If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be meetings.
So said the early 21st century columnist and New York Times bestselling author Dave Barry.
The early 20th century columnist, G. K. Chesterton, took a similar view of consensus-based decision making when he said:
I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.
And Sir Alec Issigonis, the British car designer who designed the Mini famously said:
A camel is a horse designed by committee.
(Perhaps missing the point that camels are extremely adept at surviving in arid conditions.)
Teamwork has a bad rap, especially when it comes to creative projects. However, the truth is that teams can be incredibly creative. Products we use every day—from lightbulbs to iPads—were created as a result of people working together.
I’ve always felt that a team of people doing something they really believe in is like when I was a young kid there was a widowed man that lived up the street, and he was in his eighties. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he might have paid me to mow his lawn or something. And one day he said to me, ‘come on into my garage I want to show you something.’ And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, “come on with me.” We went out into the back and we got just some rocks. Some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit - powder - and we closed the can up and he turned this motor on and he said ‘come back tomorrow’. And this can was making a racket as the stones went around.
And I came back the next day, and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this [clapping his hands], creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks.
That’s always been in my mind my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other…and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.
How can you bring the best of your team, so that their differences rub against each other to polish one another rather than harm one another?
In other words, how can you turn your business meetings into creative spaces? After all, you've got to deal with team dynamics, and people can be reluctant to take creative risks in front of others.
Here are seven steps you can follow to make your meetings more creative.
Step 1: Remember that Creativity Thrives in Constraints
In his book Keys to Drawing With Imagination, the artist Bert Dodson tells the story of how he struggled with art assignments at school:
I actually never liked those grade-school art assignments in which I was told "Draw anything you want." I was overwhelmed by the possibilities. My mind came up blank. There was nothing to push against -- no problem to solve. The experience left me with an early and intuitive appreciation for the value of constraints... Creativity likes constraints and specifics.
Dodson's point is that to be creative, we need constraints.
You'll get the creative best out of your team if you set constraints on every meeting you have together. This can be as simple as:
- Giving every meeting an explicit purpose.
- Having an agenda for the meeting.
- Having a set time when you'll start and finish the meeting.
- Choosing a specific problem that you'll focus on during the meeting.
Along these lines, Sean Blanda, managing editor of the online creativity magazine 99u, explains that all Fortune 500 companies follow three universal rules when it comes to meetings:
- All meetings must have a stated purpose or agenda.
- Attendees should walk away with concrete next steps or action items.
- The meeting should have an end time.
Blanda continues: "Of course, there’s no need to stop there. Truly productive companies always continue tweaking to suit their specific culture."
And you can create more constraints that suit your specific business culture when you...
Step 2: Set the Ground Rules
As we've established, creativity thrives in constraints. Some constraints can be established by how you set up meetings—for example by starting and finishing on time. Other constraints can be set within the meeting space itself. The aim of these constraints is to create a space where everyone feels comfortable sharing their creative ideas.
These constraints you set are the Ground Rules of your meetings. They should be mutually agreed, and written down, so they don't need to be re-stated at every meeting. Ground Rules can always be changed or added to if you discover that they're not working.
Start by asking your team the ground rules they'd like to have. If they struggle for ideas, you might suggest the following:
- All ideas are welcome.
- Listen. Let others speak without interrupting.
- Be careful not to dominate the meeting.
- Challenge others respectfully by asking questions.
- Speak from your own experience. Use "I" rather than "they" or "we."
With mutually agreed ground rules in place, you'll find that your team are more relaxed in meetings, and that they share more creative ideas.
Step 3: Appoint a Neutral Facilitator (Optional)
If you're having a one-off creative meeting or creative day, it can be really helpful to call in a neutral facilitator. This is someone who's skilled in facilitating meetings. Additionally, they should be from outside your organization, so they're not invested in office politics and the power dynamics between team members.
