• John Bowie

Turn 'em Loose! #6: Energy


In my previous posts Time and Space, I talked about how creativity cannot be timeboxed into forty-hour work weeks and confined to windowless office conference rooms and cubicles. But there’s an exception to these rules: give a creative team a hard problem to solve, put them in featureless room with whiteboards, projectors, Postit® notes, Legos® (and whatever other toys you can think of) and watch the energy flow!

Creative teams thrive on challenges, and if you have the right mix of personalities and diversity of ideas, they can work anywhere. If you have fostered a microculture in which everyone is respected, where no idea is a dumb idea, and where the team genuinely enjoys working with each other, magic will happen in that room. One person’s idea becomes the seed for another person’s idea. People are sketching concepts and fighting (in a friendly way) over the dry erase marker. Time and place disappear, replaced by the joy of contributing to a team that can solve any problem you throw at them.

Unfortunately, this energy cannot be simulated in a Zoom or Teams meeting. Even if you have a cohesive and mature team that has been working together for years, you can’t fabricate the same level of creative energy on a computer screen. Virtual team meetings work fine for discussions and presentations, but not for free-flowing design jams.

If you have a geographically distributed team, you need to get them together in the same place at least once a quarter, or whenever you are starting a new project that requires the expertise of the entire team to get it off the ground. If you have a large team and can’t get everyone in the same place, form co-located sub teams to work on parts of the problem.

Work for a half-day or so or until the energy wanes. Frequent, intermittent short bursts of ideation are better than long slogs. Ideas need to germinate, so allow at least a half day – and ideally a full day – for each member of the team to think and work independently in a place and at a time of their choosing. When you do assemble again, an entirely new slate of concepts and insights will have revealed themselves. If you can, set aside a conference room as a “war room” so that all the artifacts can be preserved from one session to the next.

I know it’s tough – if not impossible – to assemble your team in a small room with the pandemic going on. But you can start planning now for the problems you’ll solve and the places you’ll meet when the pandemic subsides. Probably someplace warm where you can meet outside makes sense (Maui anyone?).

While much of a designer’s job is working independently to iterate concepts on assigned projects and supporting the Agile development team, for big challenges requiring true innovation nothing can replace the creative energy generated from getting your team in the same place at the same time and turning ‘em loose!

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