Thursday, July 29, 2010

MADly Creative — WWNT?

First I read Forget Brainstorming – What you think you know about fostering creativity is wrong. A look at what really works, which led me to The death of brainstorming. Newsweek got it wrong.

I read the exchanges between the Newsweek writers and the brainstorming consultants with interest. Both sides had valid points.

Nonetheless, I think the solution to getting more creativity back into American business has little to do with either side's arguments.

I am no creativity expert—just a member of the “lay audience” who has participated in brainstorming using various techniques ranging from chaotic "skeet shooting" to expert-facilitated ideation. My personal observation is that creativity has no One True Method. Even I, as an individual, have no One True Method that is right for me in every situation.

I do think that creativity can be elevated by setting up conditions that encourage it. In my humble opinion, the key conditions are time (to think, revise, dream), stimuli (i.e., new information, for which the source can be any interaction: human, media, environment, etc.), and passion (around the topic).

In my personal experience, I've been inspired even in badly organized skeet-shooting-type brainstorming environments when it was the right mix of people in the room and we were all passionate about the topic. We stimulated and built upon each other's ideas and were so passionate about the topic that it played in our subconscious minds even when we shifted focus to other tasks. We'd keep spontaneously regrouping to hash out another component of the idea as it occurred to us. Creativity was not only stimulated; it could not be restrained.

I have also seen a whole room of very clever people limp through the torture of producing nothing of significance even within exceedingly well facilitated brainstorming sessions. These dreadful, costly experiences usually occurred when the people involved just weren't truly invested in the topic. (I'm not talking about need or urgency here—the demand for a solution may be very real and you may be passionate about finding a solution, but sometimes you just don't have any passion around the topic itself that is to be brainstormed.) In these times creativity seems tremendously forced; that's when it fails, despite the best process expert being on hand to lead the exercise.

My best creative ideas come from doing a lot of reading, thinking, discussing, thinking, writing, thinking over a period of time (I guess it's that that whole "letting several simultaneous ideas percolate" method). Then, when inspiration strikes, it's like fire because my subconscious, I presume, has already been at work fitting the pieces together.

I think the biggest obstacle to creativity in business today is that we have no time—we're "doing more with less," structured, gated, LEAN, etc. until people don't have a single spare second to mentally process potentially inspiring stimuli beyond a very superficial level. (Don't get me wrong—these methods are hugely important in fully developing and executing the outcomes of creativity to extract the most value, but they don't generate creativity.) People are stretched so thin in today's corporation that the stress diminishes the ability to be functional at a high level, let alone creative. Necessity may be the mother of invention (and I'm not entirely convinced of that, either—necessity may simply be the impetus to get the resources you need for possible creative work), but desperation isn't.

So, IMHO, the heart of the solution lies in organizational design, not of finding the best brainstorming method or consultant.

WWNT? (What would Newsweek think?)

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