Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

Work Culture

Forget brainstorming. Burstiness is the key to creativity.

By

Published on July 22, 2020

Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

When you think of Thomas Edison, what image comes to mind? Perhaps he’s sitting alone in a lab, tinkering with a lightbulb or phonograph.

Maybe he’s running through an open field in a thunderstorm, kite string in hand. Whatever the case, he’s probably by himself.

“No figure so completely satisfied the popular conception of what an inventor should be,” The New York Times eulogized in 1931. “Here was a solitary genius revolutionizing the world.”

But Edison was actually not a “solitary” genius at all. Over his long career, Edison generated 512 patents—as the leader of a 14-man team. The true genius he possessed was seeing genius in others, creating conditions that sparked creativity and groups that could become greater than the sum of their parts. “Edison is in reality a collective noun,” said Edison’s longtime assistant, Francis Jehl, “and means the work of many men.”

Edison called his team of scientists “muckers.” They’d come from all over to work with the famous inventor, and he came to rely on them to build and test his ideas. Though the team wasn’t static, by 1876 when Edison had settled in his Menlo Park, New Jersey lab, its members would remain pretty much the same for the rest of his life. 

When they were working on something big, everyone stayed late. Edison ordered food from a tavern around 9:00 pm and the team would take what it dubbed “midnight lunch”––an hour to eat, tell stories, sing songs, and get to know one another. Then it was back to task, sometimes until dawn. 

By connecting in this intimate setting, the team grew to deeply understand and trust each other.

“This process of midnight lunch transformed employees into colleagues, said Sara Miller Caldicott, Edison’s great grandniece and the author of Midnight Lunch. “It served as the foundation for collaboration in all of Edison’s labs.”

Nearly 100 years later, the concept of “midnight lunch” is one we can still learn from: instead of forced brainstorming or simply working alone, the key to a group’s creative output actually has more to do with its environment. With the right environment, a team can burst with creativity. 

Creativity

Creativity in business is a bit more complex than creativity in the fine arts—it’s the act of generating new ideas. And new ideas means originality but also specificity: they are applicable, practical, helpful, and also, new. This kind of creativity is essential for businesses of every type. Research shows that 80% of people see unlocking creative potential as key to economic growth. Yet only 25% feel they’re living up to their creative potential. From the employer side, McKinsey’s research shows that an overwhelming majority of executives—94%—are unhappy with the innovative performance of their company. 

So how do you generate creativity? By focusing on collaboration and the strength of groups. 

Collaboration can also overcome individual skill sets, knowledge, and even motivations. As University of California, Davis psychologists Andrew Hargadon and Beth Bechy found in their research on organizational creativity: “When individuals do not have the necessary expertise, ability, or motivation to generate creative solutions alone, they sometimes find ways, through moments of collective effort, to produce creative outcomes.”

As Edison suggests, it’s a group—not an individual—behind most of the greatest creative innovations in history. 

“We’re drawn to the myth of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changes the world,” Keither Sawyer, who studied creativity for 10 years, writes in Group Genius: The Creativity of Collaboration. “But the lone genius is a myth; instead, it’s group genius that generates breakthrough innovation…. Collaboration drives creativity because innovation always emerges from a series of sparks—never a single flash of insight.”

From Brainstorming to Burstiness

When you  think of creative environments, you probably think of brainstorming. Advertising executive Alex Osborn, who coined the term in the 1950s, fervently believed in the brilliant ideas a good brainstorm could produce. Osborn envisioned brainstorming as bringing a group of people together to freely bounce around ideas to solve a specific issue. What’s been lost since the term was coined is that simply forming a group to spark ideas doesn’t really work.

Why? Without careful group construction and the right environment, brainstorming backfires—certain people silence themselves while others dominate. And everyone supports the boss’s favorite idea. In fact, group projects are usually where creativity goes to die, and output shows that the group is dumber than its individual members. As Sir Alec Issigonis, British designer of the original Mini Cooper, famously said, “a camel is a horse designed by committee.” 

Brainstorming has become synonymous with figuring out what a boss wants to hear. It doesn’t help that two other very common practices—a boss demanding creativity on the spot or offering rewards for innovation—are also ineffectual. “Too many leaders try to demand creativity on the spot,” Ron Carucci, co-founder and managing partner at the consultancy Navalent and author of Rising to Power, wrote in the Harvard Business Review. Carucci writes that when team leaders offer cash prizes for ideas and build competitive hierarchies that reward individuals for out-innovating their peers, the creative potential of an environment is actually stymied.  

Effective, creative collaboration takes work. And ideal creative work environments share a defining trait: they are “bursty,” a psychology term for bursts of creativity. Like jazz, these environments have a solid structural backbone that’s understood by all players but leaves room for improvisation: someone plays a note, and it sparks someone else to riff, and another and another.

