Feb 242012
(c) Jonna Bell

My creativity does not need to be exercised.

Want to kick off your meeting with “a fun little creativity exercise”? Don’t. Please. You seem nice, so stop now before the love is gone.

Yesterday I was in a meeting that started this way and it reminded me I need to write this letter to all meeting organizers. If you feel the same, you can use my letter too.

Yesterday’s meeting began with an outside consultant brought in to “facilitate the process”. Process? Warning bells started going off in my head. The team that called this meeting is working on a hard problem. They invited a small group of creative thinkers from across the company to this meeting to help. It’s an interesting problem. It’s also a high value problem. I accepted the meeting invite because I want to help this team succeed. I like hard problems. I like helping.

But now this nice lady wants to kick things off with “a fun little creativity exercise”. I look around the room. There are some pretty damn sharp business ninjas assembled here. Serious heavy hitters with Costco family-sized “slam-dunk your problem with a kick-ass creative solution” skills. Is a “creativity exercise” really necessary? Creative problem solving is what these people do. All day, every day. If this was a pick-up basketball game and we’d invited the L.A. Lakers, would this lady feel the need to organize a “fun little basketball exercise” to kick things off? Maybe a quick game of horse to set the mood? Or would she maybe figure Kobe and the boys already have their own exercises and processes along with the experience to know when to apply them? Here’s the rest of my heartfelt love letter to all meeting organizers:

In thousands of meetings over a period of decades I’ve seen hundreds of these “fun little warm-ups” inflicted on defenseless participants by well-meaning meeting organizers. In my opinion, these exercises and ice-breakers are neither productive nor fun for most attendees. We shift uncomfortably in our seats, glance awkwardly at each other and resign ourselves to building team empathy through shared suffering. Most importantly, in my experience none of these exercises has ever contributed a scintilla of value to any meeting. Not one. Ever.

Don’t get me wrong. We all appreciate your efforts in organizing this meeting, setting an agenda and especially securing a decent selection of bagels. Here’s the thing you need to understand. Some of us came to your meeting because we actually want to help you solve this hard problem. This may seem weird to you but some people in the room think wrestling that hairy problem to the ground IS the fun part. It doesn’t need to be dressed up, sugar-coated or slowly worked-up-to.

Your attempt at injecting fun is only delaying the real fun from starting. Your effort to facilitate process may actually be interfering with our natural processes. That you feel the need to do this, says two things. First, it signals your opinion of this group’s un-facilitated abilities, which makes us wonder why we were invited. And it tells us that YOU don’t think this meeting will be engaging without the help of some superfluous fluff. That’s okay. There may even be other attendees that would rather be doing a warm-up exercise with you than focusing every available moment on the hard business problem at hand. You guys should go do that. Somewhere else. You can even take the bagels.

No matter how much you exercise, warm-up or team-build them, the attendees that truly need or want such things probably aren’t the ones who are going to get you where you want to go. Does the group you’ve assembled really need this kind of distraction before they can meet today’s challenge? Are they are otherwise incapable of comprehending the problem, parsing the data, self-organizing a framework, integrating feedback and iterating to a solution? If so, I would suggest you’ve invited the wrong people. The folks with the skills and passionate desire to rock your problem don’t need to be facilitated, aligned or motivated. We just need you to succinctly articulate the objective, frame the context, then stop wasting the minutes left on the clock and get the hell out of our way. Please.

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