08 November 2014
by Chen Mawson

Encourage Creativity Through Collaboration

Many creative people (e.g. artists and writers) I know prefer to work on their own. In the technology space, in order to take a sizeable creative idea from inception to implementation, it usually takes a team of people collaborating closely together. It is through teamwork and a clear common vision that a creative concept gradually takes shape, with input from everyone in the team who has complementary skills.

It can be challenging to work creatively in a team environment. An idea is considered creative if it has not been adopted in a similar context previously. Therefore, it might sometimes be difficult to articulate it and gain support from others. On the other hand, I have found time and time again that when I had a little spark of a vague idea and was able to describe it on a high level to others in a supportive environment, the questions, comments and feedback that came back to me helped me to build up the concept more fully and take the idea to the next stage. Apart from receiving and providing different perspectives to build creativity collectively, it is also incredibly rewarding to be able to creatively design and implement simple and effective solutions with others.

Recently, we have been exploring how to encourage creativity during our analysis, design and development processes while working on projects together. Personally, just like many others working in technology, I am an analytical and logical thinker. I feel more comfortable working with facts, logic and established high level frameworks. I have never considered myself to be creative. I was pleasantly surprised by the little creativity that manifested from me, once I had the right teamwork ingredients. Let me share with you a few insights that I have gained along the way.

1. Thinking Time

Instead of jumping straight into creative collaboration, plan in thinking time for each person before ideas are shared with the team. Giving each team member time and space to work out their ideas in their own time provides everyone with an equal opportunity to describe their ideas. The benefits are threefold:

  1. We all know that a good team has a balance of introverts and extroverts and generally people from a diverse background. The intelligent introverts often are those who prefer to express their thoughts after careful consideration. Giving everyone space to form their ideas and time to describe their ideas to the team gives introverts the opportunity to put forward their thoughts and ideas in a way that better suits their communication style. It also prevents extroverts with strong personalities from dominating conversations. This fun video illustrates the benefit well.

  2. Taking the time to write down our own thoughts before others speak of theirs, means that we retain a clear record of our thoughts despite how influential other speakers might be. Everyone in the team starts off from an equal footing before sharing of ideas.

  3. This is a much more efficient way of gathering as many ideas as possible from everyone in the team versus throwing the floor open for people to express their thoughts in a less structured way. Without a structure, the conversation may not have the breadth to capture great ideas, instead favouring depth of one or two ideas only.

While in a brainstorming workshop, an effective method to implement this is to give each meeting participant ample sticky note pads and an allotted timeframe (e.g. 10 to 15 mins) to write their points on the stickies. Different coloured stickies can be used for different categories, if applicable. For example, imagine a team who have a lot of great ideas for a system, but don't quite know which features to prioritise. They decide that they need to understand their users better. They get together to determine all the possible target user groups and what each target user group is looking for, first thinking individually and capturing their thoughts on paper. Once everyone is finished, people can put their stickers on a wall or whiteboard to be grouped. Alternatively, just use blank paper of any size, if drawings and simple flow charts need to be created. An example for this is creating paper prototype during a UX design session.

I have personally had many successful experiences using this method both as a workshop facilitator and participant. If you'd like to read more about it, here is a well written post that describes how the method worked in a brainstorming session.

2. Innovation Requires Self-Motivation and a Supportive Environment

Many of us have created our best work/ideas when what we worked on was intrinsically rewarding. We are in the flow, motivated by the interest, challenge and enjoyment and doing the activity for the pleasure of the activity itself. The flow state requires a loss of self-consciousness and attachment to expected outcomes. This is similar to a champion athlete being "in the zone", entirely absorbed in what they are doing with a sense of complete mastery of the performance. While in the flow, they have let go of concerns of what others may think of them and thoughts of obtaining the gold medal. The Flow concept was defined by Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his well know book: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990).

As individuals, it requires courage to be innovative. In other words, we need to be prepared to be authentic and express our creative ideas to others without being concerned about rejection and failure. This combined with the enjoyment of the creative process, and focused attention is the state of mind required for generating innovative and unique solutions to problems.

From the perspective of the audience, each person in the team is responsible for fostering an open-minded and supportive culture to encourage growth collectively. It's important that people in your team feel comfortable and encouraged to put forward their ideas. The team itself must be a supportive and non-judgemental environment.

Not everyone's idea will end up being adopted. Some will be rejected after assessment by the team for valid reasons. Sometimes, one person in the team may present an idea passionately but others are unable to visualise how it would work. Before rejecting such an idea, sometimes it is worth creating a quick prototype if cost, effort and time allow. If an individual is passionate about an idea, usually they would be more than happy to implement a prototype in their own time without impacting other higher priority tasks. If that is the case, why not give them the opportunity to do so.

In terms of idea evaluation, depending on the complexity regarding what the team intends to achieve, it may require product roadmap and possibly a decision matrix (or matrices) with multiple considerations. It is a complex topic in its own right and therefore, I will not go into detail on it in this post.

3. Forget Implementation Details during Brainstorming

This is an obvious one, but those who are analytical types like myself may need to consciously keep it in mind. During the brainstorming stage, the objective is to encourage creativity and generate as many ideas as possible. There will be time for us to switch over to our critical mind and shine during the later idea evaluation and deep dive phases. If we are too bogged down in implementation considerations such as design options, technology choices, estimated implementation cost and resources etc. creativity is not going to flow freely.

Having said this, we don't want to be throwing up ideas that are completely irrelevant to the problem we want to solve either. When in doubt, focus on the end user experience and the high level vision/objective of the exercise.

More importantly, this applies to us when we are the idea generator as well as the listener. I personally made this mistake often in the past, smothering other's creativity and extinguishing their enthusiasm from overthinking practicalities and boundaries of we were trying to do. I have learned that creativity is a blooming of ideas that extends beyond the boundaries. Let them bloom. You can always trim the garden and work on details later.

4. Regular Creative Thinking Sessions

A creative and collaborative culture needs to be implemented from management top-down. Management must be willing to make changes and act on creative ideas. Many organisations worldwide have made the commitment to foster such a culture through regular hack days.

It is usually done through self-organised multidisciplinary teams. The team members collaborate intensively in a set timeframe to prototype new ideas that are not included in the normal work schedule. The prototypes can take any shape or form and will be demonstrated at the end to a wider group. Sometimes the prototypes are judged by a select panel or voted for and a prize is given to the team that came up with the wining idea. A successful hack day is fun, rewarding and team building.

This is a wonderful way to give people the opportunity to express their creativity and passion. In order for a demonstrable prototype to be completed within the timeframe, effective collaboration, good planning, quick thinking and creative problem solving are required by each team. Surprisingly valuable ideas often come out of these sessions and are included in the future project pipeline.

At the end of the day, it is not about competition. Best ideas bloom as Brené Brown says when we have the guts to show up and be seen without predictions for outcomes.

These are the ways in which collaborative creativity can be fostered. I believe that our growth as individuals and as a team relies on innovation, skills and effectiveness, all of which are enabled and accelerated through collaboration. What are the ways in which you have seen collaborative creativity being supported? I would love to receive your feedback.

creativity collaboration teamwork

This post is written by Chen Mawson. Chen's interests are in Strategic Business Analysis, Product & Project Management and improving development processes. She lives in Australia with her husband Jeremy. Together they remotely assist innovative and socially positive companies to achieve their technology goals.

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