Being Creative is Hard: On Maintaining Creativity in Group Discovery Sessions

Let me set the scene for you.

A dozen people are gathered in a conference room. The table is a wasteland of computers, power cables, Dixie Cups, and screen-down phones. Sticky notes cover the walls. The whiteboards are arabesques of boxes and arrows. The catered lunch had way too many carbs and an abundance of cheese. As the day comes to a close, we’re staggering to the finish line.

An intrepid, bright-eyed consultant (me) snaps out of reverie.

“What if we cut out this section…” he deletes a few boxes with a red dry-erase marker, “and think about it like this?” He refactors a few more boxes.

Everyone’s looking at him now. There’s a smile from the back. Another references her notes. Some others rouse from their daydreams.

Honestly, he thinks it is a mediocre proposal at best. Definitely needs some work, needs some love, needs some nurturing. But it is a glimmer of something real through the collective food-coma mirage…

A moment of pregnant silence.

Yeah, because the last time we tried that it was an astounding success.

The room erupts with laughter. They all know which project the joke is referencing. That nightmare of a thing from a few months back.

Dejected, the no-longer-intrepid-nor-bright-eyed consultant slumps into his chair. He hardly participates for the rest of the day.

A hand holding a sparkler emerges from a vast body of water, with the sparks flying above the surface, staying lit.

What a bummer. Being creative is hard. I don’t think anyone means to do harm with dismissive jokes like these, but I cannot overstate how toxic they are in a creative field. I’m certainly guilty of being on the other side of similar exchanges but I’ve worked really hard to change my behavior and not make jokes in the presence of new ideas.

Ideas need safety and nurturing to grow.

In the above parable, I don’t think the comedian meant to crush the idea, but that is effectively what happened. They probably thought they were doing the energy-starved room a favor by “lightening up” the mood.

Three monarchs hang, all in different stages of development: a new chrysalis, a translucent one, + a fully hatched butterfly.

Over the last decade, I’ve found myself in many situations like these. I like to think of myself as courageous and outspoken. I’m not shy to share radical ideas or different ways of seeing things. I’m an artist and a maker. Between art critiques at college and bombed presentations for clients, I’ve built up a lot of scar tissue over the years. I can take constructive criticism. Heck, I can even take destructive criticism. The above example was neither. It was some breed of deflection? Or the comedian’s latent personal anxiety about repeating a perceived failure? Either way, dismissive and sarcastic jokes like these used to really take the wind out of my sails.

So, I decided to see these experiences as an opportunity for growth and to learn how to fight back!

With Logic

Logic is one tactic. Some logical responses might look something like this:

  • “Last time was different because of X.”
  • “This time around we have the benefit of Y.”
  • “This is an entirely different context because of Z.”

Fighting back this way is tricky. See how confrontational these are? It further entrenches you, the rational one, in the defensive posture. You’re resigning to fight on the battlefield you’re already losing. People want to laugh and have fun so…

Tracee Ellis Ross and Conan O’Brien gif by @teamcoco

With Humor

What about humor? This can be an incredibly fun game:

  • “Last time we didn’t have the power of three different colors of dry erase markers!”
  • “Last time we also thought it would be a good idea to schedule the project kick off the week before Christmas!”
  • “But this time we know what not to do!”

All these keep the energy up, don’t tear anyone down, are unarguable, and hold the space for the idea to keep growing.

“Yes, And!”

This approach isn’t just about protecting your ideas. Intervene and advocate on behalf of others who are on the receiving end of well-intentioned but ultimately toxic jokes.

To do this, listen for absolute words like all, every, always, never, or each. Listen for obviously overblown or exaggerated claims (hyperboles) and for sarcastic remarks. Look at people's body language. Are they withdrawing? Packing up or putting documents away? Step in and help them!

In addition to logic and humor, you’ve got some other tools to protect the space up for them. Ignoring the comedian and addressing the bright-eyed, these all fall into the “yes, and” class of responses:

  • “I really like where you’re going with that, can you say more about it?”
  • “I think that is brilliant. How would you approach X?”
  • “That connects really well with what we were saying early about Y!”

In a tie, creative forces always beat destructive forces. Sometimes all it takes is a single affirmative remark to set things on the upward spiral again.

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