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Consider one study by a team of researchers led by Charlan Nemeth of UC Berkeley. The researchers wanted to explore whether conflict really did play a role in generating and producing creative ideas. They assembled participants into three separate experimental conditions (minimal, brainstorming, and debate) and formed them into teams within those conditions.

Each team was tasked with generating ideas for the same challenge: how to reduce traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area. Teams in the “minimal condition” were given no further instructions and told to develop as many ideas as possible. Teams in the “brainstorming condition” were given the traditional set of brainstorming rules; paramount among those rules being the notion that all judgment should be suspended and no idea criticized or debated. Teams in the final, “debate condition” were given a set of rules similar to brainstorming with one important difference: they were told to debate and criticize others’ ideas as they were generated.

When the results were calculated, the winners were clear. While teams in the “brainstorming condition” did generate more ideas than the teams given “minimal” instructions, it was the teams in the “debate condition” that outperformed the rest. Teams that debated their ideas produced an average of 25% more ideas than the other teams in the same period of time. 

Even after the teams had disbanded, the influence of debate on generating ideas continued. In follow-up interviews with each subject, researchers asked the participants if they had any more ideas for solving the traffic problem. Participants from the “minimal” and “brainstorming” conditions did have one or two more ideas, but participants in the “debate condition” gave an average of seven additional ideas. In summarizing the results of their study, Nemeth writes “Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.

Nemeth’s research, it turns out, had already been in regular practice at one company renowned for producing consistently outstanding creative work: Pixar. For the animators at Pixar, conflict and debate is part of their morning routine. Every day teams gather first thing in the morning to review their work from the previous day. They examine each frame produced in turn and criticize nearly everything about it. No detail is too small to critique and no one is prohibited from arguing against the work of someone else. Everything from the angle of the lighting to the timing of certain sound effects is brought up and fought over. This intense process, sometimes called “shredding,” can be draining, but the Pixar teams know that the process is vital to their ability to release quality work again and again.

…At Pixar, the animators have developed a technique that helps keep the fighting productive and intellectual. They call it “plussing.” As people criticize the work under review, that criticism must always contain a new idea or a suggestion for strengthening the original idea – it must contain a “plus.” Without plussing, their morning crit sessions can get pretty negative and emotionally draining. With plussing, the same meetings are imbued with a positive tone and a direct connection between criticism and newer or better ideas for their work. The meetings still feel like a fight, but they feel like the healthy, respectful fights that keep couples, creative teams, and ideas growing and changing for the better.

–David Burkus, “Why Fighting for Our Ideas Makes Them Better

I’d be interested in more details in how shredding is integrated with plussing in Pixar’s morning meetings, but very interesting techniques to generate vibrant ideas in group settings.
More generally, I feel like most people could use a bigger serving of disagreement in their lives. When I was younger, I remember being intellectually drawn to people who thought like me and agreed with what I said; as I get older, I find it is the folks I disagree with and who think differently to me that fuel my creativity and pull my ideas to their limits.
Let’s argue, baby–preferably if you can plus with me.
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Today I discovered Hugh MacLeod, a brand consultant and cartoonist who draws on the back of business cards. I can’t get enough of his work.

His style is bold: minimalistic sketches paired with playful and pithy reflections on business, innovation and, well, life.

He’s also penned a manifesto called “How to Be Creative” with 26 tips on creativity. My favourite snippets (bolding mine) are below. Enjoy.

On importance of having sovereignty over your work (p. 5):

“The sovereignty you have over your work will inspire far more people than the actual content ever will. How your own sovereignty inspires other people to find their own sovereignty, their own sense of freedom and possibility, will change the world far more than the the workʼs objective merits ever will.

On originality and tapeworms (p. 16):

“Creating an economically viable entity where lack of original thought is handsomely rewarded creates a rich, fertile environment for parasites to breed. And thatʼs exactly whatʼs been happening. So now we have millions upon millions of human tapeworms thriving in the Western World, making love to their Powerpoint presentations, feasting on the creativity of others.

What happens to an ecology, when the parasite level reaches critical mass?

The ecology dies.

If youʼre creative, if you can think independently, if you can articulate passion, if you can override the fear of being wrong, then your company needs you now more than it ever did. And now your company can no longer afford to pretend that isnʼt the case.”

And on how to love a crowd (p. 46):

You canʼt love a crowd the same way you can love a person.

And a crowd canʼt love you the way a single person can love you.

Intimacy doesnʼt scale. Not really. Intimacy is a one-on-one phenomenon.

Itʼs not a big deal. Whether youʼre writing to an audience of one, five, a thousand, a million, ten million, thereʼs really only one way to really connect.

One way that actually works:

Write from the heart.