The Illusion of Creative Freedom

joe —  Thu 7-Jul-11

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.


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.