“Burstiness is when everybody is speaking and responding to each other in a short amount of time instead of having it drawn out over a long period of time,” said Anita Williams Woolley, Carnegie Mellon University professor who studies creativity.

“Interruptions aren't always rude,” she said. When you're in a crunch, you want everyone to pitch in fast.” While studying software teams, Woolley found that the most innovative and productive teams were bursty. These teams, working remotely and on different time zones, figured out a system for being bursty without being in the same room: They would synchronize working hours, get online, and start exchanging messages and sending code. In other words, they came up with creative ideas in bursts. Conversely, other teams might have communicated just as much and engaged in just as much activity, but it was dictated by their own personal schedule. Those teams were not as effective. 

“Burstiness is a sign that you're not stuck in one of those dysfunctional brainstorming sessions,” Williams Woolley concluded. “It's when a group reaches its creative peak because everyone is participating freely and contributing ideas.” 

Like jazz, these environments leave room for improvisation: someone plays a note, and it sparks someone else to riff, and another and another.

Breeding Burstiness in Distributed Teams

Every weekday morning, 42 weeks a year, The Daily Show host Trevor Noah meets with his creative team to write a brand new script for his show. Their process starts with everyone sandwiched together on couches or shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor. Someone plays clips from yesterday’s news, and then they start to riff. No one holds back, even if the ideas aren’t well thought out. Noah’s role is to set an inviting tone, calmly guiding the group while the clock is ticking.

“The room just literally sounds like it’s bursting with ideas,” recalled organizational psychologist Adam Grant, who studied their creative process. 

This is how many of us imagine burstiness: people sat around a table, spitballing ideas. What feels less familiar, however, is a group of people sat in their own homes, talking to each other via Slack or Zoom. Yet, in our post-pandemic world, that is how many of us now work.

For distributed teams, replicating in-person burstiness is a challenge. Fortunately, some early adopters of remote work have been wrestling with the problem for years. And we can learn a lot by studying how they maintained burstiness even when their team is scattered across counties, countries, or continents.

Consider Sarah McIlwain, a product design manager at Abstract, a design operations platform with a fully distributed team.

McIlwain uses a process called design sprints to breed burstiness and develop new ideas for her product. “In a design sprint, you get engineers, designers, and product folk in a room, lock the door, and tell them not to come out until they solve a customer problem,” she explains.

Although design sprints were created for in-person teams, McIlwain successfully adapted them for distributed teams.

“The whiteboard is the anchor around which a design sprint is conducted,” she says. “It lends itself to scribbling and collaborative ideation.” Running design sprints required a digital alternative, a tool where her colleagues could scribble, sketch, and stick Post-It notes.  For distributed teams, this is a key lesson: if your in-person sessions rely on something—a whiteboard for McIlwain, a TV for Noah—you need to replicate it online.

But environmental considerations for distributed teams go much deeper. In a work environment, burstiness looks like people talking over each other, like a raucous family gathering. While that’s great in-person, it turns video calls into an unintelligible mess of noise. To create more coordinated communication, McIlwain suggests using a platform with a variety of different communication options—video, chat, and asynchronous audio. 

“It helps in terms of communication styles,” she explains. “If you're someone who is too shy to speak into the camera, the chat window is a really wonderful way to express yourself.”

Beyond technology, McIlwain says distributed collaboration has disruptive behavioral quirks, too. Without the pressure of being in the same room as their colleagues, moderators have far less control over attendees’ attentions. To keep everyone engaged for the duration, leaders must establish their expectations early and stay alert for participants who seem disengaged.

“It really falls on the moderator to pay attention to see if there's someone who's been quiet for an hour,” McIlwain says. “When that happens, the moderator needs to call them out and ask what they're thinking.”

Building on solid foundations

With the groundwork for successful distributed collaboration completed, organizations can turn their attention to promoting the basic building blocks of burstiness: psychological safety, just the right amount of structure, diversity, and practice working as a team.

“The foundation of creativity is permissiveness,”Jono Bacon, a community and collaboration strategy expert, and author of People Powered: How communities can supercharge your business, brand, and teams tells Dropbox. “Teams need the oxygen and time to be able to explore creative outcomes, some of which will be good and bad.”

Building a psychologically safe environment takes time. One step is lowering inhibitions.

In one study, researchers asked a group of randomized participants to tell an embarrassing story, while a second randomized group was told to describe a time they felt proud. Then, both groups were asked to spend 10 minutes thinking of new uses for a paper clip. Those in the “proud” group came up with pretty unsurprising ideas: an earring, a necklace, a paperclip. People who told an embarrassing story, however, came up with more unexpected ones: a wound suture, artwork, a screwdriver. The researchers saw similar results when they conducted another study with 93 managers from a range of companies.

