With all of my travel the last few weeks, it's been a great chance to catch up on episodes from some of my favourite podcasts. In WorkLife with Adam Grant: A TED original podcast, he explores what makes for great teams and working environments by going to some of the world's most unusual workplaces.
In one of the best episodes, Adam goes to The Daily Show to sit in for a day to see what it takes to harness the power of group creativity in high-pressure situations. We've all sat through brainstorming sessions where at the end it seems like least attractive, most safe ideas float to the top, and, frankly, it feels like mediocracy is rewarded.
After listening to The Daily Show team chat about their workflow and relationships to one another, Adam uncovers four essential elements to improve creativity and innovative results from your time working together as a team.
- Burst instead of Brainstorm
- Safety First
- Task Bubbles
- Shared Experience Trumps Team Retreats
Burst instead of Brainstorm
Adam introduces us to a critical concept in the psychology of creativity: burstiness. He encourages you to think about it as the best kind of family dinners. The kind where everyone is jumping into the conversations, they're building and interrupting the conversation. People aren't afraid to criticise because there is an ease to the discussion and everyone knows what the folks around the table are masters of.
Anita Williams Woolley, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, describes burstiness as when "the people who are in the conversation are energized because when you speak, somebody's going to respond to you right away, you know they're listening and then you're listening to them, and so it's much easier to exchange ideas and maybe build ideas."
I think this is what people hope brainstorming will be, but you can't just throw people into a room with a whiteboard or sticky notes and get this result. Luckily, Adam provides a path for us to get from brainstorming to burstiness.
When you hear the team talk about safety in the writers' room at The Daily Show, they never cite a list of rules of how they're supposed to pitch a joke, or make an edit, or even how they receive praise. Adam digs deeper and pulls out that they find safety through watching one another fail all the time, call one another out on that failure (in a respectful way), and try again.
He introduces us to a research project that showcases this in action. "Researchers asked, "How many new uses can you come up with for this paperclip"? People went off to brainstorm. Group one generated pretty common ideas: a ring, a bracelet, and a necklace. But group two came up with totally unexpected uses, like a wound suture, artwork and a screwdriver. What made the difference? In the first group, everyone just launched into brainstorming, but in the second group, people were randomly assigned to share an embarrassing story before the brainstorm. And that simple act lowered their inhibitions."
If you've taken Business Model 101 from Stephanie, you've probably watched this in action. Before she askes our participants to try a new exercise, she often shares a story of how she embarrassed herself previously doing the same task.
One of the pieces of the story that captured my attention was how narrow the focus was for each person on the creative team at The Daily Show. Adam refers to this as Task Bubbles. Even though everyone comes together for burstiness, the real success comes from each team member knowing their lane, how much time they have to act, and the consequences to other folks if they don't deliver.
The structure doesn't create more stress, even with a looming deadline, it equips them to be even more creative because they have an "incredibly precise contribution to make."
Adam describes task bubbles as a dedicated time where "people are totally absorbed in a common project. It keeps the group focused. That way, everyone can build on each other's ideas and bursts. Task bubbles give the writers and producers the space they need to hone and refine their ideas. Without these protected hours for collaboration, they'd all be working at different times, out of sync. Too much structure can inhibit creativity, but so can too little structure. If you agree together on some rules for when and how to work, you can focus all your energy on doing the work."
Shared Experience Trumps Team Retreats
When asking one of the producers, Steve Bodow, how he formed a high-performance team, his response was simple. "We have so many shows to do, 160 a year, there is not a hell of a lot of time for taking retreats or doing dry runs of things. The way you do new process, or the way that you get people to work together, is by making a show and making another show and then making another show."
Adam elaborates, "So no matter how good you get at finding the right people if you want a group to have creative bursts, what matters most is the time you spend getting to know each other. It's a twist on the idea that 10,000 hours of practice helps you become an expert. Normally, we think that means practicing a skill solo, but if group creativity is your goal, maybe you should be practicing together."
We're a tight team here at Startup Edmonton. We don't have it right all of the time, but we work hard to create the environment here for us to find the sweet spot of burstiness not just for our work, but also for the fantastic founders, teams, and community members that trust us with their progress.
Adam sums up the importance of finding ways to better work as a team beautifully...
because the best creative groups are not the sum of their parts, they're the sum of their shared experience.
WorkLife with Adam Grant
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