Building a Truly Creative Team

Apple's TeamThere is a complex “chemical reaction” that happens when a group of individuals locks itself in a room and tries to produce something that has never existed before. In most cases, it fails miserably. The results in the end are consistently worse than any individual’s initial ideas. The team is entropic. Instead of working as a harmonious whole, clashes and tensions between individuals produce a mangled product that is nothing less than a physical representation of repression, compromise, and frustration in the creative process.  Other teams work harmoniously, having fun and consistently producing results that are better than what any of the individuals could have come up with by themselves.

It’s clear where every team wants to be. The monetary value of a team that can deliver true creative solutions is enormous, and the value in satisfaction and happiness for both the team and the customers is incalculable. So how do you make sure your creative team is smarter than any individual member? How do you build a team that truly works as a cohesive system rather than a tentative truce between opposing forces?

In my work, I’ve seen the creative process collapse when certain elements have been missing. I’ve also seen tremendous outpouring of creative energies and joy when the right balance was struck. I see these elements as critical to success:

  1. Filter Upfront – Only invite people who are talented, highly motivated to do a good job, and have a fairly secure sense of self-worth that will not become threatened by criticism and honest debate, even if it’s quite intense. You want people who are opinionated, and never afraid to speak their mind. On the other hand, don’t let total jerks in either. You want a supportive, enthusiastic, and collaborative environment that spends very little time on either wounded or inflated egos.
  2. Keep the Team Small – The creative team should be small enough so that anybody could feel free to jump into the discussion without having to ask for permission, and without total chaos ensuing. High bandwidth communication tends to break at around 5-10 people. Experiment with what works for you, but for really creative problem solving, I believe it’s important to maintain the team’s ability to have free flowing creative discussions, without overly rigid rules about who speaks when.
  3. Get Enthusiastic Buy-In – Be very clear about goals, and make sure everybody who’s going to participates in the product discussion fully and enthusiastically agrees with the goals, the value hierarchy, and the process. This may involve some long initial discussions, but it’s very important to get this out of the way early so that you don’t waste time on this later. These sort of questions, if you refuse to deal with them early, tend to creep into other discussions and become really pernicious.
  4. Aim for Consensus – Once the team has started dealing with particular problems, features, or products, always aim for consensus. If your team really is composed of smart, creative people who share the same goals – aiming for consensus is the best way to air out any unexplored issues with any of the proposed solutions. Spending the time discussing those issues and trying to resolve them in an elegant way makes 90% of the difference in the product process. Transforming an inevitably mediocre first draft to a brilliant final design often depends on nothing but the manager’s sincere desire for consensus in the braintrust, and the willingness of everyone on the team to spend time in an uncomfortable position of uncertainty.
  5. Allow Complex Positions to Unfold – Behind everyone’s differing positions, opinions, or suggested design is a very complex array of assumptions, opinions, and creative decisions that have to be understood before they can be accepted or rejected. Allowing people enough time to explore and explain those elements is crucial for achieving true consensus. Once you’ve done it enough times, you’ll learn to recognize that different members of the team always see different aspects of the complex problems you’re facing, and that only by exploring all these truths openly can the team agree on the basic elements of the problem and begin to work out a truly elegant solution.
  6. Encourage Mindfulness – Encourage team members to pay close attention to their own reactions, both to the product as it’s evolving and to their own and other people’s position. Encourage team members to speak up the slightest objection, if they believe it is relevant. More than anything, the team should value openness and honesty over repression.
  7. Use Authority as a Last Resort – Very rarely is your authority as the product owner relevant to the discussion at hand. Using authority out of place is the best way to kill the quest for truth that the team has engaged in. It demotivates the people who are primarily in it to solve the problem, and motivates those who are in it for power and external rewards. It also prevents you from finding out the complex truth that invariably lies behind other people’s opinions. Authority should be used only when the team has failed to achieve consensus in a timely fashion, and moving forward is simply more important than discovering the truth on a particular point. Otherwise, your role as the product owner is to decide who is part of the process and who is not, and to set the general direction of the team, then let consensus emerge.
  8. Structure Time – Early in the process, you may need plenty of unstructured, wide-ranging discussions to get everybody excited and on the same page. Once the discussion has naturally shifted towards more concrete solutions and problems, it may be time to start introducing more structure. For instance: people take turns presenting their thoughts and others ask questions. Or – people throw out their ideas on a whiteboard, and then the team does a quick vote to get a read on controversial areas. At any stage in the process, it’s better for the time and place of the meeting to be fixed and predictable, so that people arrive at the meeting with a ready mind.
  9. Let the Process Evolve Organically – At the same time, structure should not be rigid. It’s important again to get buy in from everyone about whatever process you follow. It’s OK to spend some time discussing process adjustments every couple of meetings. The process should evolve organically with the problem. No two processes should be exactly alike in the same way that no two problems or teams are exactly alike.
  10. Balance Alone Time / Group Time – Whenever the team has identified an especially hard challenge or complicated problem, consider assigning it as “homework” for people to try and solve individually in their own time. The next time you meet, comparing everyone’s proposed solutions will introduce plenty of new material to discuss and iron out as a group. As a general rule, I find that alone time is best for solving complex problems, while group time is best for identifying problems, generating creative new ideas, and making critical decisions as a team.
This is by no means a complete list or a final one, but I hope it helps you think about the issues facing your own team, reduce entropy, and allow for true synergy to emerge. Would love to hear your thoughts, especially any additional tips you have for keeping teams creative!