“Candor led to greater creativity,” the researchers concluded. “Thus, we propose a new rule for brainstorming sessions: Tell a self-deprecating story before you start. As uncomfortable as this may seem, especially among colleagues you would typically want to impress, the result will be a broader range of creative ideas, which will surely impress them even more.”

A relaxed atmosphere unleashes creativity. Counterintuitively, perhaps, this relaxed and creative atmosphere also thrives with structure.

During McIlwain’s design sprints, her work day is highly structured. There’s a concrete customer problem, set process stages and exercises, and a predefined decision-making process. She works within what’s called  “task bubbles.” Task bubbles are protected hours of collaboration that give people just enough time to bounce ideas off one another. The time limit produces a hyper focused “bubble.”  

In addition to structure and safety, burstiness needs the right mix of people. Diverse backgrounds and perspectives are key. When a creative group lacks racial, gender, and social diversity, it’s worse at creative problem solving—even though members might think they’re better, because they’re more inherently comfortable. An inclusive culture that embraces diversity is what led to the invention of one of the most addictive junk foods on the market: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Richard Montanez, a Frito-Lay employee, realized that the company had no products that catered to Latinos. He walked into the homogenous boardroom and pitched his idea. He was a janitor.

“A diverse workforce is critical to establishing a creative workplace culture,” Zain Jaffer, Founder and CEO of investment firm Zain Ventures, tells Dropbox. “Unfortunately, unconscious biases often play a significant role in who we hire, which can be a roadblock to building that diverse team.” Jaffer has a list of best practices for organizations looking to create a diverse staff: minimize these unconscious biases, resulting in the recruitment and retention of talent from a variety of cultures, ages, and genders. “These differences open us up to an inspiring world of fresh opinions and creative ideas that drive innovation and growth,” Jaffer says.

One of Jaffer’s best practices for minimizing unconscious biases is hiring blind. By reviewing resumes with personal characteristics such as names, dates, and addresses, removed hiring managers can concentrate on skills, attributes, education, and experience. Some companies take it a step further with blind interviews: sophisticated audio and visual technology masks a candidate’s identity so evaluation can be even more objective.

“It’s also important to analyze our hiring decisions,” Jaffer says. “When rejecting an applicant, it’s a good idea to analyze the reasons for this to determine if any unconscious bias was involved. Being aware and dedicated to removing the bias can be a simple yet impactful way to overcome such biases.”

This is where creating the conditions for burstiness get nuanced: Diversity can cause discomfort. Yes, people need to feel safe. But they also need to feel some level of discomfort. Discomfort prompts employees to go the extra mile, prepare, and share. Like anything, practicing working as a creative unit is essential. Creative teams spend time getting to know one another, and they refine the art of being bursty.

“Because we have so many shows to do, 160 a year, there is not a hell of a lot of time for taking retreats or doing dry runs of things,” says Steve Bodow, an executive producer of The Daily Show. “The way you do a new process, or the way that you get people to work together, is by making a show and making another show and then making another show.”

Bursting outside of the box

Collaboration is the secret to breakthroughs in creativity. As Edison’s “midnight lunch” shows us, creative collaboration needs diverse teams and a safe but structured environment with parameters that confine tasks and push individuals beyond rote, comfortable behavior. “Collaboration serves as the sinews, the ligaments, the tendons—the invisible glue—that allows innovation to advance and sustain momentum,” says Midnight Lunch author Miller Caldicott. “Without collaboration, innovation stalls.”

To shift a stale collaboration paradigm to one that’s bursty, we need to rethink both the power of the group and the individual. As psychology professors and researchers in creativity and leadership, Teresa Amabile and Mukti Khaire explain: “One doesn’t manage creativity. One manages for creativity.” Leaders who succeed in cultivating creativity encourage a working environment in which critical thinking, new ideas, and creative solutions can flow unencumbered. This entails hiring not just the right people, but also the right sets of people.

As the Stanford organizational psychologist Harold Leavitt suggested in 1974, there are many overlooked ways to promote workplace creativity and leverage team talent: What if we hired groups of creative people, rather than individuals? What if we promoted groups, rather than single standouts?

“We know that every individual has a unique perspective,” Dylan Max, Head of Growth Marketing at Netomi, an AI customer service company, tells Dropbox. “But few companies leverage all their employees to think creatively. Think about how many amazing ideas have been lost to silence because companies have a defined set of people who are in charge of creative thinking.”

Creative teams aren’t just as creative as their leader, or even just the sum of their parts. They’re the sum of their shared experience.