Building a Creative Team: Personalities & Thinking Hats

Which skills, personalities and thinking styles should be represented in a creative team?

Innovation & Creativity: What’s the difference really?

Innovation is a buzzword - no doubt. But as it is with many buzzwords, the word holds great value. Disrupting the market with a great innovation might just help you get ahead of competition within your field. Now you might think:  How can I create innovative products, services and ideas? The answer is through a creative process. , Innovation is the outcome of a creative process. And yes - there is a difference. 

Innovation: The embodiment, combination and/or synthesis of knowledge in original, relevant, valued new products, processes, or services.
Creativity: A process of developing and expressing novel ideas that are likely to be useful.

Creativity is not just a term used in art or an ability reserved for the great few, like Picasso, Steve Jobs or Michael Jackson. Anyone can be creative. The art of creativity - and not just creativity within the field of art - is very hard to master. It involves extreme opposites: playfulness and professionalism, expertise and beginners’ incompetence, the familiar and the strange... The list goes on.

It is said that two heads are better than one. The same goes for creativity. When a team goes through a creative process, it is easier to encompass all the different opposites creativity demands.

The Diverse Team

“When all men think alike, no one thinks very much.” - Walter Lippmann

Diversity of all kinds are to be encouraged. At the most basic level this can mean a mix people of different ages, genders, origins and backgrounds, but what I want to emphasize is the following two dimensions. First and foremost, a team is most creative if it consists of both friends (or other familiar people) and newcomers. This mix makes people comfortable enough to share their ideas with each other, but the creativity is not stifled, because the group also consists of strangers, who might shake things up.

Secondly, the team must have members who have a deep knowledge within the fields in which they seek to have a creative process. These are the experts. At the same time, the team must also include people with no or little knowledge of the field at all - the beginners. This might seem strange to some readers, but the beginners have great value to the team. Due to ignorance, these team members are able to look at the issue from a new angle. The experts might have some difficulties in escaping their cognitive map (i.e. their patterns of thinking might be stuck) due to working many years within the field.

Think Outside The Box or In It?

Aside from these very “easy to identify” traits (experience level and familiarity), there are some less identifiable traits that should be represented on a team embarking on a creative quest. A creative process involves both divergent and convergent thinking - also known as left brain- and right brain activities. Read more in our blogpost hereDivergent thinking is concerned with seeing things differently and producing novel ideas. Convergent thinking, on the other hand, is concerned with analysing and seeing limits. 

In a creative process, one must first generate a large number of ideas without judgement and limits (divergent thinking) and later narrow in on what is most valuable and feasible. As these thinking styles represent opposites, it can be beneficial to identify which thinking style each employee in your company has and chose people who belong to both categories. (1)

This relates to what Ed Catmull wrote in his book Creativity Inc. Here he describes how at SIGGRAPH meetings (2), where ideas are presented people are assigned different roles of ‘idea protectors’ and ‘paper killers’. The ‘idea protectors’ are to only give back critique that is helpful to the new idea and build on the idea, whereas the ‘paper killers’ are to just give critique (no limits set). The point of this is for the ‘idea protectors’ to do something maybe unnatural to some people - embracing novelty. ,This allows for the team to consist of people who are actively thinking in different ways.

As you can see, people can be divided into different categories in various ways. One way is to have your employees take the Opposing Myers-Briggs type indicators” test. (Or take a free test based on the same idea here). This test assigns one of 16 personalities based on four different scales with two opposing characteristics to each person; extrovert vs introvert, sensing vs intuitive, thinking vs feeling and finally, judging vs perceiving.

A Useful Tool

If you have trouble identifying these different types of people or just want to mix it up, you might benefit from an exercise called The Six Thinking Hats. This technique might seem a bit silly, but bear with me for a minute, while I explain.

Different thinking styles are symbolised by hats. Yes, actual hats. The hats can be used simultaneously (i.e. everyone wears the same type of hat at the same time) or asynchronously (i.e. people wear different hats at the same time). The different hats represent as follows:

  • The blue hat represents process
  • The white hat represents facts
  • The green hat represents creativity
  • The red hat represents feelings
  • The yellow hat represents benefits
  • The black hat represents caution

The benefit of this technique is that it enables people to think in different ways and ensure that the team benefits from different thinking styles. This technique is probably most useful in the process of convergent thinking, as some of the thinking types have no place in divergent thinking, where ideas are to be produced without limitations. Read about “The Six Thinking Hats” in more detail here.

Conflicts: Good or Bad?

I’m not going to lie. A team with people who think and act differently are more likely to have friction and clash more often than homogeneous teams. It can get ugly. Even though, conflict is the very essence that makes a team produce creative outcomes, it can also be harmful and create discontent for the parties involved. This is why, in a world with increasing demand for creative outcomes and therefore an increasing number of creative teams, people management is of vital importance. If not managed carefully, the creative team might create a toxic work environment and cause people to behave badly or even quit their job.

You, as the manager, have to listen to the individual team members and make sure they’re  feeling engaged. Read about employee engagement in our blogpost here.

So Where to Start?

Step 1: Assemble a diverse team.

If you have many people to chose from you can start by looking at demographics and easy to identify traits like age, gender, experience level and whether people know each other well or not. Then continue by identifying different ways of thinking. It is important to stress this point: different thinking styles is the most important factor in a creative team. So if you find it difficult to do both - forget what I said first and mix thinking styles.  Then if you find it difficult to identify whether an employee is a divergent thinker or a convergent thinker - this is very black and white, I know - you can use tests like the “Opposing Myers-Briggs type indicators”. But remember, all people can learn how to think differently from what they do now - it just takes practice.

If you don’t have many people to choose from, due to either the size of the company or the specific demands of the issue at hand, you can chose to focus on what you have and try to foster the different ways of thinking through role playing; e.g. by using the technique “the Six Thinking Hats”.

Step 2: Generate ideas

Once you have put your team together, you can begin. Yay! This is the fun part. Your team must generate as many and as crazy ideas as they can through divergent thinking. A good old reliable technique is to just give people a bunch of post-its and crayons (pens will do too) and let them put ideas on paper. Afterwards, the team can build on each others’ ideas to benefit from associations made in the minds of others. You can also chose to group the ideas and make sense of them in relation to different categories. The challenge is not to judge - there are no bad ideas at this point.

A useful technique, if your team is lacking inspiration and seems to be stuck, can be “reverse brainstorming”. This technique starts by stating the question you’re investigating (e.g. How do we reach a younger market?), then you ask the complete opposite question (e.g. How do we scare away the younger market?) and come up with solutions to this. This process can be quite peculiar and will revive energy on your team. Finally, these solutions are reversed to answer the actual question.

Step 3: Select the best idea

Of course the third step is easier said than done. However, this is ultimately what you’re trying to do. Now you should use your convergent thinking patterns - for some people this step might be the easiest, as assessing and seeing limits come quite natural to most of us.

In order to sort out the mess you made in step two, you might want to impose some selection criteria such as budget constraints, time constraints, risk etc. But make sure not to kill all novel ideas that seem a bit risky. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Step 4: Evaluate and give feedback

Finally, make sure to evaluate, ‘cause evaluations matter. And I’ll tell you why. This is the step that involves learning. Learn from all the mistakes you made. Have everyone’s opinion heard. Let them know you care about how they feel and tell them what they did good. This way they are more likely to produce creative and valuable ideas in the future.

 Now, go create your team.

And let them create.


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