As organizational psychologist Adam Grant puts it, “Big groups are where creativity goes to die.”
We’ve all heard the saying about too many cooks. It's time to admit that brainstorming is not all that it is cracked up to be.
Groups have been consistently delivering less output than individuals working alone, yet too many workplaces still rely on it. It could be that people remain silent for fear of looking stupid, or simply agree with what the boss likes best.
It makes sense then to try to figure out what is wrong with brainstorming and how teams can work around it. Grant set out to discover why certain groups, like comedian Trevor Noah’s team of writers, are superb exceptions to brainstorming fails.
You can listen to the full podcast episode of Work/Life with Adam Grant here, or give this article a read. We delve into vulnerability as the basis of good teams and highlight how feedback is given and received freely in high-performance teams.
The concept of “Burstiness”
In other words, it’s how fast creative ideas zing around a room.
For instance, in improv jazz, someone plays a note, someone else jumps in with a harmony, and so on. The result is an entire new composition no one person could have planned for. This is creativity and teamwork at its best, where “bursts” of ideas come together to form something wonderful. However, burstiness needs certain conditions to thrive.
The concept of “Psychological Safety.”
This is the headspace where you can take risks without feeling afraid. This is what leaders should aspire to cultivate in their teams. People should feel comfortable enough to pitch ideas to others, no matter whether their boss is in the room or not. They should feel free to lob the ball back and forth, sometimes with criticism where it is due, but delivered in the moment.
The nice thing is that where burstiness and psychological safety intersect, criticism can be delivered in a mild or funny way. Besides, the person who threw out a sub-par idea is often the one to realize it first and doesn’t take it to heart. The “moving on” happens fast.
Five ways to enjoy feedback and do great work
1. Create an atmosphere conducive to burstiness
Make your team feel comfortable enough to throw around ideas in your presence. This means no judgement or shooting down. As is to be expected, this culture is only built over time- something the folks at The Daily Show now do with ease.
2. Interruptions are ok
These sessions should be more like boisterous family dinners, where people feel free to cut someone mid-sentence without being considered rude. Similarly, speakers should know that reactions are going to be lightning fast. Formality and etiquette can be put on hold for the duration of the session.
3. Have a set schedule
Schedule these improv sessions on a regular basis, where people are mentally prepared to park their other work and bring their most wacky self to the session. Some teams swear by a weekly storytelling session, others do it over pizza, but it isn’t the props that matter as much as the process itself.
4. Don’t delay giving credit
Just like on-the-spot criticism, give instant credit for a great quip or idea. This is because the final output is a blend of everyone’s ideas and the sessions move too fast to track who said what that ended up in the final product. Instant gratification is good!
5. Provide a structure
Along with a schedule, provide a structure for the team to follow through on the ideas generated in the session. This can include knowing which people among the team flow well together, who should complete what segment, who should do the final review and so on.
The concept of “one big family” is espoused by several business leaders, but we need to ask ourselves how many of them offer enough freedom to their teams to truly speak their mind at all times.
Just like in well-functioning families, the idea is not to shoot another down or to prove one’s might, but instead to work towards a productive, fun solution to everything.