The Illusion of Creative Freedom

joe —  Thu 7-Jul-11 — 15 Comments
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Pet PeevesEveryone has their pet peeves and I am no exception; mine are often words or phrases. You can tell when you have hit one by the very visible shiver that comes over me. Several of my friends know these phrases and purposefully use them in public situations to see if I can restrain myself. I have great friends.

As a teacher/student of creativity and innovation there are two phrases that do it for me. These have to be two of the most overused and most misunderstood topics used in management today.

Thinking Outside the Box

I think we have all get what this phrase means, the difficulty comes in what do you do with it? Sure, we all want to see new ideas and this often comes by taking away the restraints of our current thinking. Mom and apple pie.

Think Outside the BoxThe problem is there is always a box. Pretending there isn’t one actually makes the process of coming up with new ideas far more difficult. When someone is presented with infinite possibilities the task of coming up with something valuable is infinitely difficult.

A better phrase might be “make your box bigger.” The problem is it forces you to define a new box and this takes a bit of prep work. As modern day pointy-haired managers we don’t like our cliche phrases to require thought or work. Even if we used the phrase “the sky is the limit” we at least create the ceiling of the box, which is better than no box at all.

There are always constraints. If you ask your spouse where she wants to go to eat tonight and they respond “I don’t care” you know darn well that they do, they are just too tired to define the box. “Want to try that new haggis and pomegranate place on the corner?” Probably not. Instead, I like to ask Beth “what are you not in the mood for tonight?” I’ve just started the process of creating the box.

Don’t let the idealism of unbridled imagination actually diminish your ability to create. The technique of creating a box can be very influential on the quality of ideas that are generated by creating a safety zone. Why waste your time pretending that a radically new idea is possible only to later reject it. Imagine saying to the contributor “your idea was a great one but we couldn’t use it as we have a budget limit” It didn’t help you and likely frustrated the contributor.

Brainstorming

Darth Vader BrainstormThe other time I get the shivers is when someone invites me to a brainstorming session. I have never attended one of these events coming out feeling it was productive. Always exhausting and unfulfilling I think that executives designed these to be torture devices to punish the troops. They run too long and try to be too loose. This is because someone bought into the basic principle that all of us are smarter than any of us so let’s all get in a room and share.

There is truth in the statement that the group may be smarter than the individual (see The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki) but as a my friend Mike likes to say “the how matters.” The concept of bringing a bunch of people into a room to generate ideas that are outside the box without any constructive feedback for hours on end doesn’t work. It’s like gym class in third grade – there will be the quiet ones in the corner, the jocks dominating the game and most of the rest watching the clock until class is over. Brainstorming lacks focus and processes that truly allow great ideas to come forward.

Somehow we were raised to believe that we can’t put a harness on creativity, as if creativity must be allowed to be as free as the audience at a Grateful Dead concert. This fallacy does far more harm to generating innovation than any other. There are a number of studies that demonstrate that setting a process with boundaries, scaling of ideas and rules for allowing and encouraging equal expression actually generates far better results with a lot less frustration.

If you want to get an idea of a better alternative to a brainstorming session consider using the 6-3-5 Brainwriting method or Brainsteering.

Let me be clear, I love fun group collaboration and I do believe that mixing other’s ideas with your own in green field thinking is an awesome thing. I just think we tend to get a little lazy in creating the best environment to facilitate the best ideas. People will have a lot more fun if when they are done they have truly made a contribution.

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  • Jason

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    I like the idea Joe. It is true that too much choice can be too much. Although within the context of decision making, I’d argue that any group of generally competent people are not being faced with an infinite possibility of ideas pertaining to any given situation. A bunch of architects likely won’t be sidetracked on a design for a cake in the middle of a building planning session (I’d also argue that if they were, perhaps they might be on their way to creating something new and amazing in the field of cake works, and that deviation was one of the most important tangents in the history of the pastry arts).

    That being said – it would not be surprising that during any such session, there are relevant ideas, and those that are highly unrealistic and not particularly useful and that those who proposed such things should be put in a smaller box for safe keeping :)

    But I think more importantly – it is useful to focus on why a phrase like “Think outside the Box” was even created. Off hand, I have no idea where this originated, but speculate that the exact disfunction that strangles creative flow today, is the same underlying reason why it is necessary to think outside the box to begin with.

    The problem is that our society, companies, organizations, try to put everyone in the same box and then tell them to think beyond it. Rather than celebrating that everyone’s box is a little different than everyone else, and harnessing the power of that diversity to something greater. This is how the crowd becomes wiser than the parts.

