How to Work with Colleagues Who Are Less Creative than You

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Creative projects that call for collaboration often fail for a surprising reason. Our studies of groups working on design, writing, and R&D projects show they very rarely suffer from a lack of good ideas. Much more commonly, the problem is with incorporating the various ideas into the output. In particular, we found that members of the team who think of themselves as “artists” of their trade — that is, producers of creative output that bears their signature style and succeeds on terms beyond the purely commercial — have a greater tendency to reject others’ creative ideas. They may be great at idea making, but they can be lousy at idea taking.

When we presented this finding in our Harvard Business Review article, “Collaborating with Creative Peers,” we put the focus on implications for the non-artists in such project teams. By first understanding that their advocacy of ideas can feel like identity challenges to some of their most creative colleagues, they can thoughtfully adapt how they offer those ideas, and defuse resistance to them.

But, of course, the onus should not only be on these more pragmatic types to make collaborations succeed. Our research also identified tactics that artists themselves can use to enhance their openness to ideas given by collaborators. Here they are:

Think of others’ input as “general inspiration” to further thinking rather than specific challenges to your vision. We find that artists are generally more open to ideas when their colleagues present them not as corrections to flaws or lapses to the creative thinking so far, but as invitations to keep building on that thinking in some direction. However, artists themselves can also choose to treat others’ ideas as inspiration, whether they are presented in that spirit or not. Implementing this tactic can be as simple as asking a lot of questions about the general themes and rationales underlying suggestions. In our research, we saw artists doing this, and then backing up to think about those general themes rather than focusing on objections to the specific ideas their colleagues had arrived at.

In one example, a project team led by an artistic designer named Jenny was tasked with expanding a product line. When one of Jenny’s teammates came to her with a specific new product idea, Jenny’s reaction to it was immediate and visceral. It struck her as a violation of the artistic vision of the product line, and indeed of her control of that vision. But Jenny had the self-awareness to recognize and get past that knee-jerk reaction. Describing her tendencies to us later, she said:

If you’re coming to me saying, “We need to design X,” I might not be too excited about that. But if you say, “We need to expand our product line [to accomplish what X would]. How do we do that?” I prefer more general questions like that. I try to get to these general questions as the root of the suggestion you are giving. So, in this case, I asked for that. I said, “What’s the general motivation behind your idea? Can we talk about that first?” So we did that before getting into specifics, and it was much easier to not get defensive.

Maintain an unemotional demeanor. A second tactic that artists can use to increase their openness to ideas given by others is to maintain a calm and unemotional demeanor during collaborations. Reacting less in the moment to perceived identity threats helps to maintain an overall tone in the meeting that is less hostile to collaboration. For example, an R&D scientist named Kelly told us she had managed to teach herself to listen, and not to betray emotions, even when her gut was telling her that the idea-giver was off-base. She recalled one instance in which a team member passed her a note with an idea on it during the middle of a product presentation. Kelly’s emotional reaction to the note was, “No way. This is nuts!” But because she could not respond immediately, she found herself mulling over it. Before the meeting was over, Kelly had flipped over the note and responded with a simple, “Yes.” For Kelly this was an important lesson that surprised her so much that she now deliberately applies it to all of her collaborations:

I really try not to be too vocal or emotional too early, because I just don’t want to regret the resistance and the tone that would set. I find that, as I start to think about a suggestion more — again it’s all internal conversation in my head — there’s actually opportunities here. And that’s when I speak up, like, “OK, I think that makes sense. Let’s push on it.”

Delay responding to ideas given. Kelly’s comments point to a third and related tactic for artists who want to be better collaborators. They can delay making decisions about ideas given during creative sessions, and wait until some time later to fully consider them. The delay of course gives the artist time to take on and think creatively about the problem the idea giver was trying to address. But even just resolving not to make an immediate decision in the room also helps to tamp down emotional reactions to input that might otherwise feel like an assault on creative identity or signature style. Several artists we talked to said they accomplished this by writing lots of notes during meetings, rather than engaging in active decision-making. They could then think about the ideas later, where identity threats would not be so salient. One R&D scientist we talked with explained how he developed this strategy after presenting several products in a design review meeting. Many suggestions were given to him to better his designs. He acknowledged that if he relied on his initial reactions alone, he might end up regretting his response:

I try to take notes so that I can really sit down and think through all the pros and cons later. So, I usually prefer doing that. … I always like to, you know, if I’m not sure I’d rather put it in the parking lot and think about it afterwards than just saying no. That’s just my way of doing it.

Put yourself into a mindset of learning. Finally, artists can become better idea-takers if they change their stance toward collaborations to see them as ongoing learning opportunities, rather than focused efforts to get things right on specific projects. We found several artists who had adopted this tactic to help themselves be more open to ideas given at the start of a project. For example, one artistic R&D scientist, Greg, described a competitive environment in which his team was responsible for creating an entirely new product under tight management deadlines. Greg’s initial resistance to most of the early ideas was preventing the team from meeting its deadlines. It wasn’t until Greg reframed the goal of the project, in his own mind, as learning instead of product development, that he and the team were able to create a high-scoring consumer tested product that eventually went to market:

My team was looking at developing a product, but I needed to think about it as learning. I’ve found that if I think about what can I learn from this project, I get less attached to my ideas. So, sharing in learning instead of always trying to be the first to develop a solution is an important thing for me.

In sum, artistic collaborators may help themselves be better idea-takers by employing mindsets and decision-making tactics that reduce their own threat-induced motives to maintain their artistic identities. These tactics have not been recognized by most frameworks of creative collaboration, and represent a new angle for improving creativity and innovation in teams.

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