Ideas are elusive things, and we all have them, whether we realise it or not. I tend to carry around a notepad (and these days, I also have Evernote on my phone) to jot down ideas when they occur to me: no matter how banal or half-arsed they seem at the time, you just never know when that pithy aphorism, made-up name or rhyming couplet might be useful. I sometimes meet people who insist, “Oh, I’m not creative,” as if that lets them off the hook for any of the silly things their brain probably throws at them, and I want to tell them: sorry, you are creative, whether you like it or not. Everyone is. We all construct sentences every day that we’ve never said before, go to places we haven’t been before, and even when we’re somewhere familiar – the supermarket, maybe, or at work – we’re confronted with unfamiliar situations that we have to just deal with, without being given extra time to ask Google what we should do.
But ideas, on their own, are worthless. For every idea I’ve had that I’ve even started doing anything with, I’ve probably had 100 that I’ve parked indefinitely. They sit there, like forgotten toys, waiting to be played with. Most of them are misshapen, badly thought through, impractical or prohibitively expensive, but you have to encourage all the ones that won’t go anywhere to unearth the one that might. Creativity is a muscle, and if you open the door to your ideas – however stupid or unworkable – more will crowd through: what’s more, they start to get better after a while. This can lead to stage one of the creative path, the point where you start thinking to yourself, “I’m a creative!” and – especially if your peers are from the I’m-not-creative crowd, valuing your own half-arsed ideas above other people’s.
This is fine, up to a point, but if you then go and work in an atmosphere that describes itself as “creative”, you have to remember two things: one, that ideas on their own are worthless, and two, that it’s absolutely fine to chuck an idea away (or park it) if there’s a better one on the table. So, stage two of this journey is developing the ability to dissociate yourself from your ideas, and not to cling onto them. This is really, really important when it comes to collaboration.
Most of the creative people I know love collaborating. It’s an exhilarating feeling to bounce an idea around a room, watch it grow and develop, and become something that no single person in the group would probably have come up with. But all too often, you’ll hit a deadlock, when some of the people in the group try to force through their ideas over other people’s, or get fixated on a particular detail rather than focusing on the result you’re trying to achieve.
We’ve tried hard to develop an environment where ideas can find their feet, where we can develop sometimes half-baked raw materials into a solid end product, and where everyone who wants to can contribute. We’re not perfect, but here are some tips we’ve found useful when collaborating.
1 – Being creative can be a process
Although it feels like creativity should be a free-flowing process unencumbered by rules, the view that “uncreative” people have of artists wafting around the place having ideas just isn’t how it works. Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of life is just showing up, which in creativity terms means dedicating some time each day to building up the creative muscles. Structure, and focus, help. Distractions don’t: get off Twitter and Facebook and stop checking news sites. When it comes to collaboration, nominate someone to lead the process, and have a clear idea of what you want to achieve by the end of the session. Don’t let it drag on for longer than it needs to, and don’t get bogged down in little details. Have everyone bring along at least one idea to start things off, so you’re not staring at a blank page.
2 – All ideas are equally valid
I don’t really like the word “ideation”, because it sounds like yet another term invented by the ad industry to obfuscate what they do, but it does accurately describe the initial brainstorming process, the formation of ideas. At this point, there’s no such thing as a bad idea, and there’s also no such thing as an unoriginal idea. Even something that sounds like a straight rip-off of someone else’s work can be worked on, developed, and pushed into its own territory. Write everything down, and resist the urge to edit anything.
3 – Ideas aren’t personal
Criticism is necessary, but if it at any point turns personal, it becomes toxic. Avoid saying things like “I don’t like the way you’ve done this…” or “You haven’t thought about…” – instead, look at the idea itself. Play the shot, not the man (or woman). And if you find yourself becoming overly precious about a particular idea you’ve had, imagine somebody else had it, and then think about how you could improve it.
4 – Actually listen to everyone else
This is sometimes hard to do, and I’ve been in many brainstorming sessions where someone junior has had an idea which has been dismissed by their boss because it wouldn’t work, would be too expensive, or whatever. The net result is that they then shut up and stop bothering to contribute, which leads to management thinking they have all the ideas and their staff are dead wood. This is usually the opposite of the truth, and it also leads to the best people in the company leaving. (I’m not referring to the management.)
For this process to really work, management have to put effort into knowing themselves, recognising their weaknesses and blind spots, and being humble enough to admit that the idea they’ve come up with isn’t as good as the one that someone else has just suggested. Admitting that an idea you’ve had is terrible doesn’t make you look weak – quite the opposite. And it encourages others to share ideas they might not be fully confident of.
5 – Credit where it’s due
Following on from that, if you don’t give people proper credit, they won’t share their good deas with you either. The best management takes all of the blame if things go wrong (because after all, if the buck stops with you, then if things have gone wrong it really is your fault), but shares all the credit when they go right.
6 – Set deadlines
Once you’ve got some ideas that could go somewhere, give people slightly less time to develop them into something workable than you think they’ll need. This forces people to think around any problems they might otherwise get bogged down with: limitations can be a powerful creative aid.
For an in-depth look at making the creative process work (and keeping it working), I can thoroughly recommend Creativity, Inc, written by Ed Catmull, one of the original founders of Pixar (and now president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios).