The Creativity Killer: Group Discussions

Traditional meetings are often more about socializing than making decisions. A case for rethinking how we generate ideas.


Perhaps this situation hasn't happened to you yet at work. But it probably will.

Your entire team has been corralled into a conference room and told by your boss to become more creative as a unit. To collaborate more efficiently. To generate breakthrough ideas that will transform your business, your industry, the world at large. To hone your group's collective creativity in ways that makes a team of three or four people more effective than dozens. No pressure—only your career is riding on it.

With the emerging dialogue in the popular press and blogosphere about fostering creativity in business, there is no lack of desire for collective creativity. Take this recent quote by Bruce Nussbaum about looking beyond fostering "design thinking" and instead encouraging "creative Intelligence":

I am defining Creative Intelligence as the ability to frame problems in new ways and to make original solutions. You can have a low or high ability to frame and solve problems, but these two capacities are key and they can be learned.... It is a sociological approach in which creativity emerges from group activity, not a psychological approach of development stages and individual genius.

Yes, group activity can provide the impetus for better framing of problems, which can lead to original solutions. But creativity is the "end result of many forms of intelligence coming together, and intelligence born out of collaboration and out of networks," to quote one of my co-workers, Robert Fabricant. When we collaborate with different kinds of thinkers, sometimes from different cultures and backgrounds, we individually struggle with ingrained behaviors that reduce our likelihood of manifesting creativity.

One of the joys of working in teams is the cadence and flow of dialogue between people, and seeing how ideas grow and change through discussion. We often become lost in these exchanges, and delightfully so.

They seem to be core to the notion of design and creativity, but they aren't. Instead of holding an hour-long meeting with a facilitator at the whiteboard, pen poised to capture ideas called out, what would happen if every person in the room were provided five minutes to generate ideas individually?

How would that transform the interaction between people in the room, as those ideas were shared with the group?

When we lose track of time in group discussion, we are often crafting an enjoyable group experience at the cost of surfacing everyone's unique perspectives and voices. We risk filling the time with consensus, rather than exploring divergent, multi-disciplinary viewpoints. It is in the friction between these views that we explore new patterns of thought.

Creative collaboration requires disciplined teamwork. And this kind of teamwork requires knowing when not to work in teams. This sounds obvious, but we constantly struggle with the belief that we must be inclusive to succeed. When to diverge and when to converge: that is the question.

A useful tool to combat open-ended group dialogue is "timeboxing," the use of short, structured sprints to reach stated goals for individuals or teams. That is, you use little boxes of time. When entering into a meeting or group collaboration, you take the first few minutes of the allotted time to plan out a series of manageable steps with tangible work output, such as ideas on sticky notes or sketches. Over the course of your discussion, you pause to acknowledge and discuss the material you've generated, and what ideas or areas you may want to address next.

This constant bouncing between generating material for consideration, acknowledging and evaluating that material, and making collective decisions will further your end goals. Whether you're coming up with rough ideas or working through the complexity of their execution, these methods can radically impact a group's collective creativity.

What's the quickest way to get people used to this new style of behavior? Construct a situation where you can make your teammates aware of it. Give your team a big problem with almost no time to solve it, step back, and watch what behaviors emerge.

Did the group lose track of time? Did one person control the process of funneling the team towards a solution? Did the group know enough about the problem to approach it, or establish well-informed assumptions? And, most importantly, did people establish explicit roles and goals for how they could effectively work together to make the most of their time?

Make it clear to everyone on the team that they'll have to participate. Agree collectively to the problem you're seeking to solve—or take the time to articulate the problem into small enough pieces that you can tackle it bit by bit. Sketch every idea, whether in your mind or spoken aloud by another person. And watch, week by week, as your team increases its capacity to be creative together.

Image: Brian Snyder/Reuters