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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

The creative genius of diverse teams

However you bring different kinds of teams together, employees find it energizing and even mind-opening.

The creative genius of diverse teams
[IVANKO80 / Adobe Stock]

There is a perception that creative ideas come from a lone genius or some divine lightning strike. But creativity undoubtedly is a team sport. And the more thoughtfully the team is cast, the more original the thinking will be. For years, Pixar has harnessed the power of the ‘collective genius‘ built from the ‘slices of genius’ of the diverse teams that contribute. In advertising, the creative structure historically couples a writer and art director, but now that mind-melding has expanded to more diverse teams.

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Recasting teams not only elevates the amount and freshness of the original thinking. It also helps enact a meaningful cultural shift that goes beyond a one-off diversity training or action plan. Pulling together people with different life experiences and skill sets makes diversity habitual — a part of how we work every day. We know that combining different types of people makes our creative ideas more relevant, surprising, and inspiring.

Here are some pages from advertising’s creative playbook in building out more diverse teams to get to more original ideas, faster:

• Collaboration doesn’t mean everyone gets along. Conflict and debate help push and test ideas as they are shaped, helping reach less obvious solutions. If you think the team might not be a good fit together, go ahead and give it a try. Tell the team that you expect them to constructively challenge each other so they don’t get emotional or worse, bite their tongue when they disagree.

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• Ideas are often from personal experiences. Building a team with different genders, races, and ages, each with their own bank of stories, inspires different kinds of ideas. Ask them to share personal anecdotes or think about their own friends and family while ideating. If someone isn’t speaking up, ask them specifically to share their opinion.

• Different skill sets come from different kinds of brains. Team members from different departments (UX, design, strategy, analytics) each have minds that work either more rationally, emotionally, visually, or with words. Each has different training and capabilities. Each reads different articles and listens to different podcasts. As a result, they all bring fresh perspectives and unexpected builds on ideas. Ask the team to ideate visually, not just verbally. Share images and links to video references while ideating. You could even ask everyone to draw their ideas out instead of always defaulting to words in English.

• We need a lot of ideas to get to a good idea, and we rarely have much time. Having different minds on the project is an automatic multiplier for ideas, helping accelerate to a greater quantity faster. Push your diverse teams not to settle on an early idea.

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• Make a plan to avoid mind-meld when you put people who work differently together. Have them each work alone first, thinking deeply before they come together. When the team then collaborates, they each bring their thinking to the table. As each shares one by one, the others build with ‘yes, and…’ as they go, mashing up and re-combining parts of the idea instead of sinking into groupthink. Giving each person time to truly concentrate first also protects the collaboration from becoming chaotic, superficial brainstorming.

Making teams more diverse is harder to manage, but the original, fresh thinking is worth the extra effort. One caution is to not make the team too large and complex. Three to six people has been the sweet spot in my experience—just enough brains to cover different perspectives. The amalgamated team doesn’t have to be permanent. Ad-hoc smashing together of a team can generate a surge of fresh thinking early on in a project. Once the idea is decided upon, the team can shift gears into their subject matter of expertise to craft and fine-tune. These diverse teams can come together in person, ideating with Post-its or wall stickies, or simply use an online whiteboarding tool like Miro or Mural to document remote working sessions.

However you bring different kinds of teams together, employees find it energizing and even mind-opening. There is a certain thrill to building the missing piece onto someone else’s idea, or having someone connect dots with your seed of an idea. The active listening and true collaboration also builds relationships and trust between co-workers. I find that is the true genius of the collective genius.

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Susan Treacy is Executive Creative Director at EnergyBBDO. She leads content marketing programs and facilitates creative workshops. 

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