Four Tips for Unlocking Creativity without Short-Circuiting Your Brain

from our CEO & Master Collaborator, Richard Crespin

Imagine you had lived your whole life up to this point under a benign dictatorship. You live under the dictator’s strict regimen of rules that govern almost every aspect of your behavior but in return, s/he provides all of your basic needs. Now imagine your benign dictator suddenly scoops up you and a few total strangers and drops you in a remote garden and tells you all that you now have complete free will. You can organize yourselves however you like, to do whatever you want.

That’s kind of how the USAID Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) and co-creation process comes across to many participants — especially those with prior USAID experience. The FAR and AIDFAR have dictated much of their professional lives and the prospect of living and working outside of them, even if only for a brief while, sounds exciting. But, here’s the problem with total free will: it’s exhausting. As anyone who’s ever attempted a kitchen or home remodel can tell you, when you can decide everything it becomes difficult to decide anything. If you have infinite choices of every feature and function not to mention overall design and engineering, the sheer number of choices becomes overwhelming and many people go into decision-lock, unable to make any decisions and suddenly wondering why you started this at all.

CollaborateUp has been involved in dozens of co-creation processes for multiple companies, nonprofits, and donors. We’ve facilitated nine BAAs for USAID. And in every single one, by about the midway point in a workshop (Day 2 or 3), the participants have had enough of free will. They want their benign dictator back.

At this point in the co-creation process, both the organizers (e.g., USAID) and the participants turn to us as facilitators to “fix” the problem. But here’s the thing: there isn’t a problem. This is the nature of co-creation. But if you’re planning a co-creation process or participating in one, what can you do to make the process a little easier, a little less stressful?

Here are four tips for conveners, participants, and everyone:

  1. Manage expectations. Give up the notion that creativity is clean and efficient. If you want clean, organized, and efficient, stick with dictatorship and straightforward procurement. Creativity and creation are messy. Be explicit about this with yourself and your collaborators. Conveners (e.g., USAID): tell your bosses and the participants to expect discomfort, that they will all have to make a lot of decisions, and that the process will at times look more like an artist’s studio than a medical lab. It will be messy and people will paint outside the lines. Participants: ask yourself before you sign up for this process if you can really handle this much lack of structure. Send people who have high emotional intelligence (EQ) and self-awareness and who have the ability to control their own anxieties. As an example, if you have a choice between sending a seasoned deal-maker who knows how to calmly structure complex deals or a temperamental technical engineer, send the deal-maker. Everyone: prepare yourself to make lots of decisions. Former US President Barack Obama said at the start of his presidency he experienced such a level of decision-fatigue — exhaustion at the overwhelming number of decisions he had to make in a single day — that he picked out all the same color suits and ties just so he didn’t ever have to decide what to wear in the morning. 
  2. Stop trying to “fix it”. Nothing is wrong here. Keep reminding yourself and your collaborators that you’re doing something extraordinary — and I mean that in the literal sense of “outside the ordinary.” Mark Kramer said, “Collaboration is an unnatural act among non-consenting adults.” Throwing a bunch of people in a room who’ve never worked together violates so many natural human instincts. We’re wired to work with people we know and trust (e.g., because we’ve worked with them over time) or who share some common bond with us (e.g., a shared familial or organizational allegiance). Collaborating without these prerequisites takes patience, practice, and an advanced ability to help manage our instinctive fight or flight response. Not everyone can do it. Everyone: Carefully select who you send to participate in the process. Select people with high EQ.
  3. Hire a Sherpa. Work with a co-creation coach or facilitator who’s “been there, done that” helps a lot. Conveners: A great facilitator can help you peer around corners and anticipate how different activities or questions might impact the group. Participants: Co-creation begins long before the workshop and continues long afterward. Consider hiring a co-creation coach with experience in these kinds of processes to advise you as you work through the different steps from BAA to award.
  4. Layer in structure. Many co-creation conveners and organizers want to avoid “limiting” or “interfering” with the creativity. A total lack of structure, though, freaks people out. One way of giving them structure without limiting creativity is layering in the structure in stages. Conveners: Use as a model for your process buying a car, instead of building a fully custom car. The manufacturer provides “packages” to choose from with curated sets of choices for exterior, interior, engine, etc, not unlimited options on every feature. Similarly, provide collaborators with multiple but not unlimited choices at different stages of creation. As an example, we recommend starting with “problem-first thinking” — agreeing on the problems to solve before coming up with solutions. Let the group free-form and brainstorm the problems, but then as the organizer, intervene and “curate” the problem sets. Take some off the table. Then let the group brainstorm solutions within the problem sets. Then intervene again, eliminating solutions or provide them with criteria so they can self-curate. Participants: If you can, ask the donor/conveners lots of questions about their decision-making process before you get in the room. Ask how they intend to participate overall and especially in making decisions.