One big preoccupation since the pandemic has been whether remote work and burnout has stifled creativity and innovation. Without physical whiteboard sessions or other in-person interactions to feed off, has the capacity of workers to do world-changing and business-inflecting creative work been depleted?
Not necessarily, says Sarah Stein Greenberg, who has published Creative Acts for Curious People, a book of exercises for thinking, creating, and leading in unconventional ways that are used at Stanford’s d.school, where she is executive director. We reached out for suggestions for what we can all do to activate creativity and innovation at this moment. Here are excerpts from the conversation, edited for space and clarity:
Many people worry that creativity and collaboration suffer when teams are working remotely, in hybrid fashion, or flexible configurations. Do you think that’s the case?
One of the challenges is a lack of in-person vitality that you can sometimes feel. When I think about my most creative sessions with my team, it’s a full-body experience. Someone jumps up from the table or someone’s at the whiteboard, and that part is definitely missing when you’re just sitting, grounded in front of the computer.
But if you’re creative about the formats that you’re using and the interactions that you’re staging, there are some real opportunities, particularly for folks who are more introverted. They can express themselves in a completely level playing field by using the chat or by using a blend of written and verbal interaction. There’s also this interesting role for more parallel processing. When everybody takes five minutes to document on a Google doc the share-out or idea, it’s not just one moment in time where someone says an idea and someone builds on it. Instead, I can keep revisiting it the whole time we’re having the conversation or the meeting.
Some managers seem to love having the chat or Google doc in parallel with a video meeting, but a lot of others really hate it…
I personally always want to know what’s going on for people. If they can’t share it, then I can’t know. Even though it’s messier sometimes, and it’s a little more chaotic, it’s a more accurate reflection of what’s actually happening in the room than if you’re controlling more of the conversation.
When you’re the one leading the meeting, it’s often super important to have a second person monitoring the chat and responding, because it’s actually quite hard to be good at and focused on projecting, sharing, and facilitating while also monitoring this new input. It’s an interesting moment for us to reconsider leading a meeting as a team sport.
Deputize people with these different roles. Particularly in hybrid meetings, you can make sure that somebody who is online is the person who’s running the online experience because they can empathize and identify with attendees.
Are there any tactics or approaches that are especially successful for kickstarting creativity in remote and hybrid teams?
One of my favorite assignments in Creative Acts for Curious People was created by an amazing instructor at the d.school named Glenn Fajardo and is called ‘the wordless conversation.’
In that interaction, you pair up with somebody—perhaps somebody you don’t know very well, but who’s on your team. For a whole day, you take pictures or short videos as you’re going through your day. What are you having for breakfast? What are you doing? When you walk around the block during lunch, what’s in your immediate environment? What’s your work life like? What’s your home life like? The following day, you take 20 minutes to have a text-based conversation where you’re not using any words, you’re just sending those pictures back and forth. The goal is not to generically send random photos. It’s to actually have a conversation in which you are relating to what you’ve just been sent. So you might send me a picture of your breakfast, and I might send something back like my mid-morning snack.
But we’re not using words. It’s fascinating to see how you can actually develop a whole visual language between two people, even people who don’t share a primary verbal language. The kinds of relationships where you start to be able to trust another person, understand them, and anticipate what they’re thinking about are fundamental criteria for a team that can work together creatively.
Research shows that the best way to build trust and collaboration on a team can be to start by developing trust one-on-one…
I love to build toward group trust by starting really small with those pairings. Another one of the assignments in the book is my own personal favorite form of sequence. It starts with a pairing. Then that pair finds another pair for stage two. Then, that quartet stays together for the final part of the exercise. Only then do you do a big group debrief.
As an introvert, I need to start with that one-on-one connection. You have a little bit of psychological safety with that one other person. Then you get into a slightly bigger group, and then the group trust comes. There’s a way to build toward heightened trust—but you’ve got to start with a deep interpersonal connection first.
If I’m leading a team, what should I be doing right now to help my colleagues and my organization thrive?
Design—and all kinds of creative work—is a way to help people develop skills to navigate the kind of uncertainty that we’re in. Running a short creative project where you are helping people to come up with new ideas, focusing on the end user, and having collaborative engagement with others is a really smart thing to be doing right now—and that’s any kind of creative project. My definition of a creative project is not knowing what the outcome will be when you start.
A creative project starts with a more open-ended question, like what should be our next offering? Or what might we do to redesign the Monday morning staff meeting in the current moment? Because the answer is unknowable, it’s a microcosm of the experiences we’re all having right now around uncertainty and ambiguity. The project gives folks a chance to practice building resilience and trying multiple different directions. That’s a really good way to build the capacity to navigate bigger and more challenging issues.
Read the full transcript of our conversation with Stein Greenberg, including discussion of the role that “water cooler magic”—serendipitous in-person interactions—plays in innovation and creativity.
Read an excerpt from Creative Acts for Curious People describing the Futures Wheel exercise for structured imagination. Access the Stanford d.school Starter Kit, which explains design techniques that your team can use.