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The Art & Science of Building Strong Creative Teams - Part II

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The Psychology of Creativity and Shaping Innovative Working Environments

In cognitive psychology, the greatest predictor of creativity is the degree to which a person displays “open to experience”, which is one part of the five-factor model commonly used by psychological researchers to assess an individual’s personality traits. 

According to Psychologist World:

“A person with a high level of openness to experience will often enjoy venturing beyond his or her comfort zone. They seek out new, unconventional and unfamiliar experiences, travelling to new destinations, embracing different cultures and practices.

Higher levels of openness can lead a person to be more open to novel or unconventional ideas and viewpoints. Such people are often more willing to try out new activities that they have not experienced previously.”

There are also multiple sub-traits for openness to experience and they make it fairly obvious why this trait is connected to creativity: 

  • Active imagination (fantasy);
  • Aesthetic sensitivity;
  • Attentiveness to inner feelings;
  • Preference for variety/diversity;
  • Willingness to experiment;
  • Intellectual curiosity

As a personal example, I’ve taken five-factor model personality surveys numerous times over the past several years, and I consistently score at the highest levels of trait openness, as you can see from the image below: 


But simply because someone is naturally predisposed to openness doesn’t mean that they are going to be able to be creative on command, or that they can be creative all the time.

In fact, it’s impossible to be permanently engaged in uninhibited, open thinking because doing so directly conflicts with analytical reasoning, task-based mental operation. 

Modern neuroscience research has shown that our brains actually operate with two competing systems that play an important role in creativity, imagination, and execution. 

One system, called the Default-Mode Network, is often understood as a state of “mind wandering”, and is operating when we’re engaged in unconscious tasks and emotional states such as daydreaming or empathizing with other people. The other system is called the Task-Positive Network, and is an analytical mode used in performing specific tasks requiring focused attention and higher order (logical) reasoning.  

The important thing to understand is that while we all use both systems all the time, we can’t use both at the same time. This has a lot of really significant implications for anyone who wants to build an environment that encourages and nurtures creativity.

In a 1991 presentation for Video Arts and in a related talk at the Creative World Forum nearly 20 years later in 2009, Monty Python writer/performer John Cleese referred to these systems as the “open” and “closed” modes. 

In the open, or more creative mode, we are thinking playfully and using our imagination - that is, we're exploring all of the different types of ideas that may come out of our minds without too much consideration for practicality, factual accuracy, or whether or not they're logically sound. We’re thinking in unconstrained, uninhibited terms.

By contrast, in the closed mode, we are thinking practically, rationally, and critically. We’re analyzing our ideas and actions, deconstructing the fruits of our previous creativity -- reining in our most fanciful ideas in order to make them attainable in the real world. We’re deliberate and constrained in our thinking, and we need to be in order to execute the task we’re trying to accomplish.

Cleese clarifies the value of each mode as such:

"We need to be in the open mode when pondering a problem — but! — once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we’ve made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness."

Both modes are necessary for innovation. However, Cleese goes on to point out a common problem most of us deal with as we become adults and adopt more responsibility in life:

"To be at our most efficient, we need to be able to switch backwards and forward between the two modes. But — here’s the problem — we too often get stuck in the closed mode. Under the pressures which are all too familiar to us, we tend to maintain tunnel vision at times when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view.”

Even people who are professionals working in creative industries are frequently at the mercy of these pressures and the resulting competition between neurological systems. There’s always another email to write, another coworker or client to speak to, the next meeting to schedule, more supplies to order... 

There’s always some new task to execute and those tasks can always serve as a distraction that prevents the mind from becoming unfocused and playful long enough to enter the open mode.
So the question is: How do we create a work environment that allows our people to break free from those kinds of pressures and become their most creative selves as often and for as long as possible -- without sacrificing productivity?

The “Creative Oasis”

John Cleese’s solution to the problem of getting stuck in the closed mode is to intentionally build what he calls a “creative oasis”.

The idea is to create a hard separation from task-based distractions, calm the mind, and allow the Default-Mode Network (“open mode thinking”) to take control. To do this, Cleese recommends deliberately establishing five specific conditions:

  1. Space: “You can’t become playful, and therefore creative, if you’re under your usual pressures.”
  2. Time: “It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time.”

    [Note: Cleese recommends blocking off uninterrupted creative time in hour and a half bursts, as it is neither so short that you have no time to get anything done once you’ve gotten into the open mode, nor is it so long that you eventually run out of energy and get frustrated. However, I personally prefer longer periods of 2-3 hours.]
  3. Time: “[Give] your mind as long as possible to come up with something original.”