You may decide that you want to facilitate meetings yourself. If this is the case, bear in mind that the role of a facilitator is to create a space where others can share ideas, and to bring together those ideas into a coherent whole. As a facilitator it's not your role to share your own ideas.
Alliteratively, if you're running a series of meeting, you can rotate the person who facilitates. That way each team member gets a chance to lead a meeting.
Step 4: Memorize the Phrase "Yes, and..."
Let's say someone shares a design idea in a meeting. You really like their idea. It's got a lot going for it. However, you'd like it if their design had more color. So you say:
I like your design idea, but it needs more color.
What will the person who shared the idea hear? Something like:
Your idea is terrible. It's not nearly colorful enough. Why did you even bother sharing?
You've squashed their ego and made them feel small. There's a chance they won't share anything else for the rest of the meeting.
How did a positive comment with a small suggestion turn into such a big drama? It's because you used the dreaded "b" word. "But" cancels out anything you said before you added it to your sentence. As the public speaking experts at Message Masters explain: "When we say 'but' we negate everything before it."
So get your butt out of the way!
What should you do instead? Remove the word "but" from your vocabulary. In the example above, you could have said:
I really like your design idea, and I'd love to make it even more colorful.
You've kept their ego intact, helped them feel affirmed, and you've shared the exact same idea.
Step 5: Allow for Movement
New research has found that sitting down is not only bad for your back and your posture. It also inhibits creativity.
Sarah Knapton, Science correspondent at the Daily Telegraph summarizes the results of the research:
Although chairs may seem like a good idea in lengthy meetings, they actually make people territorial and lethargic.
In contrast, standing up was shown to stimulate employees both physically and mentally, keeping them alert and focussed.
The study's author, Professor Andrew Knight, adds: "Our study shows that even a small tweak to a physical space can alter how people work with one another."
Standing up sends more oxygen to our brains—which gives our brains more energy. Hence more creativity.
If you're not yet ready to hold a standing meeting, then at least arrange for a walking break every 30 minutes. That way participants can stand up, walk around, and send a new flow of energy to their brain.
Step 6: Give Everyone a Chance to Share
Even when you're working as a team you can hit a creative wall, where every idea anyone comes up with is a flop.
Or you can arrive at a situation where one strong personality repeatedly shares weak ideas, while others who potentially have better ideas don't have the space to speak.
What can you do in either of these situations? Take time out. Restate the objective for the meeting, then ask everyone to go and find their own space. Everyone is asked to bring back three solutions—no matter how good or bad. After ten minutes of alone time, everyone comes back to share their three best solutions. Make sure everyone's three ideas are shared before any of the ideas are analyzed.
Sure, some of the ideas will be terrible, but that's okay. The aim is to give a chance for everyone to share. And chances are, there will be a gem in there somewhere.
An alternative to this strategy is to use post-it clusters. For this, you get everyone to write down all their ideas on large post-it notes. The page-size post-it notes are then stuck up onto the wall, and clustered into groups of similar ideas.
Bear in mind that the biggest cluster of notes isn't necessarily the best idea. In fact, the bigger the cluster, the less original the idea is likely to be. So pay as much attention to the outliers as you do to the most frequently suggested ideas.
Step 7: Take Very Detailed Notes
Taking detailed notes ensures that you capture every idea that's shared. This is important for two reasons:
- It shows participants that every idea is important. Good ideas are often built on the back of bad ideas, so anything you can do to encourage sharing is helpful.
- It prevents good ideas from getting lost. The best ideas may be shared then passed over for many different reasons. As long as you've recorded them, you can go back to them (and you'll kick yourself if you can remember there was a great idea shared, but you've no idea what it was).
You can't facilitate a meeting and take notes, so make sure you've appointed a notetaker. Ideally, this is someone who won't be contributing to the meeting.
Go Be Creative
Now you know how to bring out the creative best in your team, go do it! You'll be surprised at the change it makes to your team dynamic when everyone gets a chance to be heard and share their ideas.
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