innovation, creative leadership, problem solving

The Care, Handling and Feeding of the New Creative Team.

Even though it’s been a while since my last post, I'd like to continue a thread I started a few months ago and resume discussing ways to foster cultures of innovation.

Today I want to talk about a culture of innovation within a culture of innovation, as it were. Namely the creative teams of today’s marketing, advertising and design agencies, as well as creative departments within companies and organizations.

Since the 60’s ad agencies have embraced the Bernbach model for creative departments—which is to pair a writer with an art director to concept, create and present their work internally and to clients.

A number of people in the ad industry have recently been writing about the new creative team model, one that needs to reflect the realities of today’s digital landscape.

The writer and designer have been joined by the UX designer, the digital architect, the code and app builder, the digital and social media planner, the search engine strategist, the SEO copywriter, the Flash designer, the e-commerce designer and others.

In an editorial for
Communications Arts magazine a couple of months ago, Ernie Schenk said that the new creative team model for agencies is an “Avatar” model, where writers, designers and art directors move seamlessly between the online and offline worlds.

Schenk writes, “That’s the key to integration. We need someone who can move seamlessly between here and there, this side and that side, someone who can speak the language of concept and story, but who can also speak the language of digital technology. A bridgeling. A straddler of worlds.”

If you’re a creative director, the one who’s job it is to bring all of these players together to work harmoniously to deliver creative solutions to clients, then your job just got a lot more challenging.

You are now needing to be the conductor of an orchestra instead of a duet.

And the only way to put so many creative, independent, strong-willed people together in one room and not have the effort collapse under the weight of pettiness and confusion is to construct a new model for creative collaboration.

With rare exception, the world of business has been a training ground for non-collaboration, even in our more collaborative world of advertising, by rewarding individuals and departments for independent achievement. It has fed the “Lone Ranger” model of creativity that we all tend to be most familiar with, where peers are considered competitors instead of collaborators.

The benefits of reversing this model, according to Marty Neumeier, are substantial. We now need to build metateams. Neumeier states, “A high-performance metateam can turn an organization into a coherent, agile, muscular entity. It can raise innovation and lower costs. It can be scaled up or down in a moment’s notice.”

He goes on to state that “...for the record, metateams are strictly for grownups. Prima donnas, classroom bullies, and nervous nellies need not apply. Teamwork is an advanced form of creativity, requiring players who are humble and generous.”

While all of this sounds great, there is a common problem we all have with collaboration, which is that smart, well-meaning people tend to disrupt the creative flow by disagreeing. This is certainly no surprise for anyone who has been in even one creative collaborative meeting.

But take heart, it’s not really our fault.

In fact, we can lay the blame for this on Socrates. He and his students, Plato and Aristotle, believed that sound thinking came from discussion rather than dialogue, from finding flaws in the others’ arguments rather than advancing a concept together.

So what’s a creative director to do? How do you get a metateam to bring their unique gifts, independence and finely tuned talents to the table without everyone feeling the need to one-up the other?

Well, for starters, we should listen to Edward de Bono. He’s actually developed a way for us all to work together to solve problems constructively. He calls it “parallel thinking.”

Parallel thinking gets everyone in the group to think in the same direction at the same time, thereby neutralizing our Socratic habit of shooting down ideas before they get a chance to take flight.

In his book,
Six Thinking Hats, de Bono demonstrates the six ways a group can think and work through a problem or opportunity. The “hats” are metaphors for different ways of getting at problems.

By switching from hat to hat as the conversation requires, the group can quickly work through a large number of ideas, completely unencumbered by flow-stopping arguments and emotion-laden attacks.

So here’s an overview of the six hats that can be worn by anyone at any time in a collaborative team meeting:

The WHITE HAT represents information. What do we know about this issue? What are the facts, figures and other data that can guide our work?

The RED HAT represents hot emotion. Normally, there’s no room in meetings to display emotion, so it tends to end up coloring our logical thinking and conclusions instead. What are we feeling about this issue? Excited? Afraid? Curious? This is an opportunity to get it all on the table.

The BLACK HAT represents dark and cautious thinking. This is where most of us excel; it’s the Socratic thinking that reveres the “devil’s advocate” approach. What are the weaknesses of this idea? Why is it likely to fail?

The YELLOW HAT represents thinking that’s positive and sunny. Let’s forget the devil’s advocate for a moment and consider what’s great about this idea or concept. What wonderful things can come out of this approach? Where do we see optimism and hope?

The GREEN HAT represents growth and creativity. What can we do that’s never been done? How can some of our darkest fears be turned into opportunities?

And lastly, the BLUE HAT represents cool objectivity. This is the hat worn by the meeting’s facilitator, who acts as referee and directs the use of the other hats.

By allowing everyone in a collaborative meeting to wear any and all of these hats, which as you can see is a completely transparent and inclusive process, large-scale problem solving, agreement and buy-in will certainly result. And if done correctly, it can happen relatively quickly, even in large, metateam meetings.

It’s amazing how much forward progress can be made when a collaborative meeting doesn’t get bogged down in petty defensiveness and self-preserving posturing. Parallel thinking like this fosters the kind of humility and generosity that true teamwork requires.

Try this at your next creative meeting. Write the hat colors and what they stand for on the conference room white board and let whomever is talking state which hat they are wearing. I think you’ll find that in no time at all your meetings will become extremely productive and fruitful as a result.

And when you consider that Socrates has been dead since 399 BC, don’t you think it’s time we found a more productive approach for exchanging ideas that reflects our 21st century realities? I certainly do.

So while you’re sitting there considering how parallel thinking can make your job as a creative director that much easier, I’ll need to ask you to pardon me—I’m going hat shopping.