Creativity and Idea Generation in Remote Teams


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Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. Today I’m sitting down with Will Burns from Ideasicle X. Will, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Will Burns: Oh, thank you, Shane. I appreciate the invitation.

Shane Hastie: So probably a good starting point, who’s Will and who’s Ideasicle X?

Introductions [00:57]

Will Burns: Yes, good questions. I’m still trying to figure out the Will part, but that’s a lifelong journey. So I’ve been in advertising for over 30 years at some of the more creative agencies in the United States market, like Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, Wieden and Kennedy, Arnold Mullen, and a couple of others, and I’ve always loved creativity. When I was in college, I studied psychology because I just loved how the mind works, particularly as it relates to creativity. And I remember in high school if you don’t mind a quick aside, in high school, we had to do a study on a study, if that makes sense. So we had to find some research study that we found fascinating and write about it. And I found this one where this guy was testing the potency of detergent, and he had three different kinds, one in a red box, one in the blue box, one in the yellow box.

This is back in the fifties or sixties. And he went around to housewives and tested them to see if they thought it was too harsh, if it was too soft, or if it was just right. And what he found is that the red box was too harsh, the yellow box was too light, and the blue box was just right. Now what turns out it was the same exact substance in every single box. So it was only the perception of the color that influenced the perception of the product’s performance. And when I saw that I was hooked. I was like, I’ve got to get into some form of psychology and marketing. So that kind of launched my career, I think, in 10th grade.

Shane Hastie: Ah, the human brain is a fascinating machine. Is it a machine? Well, maybe that’s a discussion for another day.  Ideasicle X?

Will Burns: Ideasicle X is a SaaS platform designed specifically for virtual brainstorming. And what it does is it manages the entire process from recruiting a team of four, we do four through trial and error over the last 10 years, we found that four was the ideal number, I can go into why in a minute, but you can recruit a team of four. You can pull from our freelancers, you can put your own freelancers in there, you can use your own employees, whoever you want on that team to come up with ideas. You can then monitor the ideas as they’re getting populated on the site, so it’s not a typical freelance model where they go away for a week and you don’t know what they’re doing, and then they come back and you pray that they nailed it. You can actually see these people coming up with the ideas as they happen.

And the rest of the team can see those ideas as well, and they’re encouraged to build and riff on the ideas to make them even better. So they’re all working on the same team and you have total visibility into that as a customer, and then you can pay the freelancers, if they are outside freelancers, you can pay them on the platform and rate them sort of like you would rate an Uber driver and then move on to the next project. So it’s really designed to be a hyper-focused SaaS platform that only does one thing and does it very, very well.

Shane Hastie: Let’s explore brainstorming, a technique that’s been around for a long time. I’ve seen recently and not so recently that there’s quite a lot of, “Oh, brainstorming is old fashioned doesn’t work anymore”. But on the other hand, yes, it does.  So obviously you have a bias towards it, but what are some of the challenges with brainstorming as a creative technique?

The challenges of brainstorming as a technique for idea generation[04:18]

Will Burns: Brainstorming is inherently a gun to the heads of the people doing the brainstorm because it has a beginning and an end. You might have one hour and you’re going to do a brainstorm, and everybody has to come up with ideas within that hour. And they do have the benefit of each other’s thoughts they can build and riff on each other’s thoughts in real-time. But the fact is creativity just doesn’t work that way. Ideas will happen when it damn well pleases when they want to. And the odds of an idea increase when you’re out living life. They happen in the in-between times of the day, more likely than when you sit down to come up with a bunch of ideas. And so our platform is designed to take advantage of that, to brief them in a time deferred way on the platform, and then go live your life.

And if you’re an aisle three of a grocery store, and you have an idea that hits you because you saw an end cap with some word on it or color or shape, you can just pull out your phone and post the idea right then and there and the rest of the team will find out. But the problem with traditional brainstorms is not only that, but it’s also the human dynamics that get in the way of an in-person brainstorm.

Now, if you think about the last one you were in, I bet you there was one person who did a lot of talking and thought he or she was the smartest person in the room, but maybe wasn’t and there might have been another person who’s more the introvert who didn’t say anything but probably was the smartest person in the room. And so you’re not really getting the benefit of that. There’s political posturing within the organization. Somebody trying to look smarter than somebody else, because the boss is in the room. There could be gender bias. There could be racial bias happening.

The benefits of making ideation distributed and asynchronous [05:58]

Will Burns: All these things get in the way of creativity, and so it was funny, I think you’ll find this interesting, early on when I first started playing with this concept and we were reverse engineering another platform to basically do what we wanted it to do. Now we have a platform that we’ve built just for it. But when we were reverse engineering, one of my female experts who had done a few projects on the platform said to me, “I love that we’re reduced to a typeface.” And I thought that was really interesting, especially coming from a woman that she loved that nobody could dominate. She loved that nobody judged her ideas for anything but the content of the ideas, because none of that human stuff, baggage, could get in the way.

Now some people might argue, yes, but you’re losing the chemistry of people actually being in the same room. And I admit that that’s true. I’m not saying that in-person brainstorming doesn’t work at all, it certainly does. But what I am suggesting is the benefits of virtual, I believe, and I’ve seen it, I’ve been doing this for 10 years, outweighs the benefits of any chemistry that might be generated because chemistry happens virtually too. And it’s chemistry that’s in the right place. It’s got its heart in the right place because it’s always just about the ideas.

Shane Hastie: This is radically shifting everything about brainstorming. Okay, we’ve all had to shift from being in person to working…


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