new approaches to products and being named No. 1 small company to work for in America on the Great Place to Work®. It’s all in the approach and it starts with hiring the right team.

    Great cartoons by the way! I look forward to them every week.

  17. Scott says

    I see that Jane’s observations are entirely true. The expectations of other tend to funnel our thoughts into narrow streams that already are proven successful. But I was strongly convicted about those limitations on creativity recently. In a discussion about my 4-year-old son and his amazing imagination, my mom said “you used to be just like that.” Wow. That thought really struck deep and has inspired me to get back to that place in everything I do. I want people to say “like father, like son” and mean it in a good way.

  18. Jeff says

    My definition of a good meeting is where we leave with a better solution than anyone arrived with. In a good company, those are the majority.

  19. Abby says

    I saw this cartoon and LOLed — yes, a literal laugh out loud. It was awesome; thank you for that alone.

    I like your analysis of the different types of creativity and the importance of different perspectives. But I think outside-the-box thinking in a group comes from a more fundamental place: allowing (nay, encouraging or demanding!) meeting participants to abandon their assumptions. Some of that resonates in the comments above.

    Forget what they “know” about the brand, the customers, the market positioning, even the competitors. Pry peoples’ cold death grip from their personal, pet projects, so criticism of sacred cows (which warp so many internal decision-making processes!) is seen as criticism of a project, not a coworker.

    Then start from the beginning.

    Then a “that won’t work” line — which can shut down a brainstorming session almost immediately — must be justified, not swallowed. Why won’t it work? What are the assumptions underlying that claim? Are those assumptions true or false? What other assumptions are true or false?

    Discovering false assumptions, or assumptions potentially false that can be tested, is the best way to think outside of the box. I mean, in that scenario, you’ve ripped the box to shreds. And it’s awesome.

    Decision-making in a group setting is a consensus process. Some pull the group to the left (metaphorically, of course); others, to the right. A few are left in the middle. Eventually everyone agrees the greatest consensus is in that middle place — maybe a little to the left or right of it depending on the dynamism and, frankly, place in the company pecking order, of those advocating on either side.

    The only way to shake up the decision-making is to shake up the playing field. (Terrible mixed metaphor; my apologies.) The only way to shake up the playing field is to shake up the rules of the game by putting everything on the table.

    I had this experience recently when I wanted to redesign a homepage.

    Immediate answer from IT staff: “That won’t work. That’s a bad idea. We don’t like the way it looks. We need to keep features A, B, and C because we have them that way for a reason.” Clinging to the old and familiar, claiming authority based on prior knowledge, assumptions all over the place. Idea-killing and soul-sucking.

    I showed them the results of the month I’d had playing with goals in Google Analytics to see how the page performed. Oh. Suddenly, the world is a different place.

    Assumptions destroyed.

    Homepage changed.

    Victory for forward thinking.

    Thanks again for the cartoon.

  20. Sylvia says

    I can readily identify here. At one time long ago we would have a large meeting with rules and everyone was heard and no idea was deemed dumb as many contained the kernal of a new idea to follow. One rule was to respect everyone, and all knew the topics, etc. Not the way we work now.

    Now we meet in one large group to ‘brainstorm’ problems with the head of the office ‘guiding’ everything. Many of us are not completely cognizant of all of the topics (different areas of expertise and the sad fact that information is held back.) Then we break out into ‘teams’ of no more than three (sometimes 4) to work to bring ideas back into the meeting on little slips of paper, we come back in, present our ideas, they are then written down on a flip chart by our office head who ‘guides’ everything to fit her beginning remarks, thereby, despite how our comments/resolutions are presented, they become skewed to fit her ‘theme’. (what is the real killer is to learn from co-workers after the meeting is that words were spoken such as, “what could you expect coming from him/her?”, or other cutting remarks about one or more attendee.)

    So now you see right at the first meeting many facial expressions when it is safe to convey them to other co-workers, and even the one or two falling asleep. We all just stay quiet knowing the end result of our time being wasted will always be the same. The very lucky few have off-site schedules for days of these meetings.

    We can not understand the continued farce of ‘having everyone contribute’ when we know it does not matter in the end. Pure exasperation and low office moral. But we try to keep our heads down, do our work and stay under the radar.

    We do not feel really valued and now the staff numbers have dwindled to an all time low as people find employment elsewhere and leave. Sad times as this is such a nice company overall.

    Thank you for your cartoons too.

  21. says

    Hi all,

    Wow, what a treasure it’s been to read all of your thoughtful and insightful commentary on this week’s cartoon. Thanks everyone!

    This week’s signed print goes to Nate Challen for sharing the Whatif “Greenhousing” metaphor. I hadn’t heard that before, but it struck me as a useful construct to safeguard early stage ideas when they are at their most delicate. It reminded me of Jonathan Ive’s tribute to Steve on the fragility of ideas:

    “And just as Steve loved ideas, and loved making stuff, he treated the process of creativity with a rare and a wonderful reverence. You see, I think he better than anyone understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.”

    I like the idea of a “Greenhouse” to protect those ideas when they are at their most fragile.

    If you’re interested, here’s the video of the talk I gave on Monday that relates to a lot of this discussion:

    Many thanks!


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