Creativity isn’t fragile

A brainstorm session is no substitute for a healthy, psychologically safe team. In some ways, what was once a fine method’ it has become overloaded – and it’s not weight bearing.

Brainstorms typically emerge in a few different contexts. For example, a working team might brainstorm ideas for the next quarter, helping a PM construct a roadmap. Or, early in the design process, when the solution or problem space is pretty wide open: lets think about ways to make our messenger product more fun.” Usually these ideas are grouped up, synthesized and voted on. In some cases, like in a design sprint, different team members might sketch or quickly prototype them up.

Co-design Self Collapse

Unfortunately, what tends to unfold looks like this:

  • Extroverted white men shout out their ideas the loudest.
  • The HIPPO still very much exists, and once their ideas are shared it’s game over.
  • Half the room doesn’t contribute – maybe they have too little skin in the game, their work function is too distant from the problem or they are just bored and haven’t had their coffee.
  • No one is visibly having fun.
  • An extremely rigid structure, like we have already decided this will be on iOS, and part of the next release – rather than opening it up to different mediums, channels, users etc.

Even in orgs that push co-design, often the average brainstorm fails to meet even basic criteria.

  • Co-designers are meant to make decisions, not just suggestions – yet most brainstorming workshops never result in decisions getting made.
  • The wrong people in the room. Sometimes these exercises are dressed up as co-design, despite leaving out critical people in the design process if you’re designing a new youth service and you’ve got adults and young people in different working groups, you’re not doing co-design).”

Copywriters and Art Directors

It’s unfair to blame a single method, or a single meeting. What seems to be happening is that a bad brainstorm indicates a creative culture that is leaking creativity.

One way to tell you are in a very low safety’ environment, is when the design/product team is simply not generating many ideas. Typically there should be a flood of good and bad ideas all the time. In a decent environment, ideas won’t matter so much. In a unsafe environment, the few measly brave’ ideas that float into the public will be sniffed and scrutinized — a symptom of a sick system.

The less creative the workplace, the more creative meetings you’ll find yourself in. When I worked in advertising, where one dumb idea can make or break your career, art directors and copywriters, who were typically on the verge of madness or depression by midday, slung thoughts to each other, or to themselves on a sheet of paper, over and over and over until something sounded like there’s something there’.

I just can’t remember a single session where we were asked to use those little sticky notes.

Robust teams, robust ideas

Just because we need to feel familiar and safe doesn’t mean that creativity is a fragile porcelin dove. Things have got to be smashed so you realize they can (and should be) smashed up.

Whether you are nodding or shaking your head, keep an eye out for some of these healthy signals – or aim to cultivate these with your team.

  • The design team has a never ending stream of ideas, weirder and wackier the better.
  • People laugh during a brainstorm more than once. People laugh when ideas are risky or dangerous.
  • Other functions like to riff on ideas with design, because it’s fun.
  • Ideas can get blown up and torn apart. It doesn’t have to happen during critique. This was my experience in design school and I can’t say it’s that common (because of a billion corporate reasons), but trust me it’s a healthy sign! Remember, it will occasionally be unpleasant—not everyone is always in the mood for small talk or criticism”
  • Shitty prototypes, mock-ups, brain farts, parodies, take-downs, fantasy design

January 29, 2022

These days