    You mentioned The Wisdom of Crowds – if I recall, according to that book – wise crowds require diversity, independence, and decentralization.

    Regardless of what our wise corporate elders would like us to believe – these three traits are the exact characteristics that most traditional businesses seek to castrate from their fresh young employees. The root of such disfunction starts with the concept of team — my team, teamwork, play on the team, go team, fight team, no I in team – 

    Those phrases are as tired as brainstorming outside the box. The core concept of “team  thinking” embodies uniformity, sacrificing individual creativity for the good of the whole, competition, group think – in other words – the exact opposite of diversity, independence, decentralization, and most importantly creative collaboration. 

    The last few decades have no doubt spawned a much greater level of acceptance for diversity within corporations and organizations than ever before. But that homogeneous team mentality still pervades and still in my opinion does a lot more damage than unharnessed creativity or boundless thought. 

    • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

      Well said Jason. As someone who I consider one of the most creative people I have ever met, you come with great insight.

      You are correct that the Wisdom of Crowds said that groups needed diversity. That’s part of the prep work need for group think. There’s a bit of reverse thinking that Brainstorms can actually happen well if a very diverse group is divided up into small groups of 3-5 people, each group divided along areas of common interest and then given questions that seed there thought process. THen these individual groups are brought back to the deciding group and integrated into a framwork of decision making. If you want to see how this works, read the book Brainsterring I referenced above. This is one of the best ways to transform a brainstorm.

  • Tim

    I am not a fan of brainstorming sessions.  I always leave them feeling brain-dead.  You can’t take people with no preparation or guidance, put them in a room, and say:  “Okay, now think!”  I do my best thinking not when I am at my desk or in a meeting, but when I’m out running, brushing my teeth, showering, walking my dogs, or something else completely unrelated to work.  Then ideas just seem to pop in out of nowhere.  Many of my colleagues report similar experiences.  If we were to gather in a room to discuss neat ideas we’ve already come up with, *that* has a good chance of being a productive meeting.

    • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

      I love it when those happen. My problem is I try to make a mental note but find I have nothing to write on.

      How do you capture your thoughts during these activities, Tim?

      • Tim

        How do I capture my thoughts?  I just remember them.  I have so few thoughts, it is not difficult to remember when I have one.  What was your question again?

  • Cpannell

    Try living in the legal world Joe. It adds a whole new vocabulary to be irritated with. Unfortunately, I think we have lost a lot of people that know how to manage a “brainstorming” session. Often I think some just believe it is a matter of just locking people in a room and waiting til something good comes out. What’s that old adage about a thousand monkeys with a typewriter?

    • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

      They make great law clerks? (duck – that was way to easy C).

      • Cpannell

        They do say attorneys are evidence of devolution. Maybe you are on to something.

  • http://reora.com Paul

    i don’t care what the session is called, i think it’s a matter of preparation, either guidance on what the meeting hopes to accomplish specifically, or soliciting ideas to discuss BEFORE the session.

    simply grabbing people and sticking them in a room to come up with ‘good ideas’ is more often than not a waste of time and money.

    • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

      Paul – agreed, prep is the bqare minimum. However I think you need to have an experienced facilitator that know how to conduct sessions like these. Nearly all of the ones that I know have given up on pure brainstorming because the data shows it doesn’t pay off.

      That’s why there have been quite a few refinements to the process (like 6-3-5 and Brainsteering) that I wish would get adopted more quickly. The problem is the allure of the simplicity of brainstorming that everybody thinks they can do it. Yest they can, but usually badly. Hire a pro.

  • http://twitter.com/michaelhughesua michaelhughesua

    I worked for a professional services group once and someone in marketing had written some promo copy that touted our “out of the box solutions.” I tried to explain to her what that phrase meant in the software world but she just kept repeating the connect-the-dots analogy. I guess she later wondered why people weren’t lining up to pay a professional services team to deliver “out of the box solutions.”

    • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

      A new oxymoron of sorts?? Michael – what kind of creative idea generation techniques do you like to use

      • http://twitter.com/michaelhughesua michaelhughesua

        List my assumed constraints then envision a solution where they don’t apply.

  • BrentI

    Here’s a toast to Binford Brothers ‘brainstorming’ – Ha!  It’s the blues man, no need for abstract jazz.  Ground yourselves in the classics…

    • http://thestrandedstarfish.com Joe Kleinwaechter

      What an awesome surprise to see you here Brent. Still have the Binford Brothers shirt (although Beth won’t let me wear it anywhere but for yard work – it’s had its day).
      Would love to hear your thoughts on creative techniques now that you have the Seattle scene of cool kids down.