Photography: drurydrama (Len Radin)
Being an artist always seems like such a lonely job. They always have to work alone, surrounded by half-completed canvases, overturned paint pots and wobbly easels. At best, they’ll have a model to console themselves with at the end of the day – unless they’re painting a still life – but usually, if a painter talks about his ideas, it’s to himself and to his work in progress. Writers are little better. Although many have been known for their ability to down the odd bottle with friends at the end of an unproductive day, a hack’s best collaborator has always been his moleskin or his typewriter, not a loyal group of friends. But the notion that ideas come best when we’re alone, often in the shower, might well be one of creativity’s biggest myths. In fact, group work can bring out some of the best concepts.
We can see this at the highest end of art. The work of an Impressionist painter always reflects his own ability; it’s produced by just one pair of hands. But the ideas that went into the final picture are the results of long discussion among the painters themselves about what art should be and how to produce it, discussions held in bars and cafes and continued afterwards by letter. None of those ideas – and Impressionism itself – could have been produced by just one artist working alone.
The same is true of the kind of creative thinking that led to some of science’s greatest breakthroughs. In Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius, Michael Michalko describes how Einstein, Eisenberg, Pauli and Bohr were almost unique among scientists of the day for their informal meetings and open conversations. While other scientists kept their thoughts to themselves in case they were described as controversial or revealed their mistakes, the real breakthroughs came from the scientists who weren’t afraid to speak their minds, even when what was on their mind was only half-formed.
The Creative Thinking of the Impressionists
If the café chats between the Impressionist painters like those held at the Café Geurbois where Monet, Sisley, Cezanne and Pissarro would meet, or the talks between Einstein and Eisenberg were productive it might well be because they followed the principles of “koinonia,” a Greek term that describes the sharing of ideas. Socrates was so fond of these kinds of group dialogue, says Michalko, that he and his colleagues formed principles that guided the discussion. Participants had to listen carefully to each other, identify and remove their assumptions, talk honestly without fear of sparking controversy and, when disagreeing, avoid arguing or interrupting another speaker. Koinonia, says Michalko, allows “a group to access a larger pool of common thoughts that cannot be accessed individually.”
But as anyone who has sat through a brainstorming session knows, koinonia is much easier to say than to do. Forming a group to spark creativity and inspire new ideas means doing more than listening respectfully and biting your tongue when someone says something stupid. It also means finding the right people to form the group with. You could argue that if you put Monet, Sisley, Cezanne and Pissarro in a room together, you would have to put a lot of absinthe on the table to stop the good ideas from flowing. Put a manager in the room with his creative team and you’re going to find that the first thing people will do is clam up. When participants feel that their ideas are being judged – and that their chances of promotion depend on not saying the wrong thing – they will censor themselves. Worse, they’ll try to say the things that match the ideas of the most important person in the room, even when his ideas are wrong.
Creative Group Members Must Be Equal
A creative support group then needs to have members who are equal. They might not be of equal status – it’s likely that when Socrates got together with his pals, everyone knew who the smartest guy in the room was – but they should treat each other as equals. While there should be a facilitator, that facilitator’s role isn’t to judge ideas but to guide the discussion and keep it focused on the goal. He or she can also encourage participants to contribute more by notifying them in advance of the subject of the meeting and asking them to bring three ideas with them, or by setting a number of concepts to be created before the end of the session. While some ideas will be unusable, having to make up the numbers may generate some original thinking.
It would be great if all creative support groups worked that way but it’s clear they don’t. In practice, many sessions tend to be dominated by a small group within the group or people find themselves agreeing with each other so much that few, if any new ideas, are generated. But that isn’t always a terrible thing either because creative support groups actually come in two different forms.
While some support groups inspire creativity, others help creative types to implement those ideas. Writer’s groups, for example, tend to fall into the second category. Aspiring authors rarely come together to talk about the role of literature or to toss around new story ideas. Instead, they focus on reading each other’s works and giving advice on how they could be improved. This isn’t feedback that inspires creativity; it’s criticism that produces better craftsmanship. It’s valuable but it’s not quite the same as inspiring creativity.
Putting together a support group that helps with creativity then isn’t easy. While it’s simple enough to follow the rules of fair and open dialogue, and to set up processes that encourage thinking and contributions, an effective group depends mostly on the people in it. They have to be people you can consider as friends not rivals, people you respect but don’t compete with, and people who will listen without judging. And if they’re as smart as Einstein or as visionary as Monet, that would be a big help too.