Originally published on Forbes.com.
Teams sometimes need a jolt to get out of a rut. They become stuck in their habitual way of doing things. They start to think alike. And it becomes harder for them to do anything exciting. One way to shake things up is to bring in “new blood.” We know from research that bringing in new team members increases creativity. But in most organizations that’s not a realistic option.
Rock bands find themselves in this predicament. As years and even decades go by, the team can begin to feel stale. And that’s a problem. As David Bowie said, “Anything that contributes to stagnation is evil. When it has familiarity, it’s no longer rock ‘n’ roll. It’s white noise. Dirge.” Like any other teams, bands experience some organic turnover, but the turnover is rarely a controlled strategy for stimulating creativity. Unless there is a serious personal conflict, bands are sorry to see members go because each departure jeopardizes the coherence of band’s brand: its signature sound, its image, and its public personality.
This is why good album producers are in such high demand. People like Rick Rubin, Quincy Jones, Dr. Dre, and Brian Eno enable musicians to enjoy the best of both worlds. They keep their team intact, thereby preserving the integrity of their signature sound, image, and style. At the same time, they get fresh input that helps shake them out of their old habits.
What do the best producers do, and how can you use their tactics to infuse life into your team?
More Please. As Leigh Thompson wrote in her recent book Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration, quality is overrated. Research shows that when a team is engaged in creative work, it’s actually better to focus on getting more ideas than getting better ideas, at least at first.
Why is quantity better than quality? Because a focus on quality can shut the team down. The higher the expectations for a high-quality product the more closed the group becomes. They self-censor more. They worry that their ideas aren’t good enough and so they don’t bring them up. As a result, there is less abundance of ideas to choose from.
This could have happened during the making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The previous album, Off the Wall, had sold ten million copies. The high expectations to outdo Off the Wall could have closed off the team. But producer Quincy Jones and songwriter Rod Temperton decided to focus on quantity, writing and soliciting more than 600 songs for the album.
To shake up your own team, challenge them to do more. Thompson created a simple intervention to increase team productivity: she gave teams a ten-minute brainstorming task. Together with the team, she counted how many ideas they generated and rated the uniqueness of each idea. She then simply asked them to double their performance in the next ten minutes. On average, the teams became 57% more productive. Her intervention shows that consciously trying to do more can bring teams closer to realizing their full potential.
As Rick Rubin, who recently produced Kanye West’s and Black Sabbath’s chart-topping albums, said, “I’m very much of the school of recording more than less. And I always request that artists overwrite. Write as much as possible—and then we can narrow down—because you never really know. The best song you write might be No. 25, not No. 12.”
Vague Provocation. One reason working in groups can be so exciting is the potential for unpredictability and surprise. Often, you don’t know where an idea will go until other people respond to it. That uncertainty can be mobilized to make the group more creative. By suggesting evocative and open-ended ideas, you can encourage the group to expand and reinterpret your original notion and take it in an exciting direction. Usually we try to be clear and precise in communicating our ideas. But being imprecise opens the door for someone else to upgrade.
Brian Eno, who produced albums for U2, Talking Heads, and David Bowie, uses vague communication to get artists to think in a new way about their music. For example, in a letter to U2 reprinted in A Year with Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno’s Diary, he wrote, “We’ve been approaching the next stage of the work in the normal way – thinking, naturally enough, what else we could put in to the music… I thought, ‘Why don’t we also start thinking of what we can put around the music?” He then proceeded to suggest four ways they could put things around their music: write song titles as if they refer to an imaginary film, insert random bits of dialog into the music, use atmospheric sounds as backdrops for each piece, and/or tell a story with the album cover. The resulting album, Original Soundtracks 1, was a collection of songs written for imaginary movies.
This type of imaginative suggestion can break habits of thought and action in all kinds of teams.
Space Matters. A team stuck in a rut can change things up by taking control of their physical environment. Teams should set their stage in ways that enhance their ability to innovate together. Many organizations have tried to do this by opening up the physical space of work. The reasoning is that putting everyone together will encourage interactions and the spontaneous exchange of ideas. The problem is that creativity requires people to spend time alone as well as together. In fact, studies show that the most creativity happens when people first work on their problem individually and then get together to work on it together.
Does your team’s physical space help creativity or hinder it? Can you close off some space to give people uninterrupted quiet time to work or, alternately, open up some space to increase interaction?
We can learn a lesson from musicians here as well. Rick Rubin put The Red Hot Chili Peppers up in a large isolated house where they lived and worked to create Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Brian Eno had suggested that U2 relocate to Berlin to work on what became Achtung Baby because that’s where he made career-changing albums with David Bowie and Iggy Pop. The Rolling Stones’ residency in a château in southern France resulted in one of their most beloved albums, Exile on Main St.
These locations helped get the bands’ creative juices flowing for several reasons. First, the change in scenery can open up the team to absorbing new influences. This is why executives often go offsite to think broadly and strategically about their business. Another reason is that these locations were cave-and-commonsworkplaces. In the cave-and-commons setup, there are private spaces where people can work on their own as well as common spaces where the team meets to work together. As Thompson writes, “This hybrid structure perfectly reflects the fact that the creative process is a fine orchestration of individual and group work.”
Niles Rogers, who produced Madonna, David Bowie, Duran Duran and recently played on Daft Punk’s infectious song “Get Lucky,” wrote in his bookLe Freak that the producer’s job is bringing the best out of the artists. “I’ve always believed that a producer’s job is a service job.” Producers do their work in the service of getting teams to be more creative and productive. And great producers know that a few subtle tactics can make a big difference in getting a team to be its best.