I am endlessly fascinated about where great creative ideas come from and whether you can do anything to increase the likelihood of them occurring. I once wrote about this in the post The Formula for Creative Meetings.
That post was inspired by a rather mediocre creative meeting run by a management consultancy. My main contention was that if they'd run it a bit better then the creative ideas would probably (as in "there probably is no God") have been a whole lot better.
This post is inspired by a creative meeting, involving another management consultancy, that was run much much worse than that.
But it produced what was (IMHO) an extraordinarily good idea. So how does that work then?
Is it possible that bad environments can produce great ideas. Occasionally? More often than not? Reliably?
This is worth contemplation.
Co-incidentally, the Guardian in its G2 section asked today "What impact did George Bush have on the artistic life of his country". The answer was a resounding "no" but I suspect this was a rather knee jerk reaction from the liberal artistic elite that was asked. But, hey, they've got an election on, so the party line needs to followed.
I can't remember the exact quote but in the Third Man, Harry Lime (?) talks about how in the Italian Renaissance, where the country was run by a bunch of crooks and murderers (the Medicis and the Borgias) huge intellectual and artistic strides are made in a few years, whereas in orderly, communitarian Switzerland, in 500 years the best they can come up with is the Cuckoo clock.
If i had the time it would fun to audit other creative fields. For example did the most radical shifts in music in the UK occur under the Tories (Punk, Rave culture) or Labour (Pomp Rock, Boy Bands)?
This is indeed the old question: do artists need to suffer for their art?
So should we, rather counter intuitively, try to run our creative meetings so badly that through their frustration and anger, our creative people burst out with a moment of creative genius? (Actually, I believe some creative departments are run on that basis, but here I am analysing those client/agency brainstorm meetings)
I think the answer is that it depends on who is in the meeting.
Perhaps the true pattern of this phenonemon is the same of how PowerPoint - allegedly - affects the quality of a presentation. I'll try to dig out the reference, but the view is that the bottom 10% of presenters will have their presentations improved (it gives at least some structure to their messy thoughts) and the top 10% of the ability range will also be enhanced by a .ppt file (they are the PowerPoint artists). The authors complaint is that for the middle 80%, their presentations become muddied, over verbal and over-pimped by the use of .ppt.
So for PowerPoint - keep it out of the middle zone.
For facilitation techniques i think the reverse applies. Only use it in the middle range.
So here's where I get to. If you have got a group of brilliant creative people (top 10% e.g experienced pitch teams at an agency) then just leave them to it and don't try any fancy facilitation techniques on them. Over managing them will make things worse. And if you have got a fairly mid-ranged, typical bunch of marketing/agency people (the 80% centre of the bell curve) then some facilitation/brainstorming techniques probably will enhance the quality of the output.
But for those unfortunate 10% of occasions where you have a mismatched bunch of people with little familiarity with working together, an unclear brief and patchy creative abilities etc. then just let chaos reign and you may just get a Sistine Chapel Ceiling out of it (or a lot of dead bodies). Perhaps this is what happenned this week.
This pattern may also resolve another tension in my life. I spend a fair amount of time facilitating creative meetings and feel that this "works". But on reflection I tend to work in the middle ground (i.e. not with pure play creatives or small, well-oiled pitch teams). Further more I agree with Richard Huntington that truly great creative ideas almost never come out of brainstorms (rather they come from individual minds or very small groups). This "10:80:10" pattern explains this.
Now the only problem with this theory is the rather challenging view found in the new book 1434 ("The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance") where it is claimed that Leonardo etc. nicked all their ideas from the Chinese.
And come to think of it, all four of the consultancy people in the meeting looked rather Chinese (or at least Asian). Hang on a moment .......?!