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The creative power of 4—and how it can make your teams more productive

Seinfeld, the Beatles, and even the Wizard of Oz: Foursomes have all shown the explosive power of that number in a cohort. This creative agency founder calls it “Quadraneural Acceleration.”

The creative power of 4—and how it can make your teams more productive
Left to right: Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, and Ray Bolger dressed in character as Dorothy Gale, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow from the film ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ [Photo: Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images]
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John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

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Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion.

Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine.

Famous groups of four are everywhere we look in the creative world—from rock bands to television. Maybe we should take note for the corporate creative process.

DISCOVERING THE POWER OF FOUR

The pandemic is forcing many in the advertising and marketing worlds to be creative while working remotely. Virtual creativity is different from typical in-person creativity, and understanding its nature is crucial to understanding its true power, pandemic or not.

I started Ideasicle, a virtual idea generation agency serving the advertising world in 2010, well before any pandemic forced remote work. It started as an experiment where I recruited a pool of creative people, identified clients and idea projects, and we’d come up with ideas as a team.

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One of the things I learned early on was how many people to include on a virtual team for maximum—and quality—idea generation. Turns out, those “famous fours” were onto something.

At first, I recruited teams of seven, eight, and nine people for various client projects. I figured the more brains, the better. I would also try smaller groups of two or three. Fewer people, but more time for each participant, I thought.

Turns out, when there are too many or too few people on the assignment the idea generation suffers.

MORE IS NOT MERRIER

When there were more than four people working virtually on an assignment, there were fewer ideas posted, fewer builds and riffs, and generally not enough energy in the virtual space. And when ideas were finally posted, they were completely thought through, as if trying to impress. (That turned out to be a clue.)

These projects were fine. I presented what we had, the clients were happy, and we got paid. But I knew the ideas could be better, so I started knocking down the numbers on the teams. As teams got smaller, the number of ideas increased.

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And there’s a logical, very human reason.

GOOD IDEAS REQUIRE RISKING BAD IDEAS

Creativity is a very human, very intimate process for most people. To raise your hand and proclaim you have an idea is to expose a bit of yourself to others. It takes courage and confidence.

This fear factor correlated positively with an increased number of people on the teams. The more people, the more fear. The more fear, the less likely a team member is to share an uncertain idea. But “uncertain” ideas, I’ve found, are the lifeblood of a great virtual idea-generating session. Because the magic of the virtual process isn’t just the ideas each individual posts, it’s what happens between the team members when they see each other’s ideas.

An exaggerated example of this effect was when a team member posted an idea to the Idea Stream notifying the team that he wouldn’t be able to post anything that afternoon due to a dentist appointment. The other three on the team saw that and turned it into an idea for the assignment! Just the notion of a dentist appointment triggered a whole thread of ideas and builds, one of which we actually presented to the client.

My mantra for virtual idea generation became: “When in doubt, post it.” You never know what it may spark in a teammate. And that kind of risk-taking is much more likely to happen when the team is unafraid.

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Conversely, we had a few assignments where the budget was lower, so we did it with two or three on the team. And like those assignments with too many people, the projects went okay, but the energy in the virtual room was low. Why? Not enough perspectives colliding.

When you have only two people working on an assignment, you only have only two points of view, two perspectives, two outlooks on life colliding, and only one person’s ideas on which each can build and riff.

Teams should be not too big, not too small. Four.

 QUADRANEURAL ACCELERATION

After ten years of trial and error, teams of four truly seem to be the “Goldilocks number”—not too much, not too little, but just right. It’s so important to the idea-generation process that I decided to give it a name.

While I totally made up the phrase “Quadraneural Acceleration,” it perfectly describes what happens when four people work together on a virtual idea assignment: they accelerate the number and quality of ideas.

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Here’s how to assemble the perfect team for any virtual assignment:

  • Make sure everyone you recruit is an idea person. Each should be someone who loves coming up with ideas and isn’t shy about it. They don’t always have to be official “creatives” from the ad industry, but they do need to be idea people by nature. You know the type.
  • Mix it up. If the assignment calls for a social media idea, don’t stack the team with four social media people. Include two and fill the other slots with people from different industries, with different perspectives.
  • Anchor the team with a category expert. If the assignment is a promotion in the automotive business, have someone with deep experience in the auto market on the team, even if you have to go outside. This person’s role will be to come up with ideas, but also to ground the rest of the team into the realities of that category. But don’t overload the team with category experts or you’re less likely to get unexpected ideas for the category.
  • Have at least one creative director on the team. Could be a writer, art director, or designer. I usually include one or two classic “creatives” from the agency world who are professional idea people.
  • Include one wild card. If you believe like I do that having different perspectives colliding on the assignment is healthy, then leaving one spot for someone completely detached from the nature of the assignment can be an accelerant. A cultural anthropologist, public relations professional, or sales person will come at the problem in a very different way and with ideas on which the others can build and riff.

The fact is, you could put any number of people into a virtual idea generating assignment and come out with some quality ideas. But when you limit the team to four people and strategically pick exactly who those people are, you will greatly accelerate idea generation, and have fun doing it.


Will Burns is founder and CEO of Ideasicle X, a SaaS platform designed specifically for virtual idea generation. It allows users to organize jobs, recruit freelancers, generate ideas, and pay freelancers all in one place.