In today’s knowledge economy, the companies that rise to the top tend to be the ones who can consistently come up with innovative ideas and imaginative solutions to problems.
But why is it that some organizations seem to have all the best ideas? Where does that creativity come from?
Although we know little about the science of innovation, we do know that creative ideas tend to come from special teams, where each individual is encouraged to share their contributions without fear.
Here’s an example.
In 1989, now-legendary game designer Tim Schafer was looking for a job. He’d heard that LucasArts (then Lucasfilms Games) was hiring and excitedly went to their office for an interview.
But he blew it. During the interview, when asked what kinds of games he liked to play, Schafer said one of his favorites was “Ballblaster.”
“Ballblaster, eh?” said manager David Fox. “I thought that was the name of the pirated version.” The actual name of the game was Ballblazer, and Schafer had inadvertently outed himself as playing an illegal version of it.
Still, Fox invited Schafer to submit a resume and cover letter to the gaming company. Schafer knew he needed to do something creative to make up for his mistake, so rather than submitting the usual bulleted list of skills and attributes, he created a comic strip to tell the story of his search for a new career.
Schafer landed the job. And now, years later, he’s considered one of the best game designers in the world. Necessity, in this case, really did breed innovation.
But how did LucasArts keep the creativity going once Schafer was hired? How did they engage his outside-the-box mind?
One of the early games Schafer worked on was called The Secret of Monkey Island. Schafer and a team of his colleagues created the dialogue for the game, which is known for being silly and comedic.
As junior employees, it wasn’t their uniquely high confidence in their abilities that led them to submit the innovative dialogue that made the game popular. Rather, their manager created an environment in which they had little fear of failure.
“I thought we were writing temporary dialogue for it and so we were just writing really silly, stupid dialogue,” says Schafer in this interview. “Then Ron was like, ‘That’s the dialogue we’re going to use.’ I was like, ‘What!?’ It was great. It kept me from being too nervous about what I was writing. It was a good exercise to pretend you’re writing temporary dialogue.”
Schafer was lucky to work for a company that not only valued new ideas, but also created an environment in which even their newest team members could contribute.
Not all companies espouse such idea-centric thinking. And of course, the gaming industry is in a unique position to be innovative. Games are meant to be silly and fun and different.
But every team’s ability to solve problems creatively — whether that’s in HR, product development, sales, operations, or any team in any industry — can drastically improve their performance if they’re encouraged to think differently.
Great ideas come from team members who feel truly safe, and like their ideas and opinions are valued.
It’s a manager’s job to help their team members feel that way, but that can be hard for many reasons. We’re biased to prefer opinions that reinforce our own, or to place a higher value on the opinions of those who are higher up the corporate ladder. We tend to value perfection and potential for success rather than risk and inventiveness.
So how can you improve your team’s ability to ideate and brainstorm? Here are two ideas that can help companies and teams do just that.
- Do away with the idea that great ideas come from one genius working in isolation. Doing so means you can embrace the power of teamwork.
- Use tools and frameworks (like improvisation) to encourage team members to share their wildest ideas (and then encourage managers to embrace those ideas)
Let’s take a closer look at each of those.
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Busting the lonely inventor myth
Who invented the lightbulb? Thomas Edison. Who invented the telephone? Alexander Graham Bell. These are the stories we’re told in school: that solitary individuals invented objects that changed the world.
That myth is perpetuated by our glorification of the “genius” type: the visionary CEO who turns a company into a global leader; the musician with a seemingly magical series of hit songs; the enterprising politician who enacts miraculous change.
In reality, these people do not work in isolation. They have teams of people helping them achieve greatness through collaboration or by paving the way. These are the names that history forgets, but without whom innovation would be impossible.
“The ideas didn’t spring, Athena-like, fully formed from their brain,” writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. “In fact, they didn’t spring fully formed from anybody’s brains. That is the myth of the lonely inventor and the eureka moment.”
The lightbulb was not, in fact, the result of Thomas Edison experiencing a “lightbulb moment” while sitting alone in the dim glow of an oil lamp.
“Electric lighting existed before him, incandescent light bulbs existed before him, and when other inventors got wind of Edison’s tinkerings, they roundly sued him for patent infringement,” writes Thompson. “So what did Edison actually do? He discovered that a special species of bamboo had a higher resistance to electricity than carbonized paper, which means it could more efficiently produce light.”
The story about Alexander Graham Bell is similar to Thomas Edison’s. There were many simultaneous inventors working on this exact problem who’d already solved various elements of it paving the way for Bell to make his famous discovery.
Had either of these inventors neglected the contributions of their predecessors, they wouldn’t have made the groundbreaking discoveries that they did. Had either of these inventors actually worked in isolation, we would probably never have heard their names at all.
The golden rule for improvisation (and ideation)
In comedy, improvisation is the art of working without a script. You use prompts from the audience or create scenes from your imagination. Rather than following a set, pre-written dialogue, you come up with what to say on the spot, based on what your fellow comedians are saying.
It’s extremely difficult to do, and even the best comedians are challenged by this skill. But if you’ve ever watched Whose Line Is It, Anyway? then you understand how truly funny improvised humour can be.
Funnily enough, many of the rules of improv relate to being a good collaborator. Not only that, bringing in some lessons from improvisation will help your team members feel valued and heard. Here’s a key one of those rules.
That is the rule of “Yes, and.” Some call it the “Don’t deny” rule. It means you should never discount what someone says, only add to it.
For example, let’s say you’re working with your group to create an imaginary world. If they say, “There is a literal elephant in this room,” you don’t say, “No, there isn’t,” you say, “Yes, and that elephant is wearing a monocle and carrying a briefcase,” or something even funnier than that.
It doesn’t matter if their vision totally switches the picture you had in your head of where the improv was going. You simply pivot, incorporate their vision into the picture, and keep going.
The same goes when you’re collaborating with your team. If someone shares an idea and you immediately don’t like it, rather than shutting them down, create space for them to elaborate. Ask them questions, or add to it.
Don’t deny the validity or value of their contribution. Rather, say “Yes, and…” and keep the conversation and ideas flowing.
This approach is not about being a sycophant. It’s not about artificially inflating your team members. It’s about keeping an open mind throughout the collaborative process and motivating people to share their opinions without filtering or faltering.
It’s about creating a culture of improvisation, and therefore a culture of innovation.
In Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants, she outlines four rules for good improv. “Say yes, and” is one of those rules.
Another one is, “There are no mistakes, only opportunities.” Even her explanation is funny:
“If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on ‘hamster wheel duty’ because I’m ‘too much of a loose cannon’ in the field,” Fey writes. “In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup or Botox.”
The same goes when you’re collaborating with your team. If someone says something that makes it seem like they lack understanding, it may actually be an opportunity to look at the problem in a new way.
Sometimes, our mistakes are our greatest assets. And when we embrace our imperfections rather than striving to be perfect, we open our minds to all kinds of funky new ideas.