Wendy Calhoun is a veteran TV writer, who has worked on hit shows including Empire, Justified, and Nashville. Which sounds like a fun gig, but why did she recently spend time talking to Google employees at the company's re:Work 2016 event?
Because, as Calhoun makes plain in the first minutes of her Google presentation, writing for TV these days isn't the lonely pursuit many of the uninitiated expect it to be. Rather than hunkering down alone with a computer, their own creativity, and endless cups of coffee, TV writers mostly spend their days hammering out ideas in collaboration with others in a writers' room.
And from this deep experience with creative collaboration (as well as diverse, and probably occasionally difficult) personalities, Calhoun and TV writers like her have become world-class experts on the finer points of creative teamwork and effective brainstorming. At the Google event, she shared several of her top lessons for any group trying to come up with better ideas, including these.
1. Warm up.
Just like athletes, creative minds can't just go from stock still to top speed in seconds. They need to gradually warm up to reach their full capabilities. Different creative teams use different techniques, but Calhoun insists that, if you want to get the best from your people, you should kick things off with a fun activity that flexes their innovation muscles in a fun way.
For instance, at Google she asks the audience, "What color best describes how you feel right now?" to get them thinking creatively. There's no right answer, of course, which is the point. Fearing getting the "wrong answer" is a great way to shut down innovation, so questions like these set just the right playful tone for maximum creativity. "Warm-ups create a safer place for sharing," claims Calhoun.
2. Don't let anyone dominate the discussion.
The value of a group is obviously the diversity of opinions and perspectives it brings to the table. If one person is hogging the spotlight at your brainstorming meeting, then you're not getting the full value out of the brains you've gathered. For maximum results, you want maximum engagement -- from everyone.
To accomplish this, Calhoun suggests that leaders be bold and pitch an idea first before opening up the floor to other ideas, encouraging the entire group to weigh in.
3. Use 'Yes, and..' or 'Yes, or...'
She also recommends the 'Yes, and...' technique, which comes from improv comedy but is frequently mentioned as a way to improve business brainstorming. Rather than tear down what the last person offered by saying 'Yes, but...' participants instead validate the positive aspects of each idea and then build on it with 'Yes, and...'
Calhoun extends the 'Yes, and...' idea by suggesting that 'Yes, or...' can work equally well. With this technique you "acknowledge what is valid in the idea that just came before yours," but also introduce an alternative or go beyond that initial idea in some way. Which is important because...
4. Your first ideas are usually not your best ideas.
The first ideas that get thrown out in a writers' room are obvious, according to Calhoun. For this reason they stir little dissent, but these clichéd responses, while easy to agree on, are generally not the best you can come up with. Dig deeper. "I've seen bolder creativity blossom when the group brainstorms on alternatives to the ideas," says Calhoun.
She learned the value of prodding for alternative idea from legendary director Tim Burton, for whom she once worked as an assistant. "He liked to be able to pick from a list of viable options," she relates. "If I presented him with a single idea... he would ask, 'what else have you got?'"
5. Check your biases at the door.
Assuming that the engineer at the meeting will present the best technical ideas, while the designer will be the one to come up with creative solutions is a terrible mistake that vastly limits the creativity generated by your brainstorming sessions, warns Calhoun.
As a black woman in Hollywood, she tells the audience, she is often expected to weigh in primarily on characters of a similar race and background, limiting her ability to contribute great ideas on other storylines, and not incidentally annoying the heck out of her.
"My imagination is not limited to my life experience," she insists. Nor are your team's ideas limited by their job titles or past work experience.
Intrigued? You can watch Calhoun's complete talk below: