Halvor William Sanden

Creativity without collaboration tools

My career-long aversion to post-it notes peaked after an intense period of workshops. Small, contained, limited and limiting; the tiny, sticky paper is the antithesis of a yes phase and attracts more lint than ideas.

Anti creativity #

Post-its play a crucial role in many stupid things:

  • Writing down passwords and sticking them onto the screen.
  • Contributing a couple of words without context.
  • Quickly giving the impression of quantity without having to elaborate.
  • And gathering ideas that are to be thrown away after a successful session of collaboration theatre.

Safe zone democracy #

This theatre usually involves some form of voting; we leave good or interesting ideas out in favour of the ones with the most dots. It stops most ideas from being combined or evolving into something better.

The only thing we learn is to operate within the safe zone. We start to think twice before suggesting things, and no one asks anyone to explain beyond the limited number of words there is room for on the note.

Individual solutions #

Writing down thoughts is good. Writing them down, sharing and gathering them and then going home is not.

The person tasked with collecting and compiling feels no ownership of the ideas. And dumping without further explanation and exploration creates little collective understanding. The collaborative collective is not collectively collaborative. It is individually generating work for others.

Workshops centred around note collecting don’t ask for ideas; they ask for solutions. But solutions are not something we come up with; they require work.

Fall in line digitalisation #

Digitalisation often boils down to whether you want the version with or without dog hair.

Guess what’s alive and present in our collaboration tool? Those blasted yellow notes. We reveal our lack of imagination as providers by not doing much besides adding electricity to existing solutions. And we demonstrate our lack of imagination as users by using digital solutions as if they were not.

We build most of our digital interfaces upon principles of recognition. The only thing coloured squares do in terms of collaboration, creativity or productivity is to help us fall into the restrictive modes and flows that paper imposes. Imitate limits, and we will recognise and behave as if they were real.

It’s not the tools that make us better. They can enable improvement, and we can improve them, but it depends on how we use them and if we want to shape the tools around what we want to achieve or continue to let them shape our processes.

Outside the yellow square #

Sharing of ideas is communication, not harvesting. It requires context, explanation and understanding, just like any piece of information with a purpose. The purpose of an idea is to foster more ideas until there is enough to act. We can’t do that unless we break processes that alleviate us from understanding and working with each other’s ideas.

Organise by goal #

Learn to recognise whether you are doing a survey or a collaboration. Then facilitate accordingly. Meetings can be emails, input can be forms and twenty people rarely collaborate productively.

Organise smaller groups. Everything doesn’t have to be for everyone at once. Every person added to a group changes the total. Talking one-on-one is also a good option; it can be what helps people relax enough to be creative together.

No more brainstorming #

How many times have you had a well of ideas after an idea meeting? Or how often has someone shown up with a finished solution, and the rest don’t have the time to counter it, turning the entire session into theatre? Give people assignments and problems, plant seeds, and ask a question. Give them something to spark ideas. Expect people to prepare. Then gather them to share and generate more ideas together. Repeat if necessary.

Brains over tools #

Pens and paper are mostly useless, but digital isn’t a replacement. No tool will improve lousy communication or a bad technique for generating ideas. Small or big notes don’t matter; people and their brains matter.

Safe invisibility #

People experience different thresholds for participation. When people are afraid or hesitant to speak up, it’s a severe issue. If the tools allow people who normally wouldn’t speak up to contribute, you have a culture or format problem. Tech doesn’t solve that.

If it’s not cultural, we must find ways for people to participate. Dumping a thought onto a piece of paper doesn’t help if the person isn’t enabled to elaborate afterwards. It just becomes a cover where it looks like everyone is heard. While the invisible stay invisible.

Push and invite #

A lack of gatekeeping doesn’t mean there isn’t a threshold. Make and display a culture where it’s safe to share and discuss. Some people are less prone to share. Some people need to be pushed a little bit. Some people need to be invited.

Careful with popularity #

Throw democracy out of creativity. Everyone should know that the most popular idea is not the same as the best one. Throw competitiveness out of creativity. Everyone should be aware that any idea might not make it, that most people have the same ideas, and that ideas aren’t solutions but foster ideas that can be shaped and reshaped into solutions.

Half of the goal is to help people experience that their contributions matter – being voted out does not do that; having good discussions, on the other hand, might work because then we have to deal with every idea.

Show benefits #

Arrange with participation in mind. Principles do not lead to involvement in themselves. Someone has to invite, demonstrate and show that it’s safe – and fun – and the results and effects it has. But to do so, we also have to be clear about what we’re trying to achieve and be open for it to change, as well as be open with everyone when it does.

Yellow isn’t the boss #

Do not submit to conformity by using digital tools like their analogue ancestors. Yellow square does not mean that we should limit ourselves. The digital post-it is only in our minds. Write long and elaborative.

Stream of consciousness doesn’t come in yellow.