Hamburger or Steak

I'm often asked by clients and workshop attendees, "How do we know when the creative process is finished?" People look to me as the great creative master for such answers. My smart-ass reply is, "It's never done. You can always come up with something better. And if you don't, someone else will." There, I have the answer. I must be brilliant. No wonder they flock to me with their plebeian questions.

Well, contrary to my Mom's firmest beliefs, I'm not always brilliant. Case in point (actually, it's Monahan's Proven Lack-of-Brilliance Case #9,347): A number of years ago I was forced to sell a young pet 400-pound bull for $.50 on the hoof (don't ask). I lamented to a farmer neighbor of mine, "If I had waited a bit longer I could have sold him for $.75 per pound steak."

This Rhode Island Swamp Yankee, as we call them around these parts, gave me that patented Yankee look. All that was missing was the corncob pipe. Then he said, "Should have sold him 100 pounds ago, when he was $1.00 a pound veal."

Yes, you can overwork an idea. Yes, you can often go with an earlier idea. But in matters of creativity, unlike the cattle business, you should generate many ideas. Then you can go back and find the veal. The prime cut of veal, at that.

Here are some tips on how to get there from here.

Distill periodically. As mentioned earlier, don't wait until the end to try to sort through the output of an entire brainstorming session. Being forced to evaluate each idea a number of times, once during the round-by-round distillation and again during the semifinal and final rounds, helps you look at it in different lights to truly test the idea in its conceptual form. Also, because the early distillation is understood not to be binding and allows for inclusion of what may be seen as borderline ideas early on, it keeps final, more destructive judgment at bay.

Don't debate during the early stages of distillation. During the early rounds you can distill simply by asking all members of the team (the four- to six-member group, not the entire room) to nominate ideas for that team's shortlist. If you're using sticky notes, this simply means moving the sticky to the shortlist. If one person likes an idea enough to put it in the running, then it's in the running. By saving the oral arguments for later, you're keeping everyone in an open mind-set. Debate causes both defenders and attackers to take a stand, one that they may become attached to later; this almost always clouds their judgment.

Bring some criteria to the qualifying process. In addition to deferring the intellectual discussion of why an idea is good or bad until late in the

Moth hole in your expensive jacket. No problem; buy another.

Moth hole in your expensive jacket. No problem; buy another.

You buy a used jacket with a moth hole and hope no one notices.

process, it's a good idea to save qualifying criteria until later as well. When you announce the criteria by which the final idea(s) will be chosen too early (some groups do this at the beginning), you narrow the playing field too soon. Remember what we said about planning and getting attached to the outcome and how it limits the possibilities? Well, articulating the success criteria too soon not only limits possibilities, but it also tends to eliminate that valuable fertilizer that is so crucial to the creative process.

Bringing criteria into the process when final or near-final judgments are being made also eliminates much of the subjectivity from the evaluation. It become less a matter of whether people like it or don't like it (which you can never fully eliminate, nor do you want to), and more an exercise of whether it fits the bill or not. This keeps the process less personal. it's hard to make a subjective judgment on an idea and not offend the person who thought of it.

Use numeric scoring. When getting to the short strokes, I like to use a silent voting system. Again, you eliminate debate, which is rarely a fair fight between people of differing ranks, and you make the process more quantitative, which brings in a little, not a lot, of science. The simplest numeric scoring system is to allot each player on the team a finite number of votes, which I do by simply having the individuals place a checkmark on the sticky note where the idea is written.

Let's say we have five players on a team with five votes each. That puts 25 points into play. Ask people not to be persuaded nor dissuaded by one another's votes. Then simply rank finalist ideas according to the math. In this example, the highest score could be a five, the lowest, of course, is zero. Afterward, I ask people to rearrange the stickies with the highest-scoring ideas on the top of the page. This usually results in a pyramidal effect, with people agreeing on just a few ideas at the top, which is most often a fair representation of what all parties really think.

Save the final list for a later date. If at all possible, I recommend you save final judgment for a later date, if only until the following day. Even a period of as little as 24 hours will help give you a fresh, more objective perspective.

If you don't have the time, do something to change the dynamics from the brainstorming session proper. I like paring the group down for this phase. Whereas 30 to 35 people, in groups of 5 or 6, is ideal for the brains-against-the-wall portion of the process, I prefer 4 to 6 people for the final distillation.

Bring in fresh minds. For the final selection process I like some fresh perspectives. Bring in people who are not at all close to the project for the clearest opinions. This is also a good time to include people you may have liked to see participate in the brainstorming session but for some reason couldn't make it.

I also like to use fresh minds to go back to the outtake pile(s) to make sure nothing got lost between the cracks. Often some of the best ideas in a brainstorming session don't even make it out of the early rounds. If not the best ideas, they are often the freshest ideas, in part because they "didn't make sense." (See Chapter 15, page 155.)

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