You can’t have a proper conversation about creativity without eventually debating if there’s a useful role for negativity.
Two recent brainstorms for the same team demonstrated the issue. I conducted the first brainstorm last October where participants wanted to get rid of bad ideas immediately. When the team leader overruled my suggestion to stay in a creative mode, we continued. As I feared, the initial sniping about the first few ideas spread like cancer until they promptly dismissed every idea put on the table. The negative atmosphere also stopped a few people from participating entirely, and two others got into an argument that ended with one leaving the room in anger.
When the second brainstorm was scheduled for last week, I gently suggested we have a discussion about how to limit negativity and, more important, how to increase the role of its valuable cousin: criticism. To make a long story short, the outcome was 180 degrees different.
Negativity vs. Criticism
First, let me repeat what I’ve written previously. Negativity has no value in brainstorms. It prevents people from being creative at work. Whether internal (our own) or external (from other people), negativity robs an organisation of its most valuable asset: new and original thinking.
On the other hand, criticism can add tremendous value to the creativity process. In fact, a successful creative process needs critique, but it’s crucial to understand the difference between them.
The Oxford English Dictionary says negativity is the expression of criticism of or pessimism about something.
The same source describes criticism as the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.
In other words, negativity is general. It creates an overall atmosphere. Everything about something is wrong.
A subset of negativity, criticism is narrow. Its disapproval is about a specific fault, mistake or aspect. Its value lies in the suggestion that if you could fix the wrong aspect, it could improve the idea, potentially making it a great idea.
I couldn’t count the number of brainstorms I’ve been in during my career. But I guarantee every idea that’s come out of my mouth could be improved. By giving an idea oxygen, I’ve learnt over the years that the team could help me fix the bad aspects, in turn improving it. For example, we might change how the idea might be implemented, positioned, re-focused on a different audience, scheduled, or budgeted.
It’s not just that two heads are better than one (although that’s very true in creativity). The best brainstormers don’t care if their idea is perfect. They know it’s more important to share the idea to improve it, if not gain support for it at the same time.
How do you bring criticism to a brainstorm but not negativity? I suggest four ways.
1. Get agreement among everyone at the beginning about what the idea must accomplish.
A quality business objective will tell people what standards to use to critique the ideas. Too often, brainstorms begin without any discussion about what the idea precisely needs to accomplish. The worst objectives are too general, such as ‘It needs to help sell more X.’ You can improve that objective by simply adding ‘to who’ and ‘by when.‘ Even better, ensure the objective answers the most important question: ‘Why? What value should the end user receive from this idea?‘
2. Use a process to ensure everyone knows there’s a time and place for criticism – but never negativity.
It’s understandable to think Creativity and Process shouldn’t be used in the same sentence. Creativity is free-for-all. Process is routine. However, good brainstorms are like good parties. Pull back the emerald curtain on that spontaneous party, you’ll find rigorous planning and detail. To add process, consider using an agenda, divided into three sections.
- Overview or set-up. This section should be as short as possible: 2-5 minutes, tops. (To paraphrase Einstein, if you can’t explain the complex problem simply, you don’t understand the problem.) You might also consider a creative brief to help participants understand key information quickly.
- Ideation. This section should be a free-for-all, focused on idea generation with games and other mental gymnastics to keep everyone active.
- Review. Here, the best ideas are critiqued strategically and creatively, then organised and prioritised. This is when criticism is welcomed.
Two more points. The agenda/process should be explained at the beginning, reinforcing to all that criticism will be welcomed at the end.
And, do not allow criticism during the Ideation section. They are two wholly separate and opposite brain functions. Critiquing while you’re creating is the mental equivalent of throwing a car into Reverse when it’s in Drive. Let the brain play. Then, ask it to critique.
3. Criticism needs to come at the right time.
First, prioritise. Focus your critique on the best of the best. Then, move down through the lesser ideas, looking for aspects of average ideas which are interesting, provocative or challenging. It’s likely this critiquing section opens up more brainstorming, which is ideal.
There may be some discussion, disagreement and criticism during the first section of your agenda. However, I strongly recommend sharing the overview with people in advance. Or, if discussion is needed – which sometimes it is – discuss it at a separate meeting. Or, take a mental break between the first and second sections.
Finally, you might also include a break between the second and third sections. If it’s a lengthy brainstorm, let people take a mental break – but never longer than 15 minutes.
There’s some additional points in my previous post on how to wrap up a brainstorm.
4. Negativity is destructive. Criticism is constructive.
Always focus on improving the idea, even if it changes the idea into a different one – which is common, appropriate and often necessary.
Don’t waste your valuable time debating bad ideas. The natural act of sorting and organizing gets rid of bad ideas. Let them die a natural death. The exception? If someone can find a single aspect to build upon and transform it into a better idea. In my experience, the best ideas come from bad ideas. It’s as if someone said, “Well, we couldn’t do that … but what if we could do this?”
As you can imagine, this is a common question with many different aspects. Here’s some other posts that may be of interest.
Any other suggestions you’d add to keep negativity at a minimum, but increase constructive criticism? Please comment below.
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