How Creatives Can Unearth the Great Ideas

“Most people hold misguided beliefs about what truly creative work necessitates,” says Barry Staw, Berkeley Professor Emeritus in Leadership and Communication. Staw’s observation hints at how people underestimate their creative abilities. Consequently, as research finds, these employees underinvest their efforts to dig deep and find the best solution.


Today, creative work is viewed as a crucial process and mindset that helps tech companies create and iterate its product. Facebook, Bluescape, and Slack all need creatives to help make its core product work for users. The infamous design consultancy, IDEO, has matured creative work with a set of design-centered, human-centered tools widely adopted in companies worldwide.


It stands to reason, then, that creativity is a vital skill for leading companies. These companies all rely on creatives bringing their best efforts to help solve business problems. Like any team that must work together, hurdles abound when finding a workable solution to a business challenge. One such barrier is creatives who underestimate their abilities and, consequently, don’t spend enough time digging deep, identifying possible solutions. Some researchers call it the creativity cliff illusion:


“[When] people expect their creativity to decline across an ideation session when it, in fact, tends to improve or persist [the longer people brainstorm ideas.]”


The Creative Effort Conundrum

In my experience, brainstorming sessions tend to be scheduled for 30- or 60-minutes. This is a problem. Based on the previously referenced research, the most significant ideas result from the continual investment in brainstorming. By continual investment, I mean teams spend more than an hour posting ideas on a virtual whiteboard.


Aside from shortened creative sessions, how we view creativity is outdated. When in reality, we need to adjust our “judgments and beliefs about creativity,” says Brian Lucas and Loran Nordgren, professors at Northwestern University. The researchers’ findings confirm what others have noted about seeking the elusive great idea: ideas get better when the team digs deep when generating ideas.


Why, then, do teams not invest the necessary time to brainstorm? A little psychology helps us understand the causes. When we come to a brainstorming session, we tend to adjust our expectations about a successful outcome based on how much creativity is needed. For example, when a problem requires low levels of creativity, Lucas and Nordgren say that we come to the meeting more willing to invest time to solve a problem. The two professors call this disfluency; the subjective feelings we have about the effort, or difficulty, required to approach a task. Yet, for more problems that require higher degrees of creativity, we tend not to invest the amount of time to get to the elusive next great idea.

Unfortunately, we tend to underestimate the value of sticking to a long brainstorm session. That next great idea is a casualty from our tendency to hurry up and get things done.


Counter to the Creative Effort Conundrum

Perhaps an obvious solution to counter the deleterious effects of our need to hurry up is training design leaders to lead brainstorming sessions effectively. This challenge is compounded today by a mostly remote workforce.


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Another way to help teams not underestimate the creative process is by reinforcing the importance of failure. One of my favorite CEOs, Richard Sheridan, holds this important belief about his role in supporting his engineers and creatives: pump out fear in the culture.


For Sheridan, this means making sure every employee knows that failed ideas are necessary to the creative process. Without them, the team won’t learn from the mistakes. “The only way you can have no mistakes is by doing no work,” said one astute radiologist on Twitter.



Technology with Creativity at Its Core

However, there is another powerful tool in a creative arsenal in their quest for brilliant ideas: technology. At Bluescape, we put all a creative’s work in a virtual work platform. Here, teams can come together and brainstorm using a virtual whiteboard. What’s brilliant about a virtual whiteboard is anyone can share ideas whenever they want no matter what’s on the agenda for the session.


What’s more, teams can work asynchronously, too.


In this work mode, ideas from the original session can be refined after the team’s initial ideations. No meeting is needed. With a virtual whiteboard, teams can share, refine, and add new ideas on the whiteboard from anywhere, anytime.


Well-designed technology helps creatives chase the sun: it doesn’t matter when the idea strikes, virtual notecards can capture the inspiration morning, night, late-night, and can be saved forever in the virtual whiteboard. The next time the team accesses the whiteboard, all changes are readily available.


Ideally, creativity is boundless. Time becomes irrelevant, and, at the same time, critical. For a team to do its best work, they need enough time ideate. Also, ideas need to marinate in our memories. Mulling over ideas and refining them after the initial brainstorming session reinforces how valuable it is for creatives to be persistent with generating solutions to business problems.


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About the Author

Shawn Murphy
Director of Organizational Behavior, Bluescape
Shawn is our Director of Organizational Behavior and Workplace Trends. His second book, Work Tribes is out now. Shawn's first book, The Optimistic Workplace is out now. Inc. has listed him twice as one of the top leadership speakers in America.

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