    [Note: This is very important, and we’ll get back to it in a moment as it has huge effect on managing and working with creative teams.]
  4. Confidence: “Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”
  5. Humor: “The main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.”

I’ve found the “creative oasis” to be extremely valuable over the years, and most successful artists I know employ some variant of this concept. However, we must also recognize that every person’s ideal “oasis” is going to be a bit different, and may even change over time.

Some people prefer to write, draw, design, or edit in coffee shops and other crowded public spaces. Others prefer total isolation. Some people play music in the background while they work, others prefer silence. Some people feel most creative in the morning, others late at night. Some people prefer to work from home, others find home to be a distraction and need a separate office.

FEE’s Sr. Graphic Design Associate, Tim Webster described his ideal creative oasis as follows:

“Music is important, especially just instrumental music. A lot of times I need to have something more tangible like a sketchbook to get ideas out. I also need to be alone. Going for a run or a drive sometimes helps me meditate on an idea.”

On the other hand, while I do prefer to be alone, I can’t listen to music while doing most kinds of creative work. 

My background as a musician with almost 8 years of collegiate and graduate musical education and years of performing and composing experience makes it nearly impossible for me not to be  completely distracted by whatever I’m listening to. We’re all different.

From the standpoint of developing high quality creative teams, what this diversity of preferences means is that organizations and managers should strive to maintain a high degree of flexibility in how we think about scheduling and working environments. In order to get the best results, it’s important to make sure the individual members of our teams have a significant amount of unstructured time and that we empower them to work in the spaces most comfortable to them.

We want our people to be free to create their own oasis so that they will relax, loosen up, enter the Default-Mode Network state and generate more and more original ideas.

The Special Importance of Time (and Setting Reasonable Deadlines)

You’ll note also that John Cleese’s “Creative Oasis” uses the word “time” twice.

He stresses the importance of this redundancy and I strongly agree. It’s not enough to set aside a few hours in a given day for the sole purpose of pondering a creative problem without interruption. People also need time to ruminate on these kinds of problems over the course of days or weeks, because a lot of the best solutions are simply not going to come to us right away.

Writers and artists will often complain about the tyranny of the blank page. They will lament having to stare at a white canvas with nothing on it for days at a time before inspiration strikes. But the truth is that the period of apparent inactivity before the spark of creativity sets in is usually crucial to the process as well. During that time, we are mulling over possibilities, thinking about different approaches to a problem and allowing our conscious and subconscious minds to grind away until a satisfying solution presents itself.

This is why it’s also of the utmost importance to ensure that the creative projects we assign our teams have sufficiently distant deadlines.

We need to give the people working on those projects as much time as possible to solve the various problems that need to be solved and come up with their best ideas -- as opposed to simply accepting the first solutions that come to mind. 

Unfortunately, due to unrealistic deadline constraints or simply someone’s unwillingness to tolerate the discomfort of leaving a problem unsolved, most people give up before they’ve really honed their ideas and end up producing half-baked products as a result.

In my view, this is a really important yet frequently-ignored insight for both creative professionals and their clients/managers:

It is almost never the case that the first idea anyone comes up with is their best idea, and yet the discomfort of unsolved problems and external pressure to create on command makes it very easy for people to accept the easiest, most obvious solution and move on too quickly. However, being able to tolerate that discomfort and ponder a problem longer often separates the mediocre final product from the superior work of art. We’ll talk about a specific, recent creative project at FEE later on that will serve as an excellent example of this point.

It’s exceptionally valuable to provide your artists lots of time to sit with the problem/project vision and really dig into an array of possible solutions before pushing them to settle on one. 

The only way to do this effectively is by doing our absolute best to make sure we have realistic deadlines and plan our schedules with sufficient ideation time in mind. Springing projects on people at the last minute is a good way to get frustrated team members and less-creative, poorer quality results.

The Role of (Valuable) Feedback

Once we’ve established and communicated a clear vision and given our creative team the freedom and flexibility to work at the problem from different angles until they’ve developed their most innovative and original ideas, we will eventually need to turn those ideas into a high quality final product.

This is where competent analytical feedback comes in.

The ideas that flow from the creative oasis may be very good in the abstract, but they’re also usually unconstrained by practicality -- cost, brand-alignment, technical difficulty, etc. -- in order to turn those ideas into something that actually accomplishes the vision.

The feedback process generally starts with the artist him/herself simply stepping back, re-entering the “closed mode”, and rationally assessing their own work -- checking for errors, analyzing it, criticizing it as objectively as possible. 

