How to run a great creative meeting

A great creative meeting is like a great jam session — it’s a safe place where people with different skills come together, experiment and build on each other’s ideas. Hopefully, you end up with lightning in a bottle. But if the instruments aren’t tuned or the drummer is sleepy or the guitarists don’t listen, the result won’t be a masterpiece but a discordant mess — or worse still, uneasy silence.

The best creative meetings are fun and spontaneous, but they also take work — before, during and after. Here’s how to set yourself up for success.

Start the meeting before the meeting starts
Creative ideas take time to percolate. People whose brains are busy processing new information are less able to interact with the group. So, if the creative meeting is also your team’s introduction to the project, the chances of meaningful participation are lower. If you’re in charge, make sure background information, summaries or creative briefs are available to the group in advance. If you’re a participant, make sure you review any information provided before the meeting. Preparation is often rewarded with inspiration.

In addition to preparing for specific meetings, it’s important to continuously replenish your well of knowledge and impressions. Go to museums. Look at websites. Keep an inspiration file of things you see in your day-to-day life. One of the best creative sessions I ever attended was one where a colleague with young children brought a design idea from one of their favorite books.

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Have a structure
Spontaneous doesn’t mean disorganized. To make sure a creative meeting doesn’t degenerate into unproductive chaos, it’s best to have a framework. There are many ways to organize your meeting, but we like to use one derived from Six Thinking Hats by psychologist and creative pioneer Edward de Bono. The different colored hats guide you through the various stages of the creative meeting process, beginning with the White Hat stage, where you review the job’s parameters and research, and moving on to the Green Hat stage, where you generate as many ideas as possible with no filter, no judgment and no criticism. Unlike many creative meetings where negativity is taboo, Six Thinking Hats even gives you a Black Hat stage expressly for criticism. Whatever structure you use, designate someone to be responsible for keeping the session on track.

Break the ice
Having trouble in the Green Hat phase? People are often so worried about coming up with a bad idea that they come up with no idea at all. To put the team at ease, invite each participant to contribute the worst idea they can possibly think of. Sharing the worst first breaks the creative tension and, even better, gets people laughing together — which is always good for creativity.

Another icebreaker that can yield creative solutions is word or image association. Choose a word, object or image at random, and associate it with the problem you are trying to solve. Choose a second word and use it to suggest a solution. To make this even more fun, set a timer and start a lightning round.

Think outside the industry
Competitive analysis has its uses, but it should never be the only place you go to for inspiration. Looking only at your own industry leads to ideas that are incrementally different at best. For a true breakthrough, look outside your industry to see what unrelated companies are doing. Then, see if there’s a way to apply that to your own product or service.

Speak out of turn
Creative ideas can come from anywhere. The art director can write a headline. The junior account person can contribute a visual concept. Break down artificial barriers. You never know what gem you might uncover.

Move it
Creativity loves novelty. If your team is located in a single place, have everyone switch seats to be next to someone new. Take a walk or go outside if the weather permits (for us in Chicago, that’s only about five months out of the year.) If you’re participating remotely, take your notebook or other mobile device and go to a different room. Or even just turn your chair to face a different direction.

Stop and regroup
We all hope our creative meeting will lead to a brilliant idea or two. But if it’s not happening after about 45 minutes or energy is flagging, it may be time to call it. Sometimes, the subconscious needs to work on an idea for a couple of days. Give people a chance to noodle around on their own for a while. As Mad Men’s Don Draper said, “Just think about it deeply, then forget it … then an idea will jump up in your face.” Set a time to come back together and pick up where you left off.

“Just think about it deeply, then forget it … then an idea will jump up in your face.”

Don Draper, Mad Men

Creative meetings can be among the most fun and exciting experiences you share with your team. Try some of these approaches — or invent your own — and watch the magic happen!

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