In my work, I have the great privilege of working alongside some very creative people. They imagine. They daydream. They sketch. They routinely concoct a carnival of ideas. These are people who seemingly have an unending supply of creativity that spews forth at their command. They are adept at thinking out loud.
I’m a little different.
At meetings, I often sit quietly and allow my ideas to simmer as I listen to teammates volley idea after idea. In my silence, I’m constantly testing my ideas - thinking of how to translate the fanciful to the practical. I’m considering the pitfalls. I’m weighing how opponents could react. And in my quiet moments, ideas are edited, changed, twisted, tweaked, filtered and tested - in my mind - long before they are shared within the group.
Throughout my career, I’ve participated in a lot of meetings and team sessions structured to deliver a solution. These meetings spanned a variety of industries – government, journalism, manufacturing and retail. Despite the different work environments, the meetings were unsurprisingly similar: an overview of statistics, a review of processes or a presentation of a strategic overview or approach and an urge to solve immediately in this setting. This information has its place. It’s important. It’s factual. But, it’s transactional: improve X, deliver Y, solve for B or reduce C. And, for people like me, it places pressure to think out loud and return the volley of ideas in equal measure.
As the mom of a seven-year-old, however, I’ve witnessed a fair amount of his imaginative play and recognized some creativity lessons that could help improve meeting outcomes. Despite my 43 years and workaday world realities, he routinely coaxes from me inspired imagination and unique storytelling.
It’s simple: he guides the process.
My son loves to pretend he is a super hero and, to my delight, he’s happy to let me play along. In our moments of pretend, he’s forgotten that I didn’t include his favorite cookies in his lunch, he’s overlooked the fact that I worked late and dinner was take-out vs. home cooked. In this moment, he’s dubbed me Super Mom and, despite the pressures of the cape, I play along. Whether it’s a made-up bedtime story or Super Mom and Super Boy defending the world or a treehouse treasure hunt, my son always provides a helpful creative push. “Mom – imagine that we’re in outer space. The cat is with us but not the dog. We’re going to encounter some aliens. There will be a bolt of lightning, some fog will appear and you won’t see me as I will disappear in the mist. But, I’ll be back. …And, we’ll find a treasure. Okay – now you can start.”
Every time, every moment of pretend play, he is providing the critical breadcrumbs for creativity, he is setting the scene and putting me in the right frame of mind for creative thinking. He is tapping in to my ability to think creatively. And, for a moment, he is helping me to suspend reality to create a new one.
It’s a technique, I believe, that has application in the workplace. To effectively get to the big idea we should embrace the approach of a young boy. And, perhaps, in the work setting, take a cue from Tucker:
- Provide a compelling brief – Convey necessary stats while retaining emotion
- Give teams time to prepare – Send planners with the brief, related background material to give colleagues the gift of time to read in advance of the meeting and gather their thoughts
- Effectively set the scene – Begin the meeting with dramatic flair. Consider my son’s efforts to crank up the drama and provide the chance to create an environment of wishes. Let your teammates know it’s okay to imagine unicorns feeding on rainbow grass if that’s what it takes to find a solution.
- Let silence be golden – Use an approach from Kellogg School of Management professor Leigh Thompson. She encourages the idea of brainwriting vs. brainstorming to deliver better meeting outcomes. Simply set aside the first 15 minutes of the meeting for team members to pen their ideas to ensure everyone (both introverted and extroverted thinkers) can contribute.
By simply setting the scene, providing emotional connection, offering a creative framework and giving introverts and extroverts a shared podium, we will provide a new way of seeing the problem and imaging what’s possible. My son Tucker’s prompting creates an environment of wishes with judgement suspended and allows me to unlock a new approach. After all, even Super Mom needs a creative push to unleash new ideas and create new powers not yet imagined.