How the Sausage Gets Made – five ways to kickstart your agency’s creativity

How do you make your team more creative and get more ideas out of them, faster? Samuel Palin of writing agency Reed Words distills five things that psychologists and economists believe make for the most productive creative workplaces.

Creative people have lots of opinions on how to be more creative. You need to get up and move around, they’ll tell you. You need to go skydiving. Some people find inspiration at the bottom of a coffee cup – others, a pint glass. And everyone agrees that deadlines are a wonderful way to spark inspiration.

But this is more about mythologising the process than answering the question.

If you ignore the ping-pong tables, most agencies are pretty conventional workplaces. Business pragmatism prevails. The juniors have a go at something, and present their work to the higher-ups. The higher-ups prod and poke. When everyone’s happy, the client gets to have a look.

So the question remains: how do you make your team more creative? How do you get more ideas out of them, faster?

As it turns out, psychologists and economists have been pondering these questions for the better part of a century. They’ve studied the most creative workplaces, and they’ve run experiments of their own.

Here are five things they’ve learned – and five ways you can use them to build a better creative process.

1. Brainstorms are (usually) a waste of time

Brainstorms feel productive. The hum of fifteen bright minds tackling a problem. The whir of creativity. The whoosh of ideas flying onto a whiteboard.

But it may be an illusion. Since Alex Osborn first told us all to embrace the brainstorm, there’s been a lot of research on the topic – and few ringing endorsements.

In group settings, everyone converges on the same sorts of ideas. What’s more, they generate fewer ideas than they would working independently. And shy people often go unheard.

That’s not to say brainstorms are pointless. You just need to use them in the right way. Rather than kicking a project off with a two-hour brainstorm, try giving everyone an hour to develop their own ideas, then bringing them together to refine and develop.

2. Diversity is king

In 1942, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology needed more space – but the war meant that engineers and steel were both in short supply. So MIT threw something together: a ramshackle, timber-framed lab complex known as Building 20.

After the war, MIT gave Building 20 to its fringe academic disciplines: psycholinguists, programmers, audio engineers. The building became an experiment in what happens when people with different points of view collide.

As it turned out, a lot happens. Building 20 led to the first video game, major advances in atomic physics, and Noam Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar. It’s probably the most productive office space of all time.

The key? It was a melting pot.

You can create your own melting pot. You can sit people from different disciplines together, and give them lots of opportunities talk to each other. If you do, you’ll get more out of them.

3. Feedback kills

We all bemoan client tweaks: the maddening little amends that rob an idea of its soul. But even within agencies, we make it hard for bold ideas to thrive, because we look for consensus.

Consensus is bad. It’s not the idea that everyone likes that you’re looking for. It’s the one that three of you love.

Even when you do all agree, it may not mean much. Way back in 1951, Solomon Asch showed that people will tell whopping lies to fit in with a group of strangers. This situation likely isn’t improved when some of the people in the room pay your salary.

The solution? Divide and conquer. Have small teams work on tight briefs, rather than everyone working on everything. Above all, avoid compromises no one’s really happy with – even if that means some people’s ideas aren’t used.

4. Boredom is bad

The idea that bored people underperform isn’t groundbreaking. It’s the sort of thing you might read in the tabloids: ‘Scientists Spend Five Years Proving You’re Less Productive When You’re Bored’. Actually, the evidence is mixed – but it does seem that extroverts, at least, struggle when things get dull.

However obvious it is, we haven’t fixed the problem. We still don’t trust junior people to balance multiple projects; few of us take the breaks we know we should. We say platitudinous things about keeping people motivated – then work in the most de-motivating ways.

So give people variety. Force them to take breaks. Rather than reinforcing specialisms (‘I’ve given that project to Jane, because she worked on something just like it last year’), mix it up.

Lassitude isn’t solved by ping-pong tables. It’s about making sure people are invested in what they’re doing.

5. Boredom is good

We live in an age of distraction. Of endless notifications, and conversations half-attended to. For many of us, the problem isn’t that we’re bored. We’re just trying to think about too many things at once.

Economists still aren’t sure why the internet productivity boom never happened. One explanation is that it did happen – we just frittered away all our newfound free time. We could be working for three days a week. Instead, we’re scrolling through Twitter. I try not to think too much about this idea.

But there’s a lesson here: concentration matters. Buzzy open plan offices may be fun, but they multiply the potential for distraction – hence the current backlash against them.

Does your agency have quiet spaces for people to retreat to, and does everyone feel comfortable doing so? If not, you may be hobbling their potential – and your agency’s.

Creativity isn’t magic

Whether or not these specific ideas work for you, I’d encourage every agency to consider how their creative process affects their creativity.

Because, when it comes down to it, creativity isn’t magic. Eureka moments are always built on lots of hard work (and there’s no such thing as writer’s block). Instead of selling the myth of the creative genius, let’s interrogate how the sausage gets made. That way, we can all make fatter, juicier sausages.

Samuel Palin is a senior writer at London-based writing agency, Reed Words. He tweets from @samuelpalin. Lead image: iStock

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