But critiquing one’s own work is difficult and other voices should almost always be part of the process as well. However, not every voice is equal[1] and we should not shy away from this fact. Ideally, the people delivering feedback on new art will mainly be people who have done a lot of the same kinds of creative work that they are judging and commenting upon. Technical expertise, meaningful experience, and a keen eye are essential to this process.

This is important. 

Practical experience actually producing creative work (graphic design, writing, editing, etc.) gives people a lot of valuable insights about the process that lay-people cannot fully understand. Without personal technical competence, reviewers won’t really know what to look for or how to assess work at different states of completion and are far less likely to provide insightful suggestions.

To that end, a mistake I think a lot of organizations make is assuming that anyone can be put in a position of giving creative feedback and managing creative teams. In my experience, this isn’t true. 

If no one with a high degree of technical expertise is available internally to fill these roles, spend time building an external network of competent professionals to review creative work. Do not rely on inexperienced voices alone.

Equally important to this process is honesty. Feedback that isn’t direct and honest is nearly useless. 

That said, honest feedback, particularly when critical, can be painful to give and to accept. 

There are a lot of things we all can do as individuals to become better at taking critical feedback on our work, but it’s also possible to create an atmosphere where honest feedback is not only expected, but actually appreciated simply by observing a few basic rules.

  1. It’s about the art, not the artist. People are less likely to take criticism personally if it is, in fact, not personal.
  2. Make it meaningful. Both overpraising trivial wins and excessive nitpicking will render our feedback meaningless over time. It desensitizes people to important criticisms and cheapens the value of drawing attention to genuine success. Focus on the big picture and reserve your comments for important details that are both working and not working while keeping in mind that different types of feedback is necessary at different stages of production (ie. criticism of fine detail is often obnoxious in the context of a first draft but essential by the final draft).
  3. Keep coming back to the vision. The point of feedback is to move forward with each iteration, and that requires constantly bringing the discussion back to the essential question of which aspects actually serve the intended goals of the project, and which detract from those goals. What are we trying to say? Who are we trying to speak to? How do we get our art to say what we want it to say as effectively as possible? If our feedback doesn’t address that core question, we’re wasting our time.
  4. Praise enthusiastically, criticize dispassionately. Most constructive feedback will naturally include both the aspects of a creative work that need improvement, and also the aspects that are on the right track. Critical analysis should be almost clinical in its nature, reinforcing the point that it is impersonal and solely about improving the quality of the art. However, when it is time to praise, we should do so with sincerity and enthusiasm. This will not only help people feel valued, it will also help them understand what specific direction their revisions should aim for, as opposed to merely knowing what not to do again. If all we do is tell people what’s not working, that still leaves them guessing as to what would be better among a near-infinite field of possibilities.
  5. “Yes, and…” The best feedback is a collaboration between people who value each other’s contributions, working together to make the product better over time. This process isn’t about one-upping the other person or imposing one person’s ego-driven ideas over another. It’s about incorporating the best ideas. Creative feedback seems to be at its best when it illuminates problems and offers pathways to a solution with humility. That way the collaborators feel free to build on each other’s ideas instead of cutting the creative process short and accepting the first one that sounds good or - worse - feeling pushed into accepting a lesser idea because it’s come from someone with more authority[2].

Good feedback can make a huge difference in turning a decent concept or rough draft into an excellent final product. Especially when coupled with a clear vision and an environment built to encourage openness and imagination.

One creative project at FEE perfectly illustrates the way these conditions work together and I'll share that with you in the next and final installment.  


[1] The point that “not all voices are equal” is not meant to imply that other kinds of feedback are not useful. To the contrary, presenting creative works to lay-people can be very helpful -- especially at the very beginning and towards the end of the development process. 

Their feedback can help us get a sense of whether or not the product will actually effectively appeal to the intended audience. It can also reveal issues with a creative work that the the designer or producer had not considered, such as how it might be received by donors or institutional partners.

However, lay-person feedback is often counterproductive where the goal is to hone in on fine details and make specific suggestions. Too many voices too early in the process will almost certainly do more harm than good, and the wrong voices later in the process will often lead to poor quality final products.

[2] Workplace dynamics and the hierarchy of status will sometimes necessitate going above and beyond to communicate that the feedback process should be collaborative and that just because a higher-authority person has an idea doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the best idea.

Since the goal is to capture and incorporate the best ideas, we need to make sure everyone involved knows that the goal is truly about product improvement, not just ego-stroking. One way to do this is by asking questions with softer language such as “What if we did…?”, as opposed to saying “Make this change.” 

The last thing we want is for people to feel like they can’t push back or offer a different solution to a creative problem because they’re afraid of upsetting “the boss”.

Stay tuned for the last in this series:  Part III, The Value of Art in Establishing the Vision and Creative Direction


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