Imagine a room filled with comedians and writers, each with their own style and sense of humor, working together to put a show on air in less than 24 hours. Now, imagine having to do that every single workday. Sounds a bit stressful, no? To get an idea of how these individuals collaborate, organizational psychologist Adam Grant observed a typical day “at the office” for the Daily Show.
What he saw was a sort of unplanned brilliance that he compared to improvisational jazz. The room was bursting with energy and ideas, some half-baked, others on the fly, and almost all of them rapid-fire. Even when the show’s host, Trevor Noah was in the room, the group maintained their creative peak. And the funny thing –– according to these admittedly funny people –– was that this isn’t a rare occurrence. It is their status quo.
Now, picture a team meeting at a typical business –– maybe a little quiet, halting, or awkward even? People may not speak up for fear of being rejected and judged by their boss, or drowned out and dominated by their coworkers. Creativity sort of fizzles out and fades, or it shows up for five glorious minutes before it goes missing again. In general, years of evidence show that groups come up with fewer “good” ideas than the same number of individuals working on their own. It’s the myth of the brainstorm!
However, when things come together just right, you can’t deny the magic in a room of creative collaborators –– each person feeding off the other’s energy, shooting ideas back and forth without hesitation, unrehearsed but flowing steadily like a choreographed routine. While it may be rare for anyone outside the realm of the entertainment industry, it’s very real.
At Cosmitto, we think we cracked the code, which leads me to make what might be an unexpected comparison: Cosmitto –– small digital marketing agency –– is actually quite similar to the unplanned brilliance of the writer’s room at the Daily Show… if we do say so ourselves.
There is a term that psychologists and business leaders use to refer to a burst of collaborative energy in a group. It’s called “burstiness” –– yes, that’s a real term –– and while it might not be subtle, it’s right on the nose. For burstiness to thrive, your team needs to promote a level of psychological safety that still embraces criticism.
Burstiness will never happen without healthy risk-taking. This means people need to feel like they can take the simple risk of saying something stupid while feeling psychologically safe. Creating this sense of ease and comfort takes time and is achieved through a collection of small moments. It’s largely created and perpetuated by the leader in the room –– your boss or manager.
When Adam Grant observed the Daily Show, he noticed that Trevor Noah’s presence didn’t affect momentum, which typically is the case when the “boss” or decision-maker is involved. The team didn’t clam up or skip a beat! If Grant was to observe a meeting at Cosmitto, he would see that when our CEO and creative director, Nikki Staley, enters the room, there is no subtle shift in mood or behavior. She and her husband, the co-owner of the company, Matt Staley, have created an environment free of judgment where you won’t be penalized or looked down on for a “bad” idea. There is a healthy mix of acknowledgment, humor, and yes, even criticism.
People sometimes think that psychological safety means there is no room for critique. Not so! People should feel comfortable giving and receiving constructive criticism, and laughing at themselves when an idea falls through. Burstiness doesn’t necessarily mean that every idea being voiced is amazing. It’s not just a stream of genius thoughts –– it’s building blocks, and a game of give and take.
There was some research done on this subject where two groups were asked to spend 10 minutes thinking of new and creative uses for a paper clip. The first group was asked to kick off their discussion by describing a time they’d been embarrassed in the last six months. The second group was asked to describe a time when they felt proud. As hypothesized, the “embarrassed” group was much more creative, presumably because they were able to drop their inhibitions.
At Cosmitto, our goal isn’t to embarrass each other or force each other to spill our guts, but we do feel comfortable enough to share personal stories and have a laugh (usually at our own expense). When there’s laughter in the room where an idea originates, that permeates its execution. And if it’s not a laughing matter, a similar kind of serious energy prevails.
To reach a Daily Show-level of burstiness, you need judgment-free leadership, psychological safety, and healthy criticism. But what matters most is that your team spends some time getting to know each other. We may not be the comedians from the Daily Show –– although we find ourselves pretty funny –– but we do know the value of a productive team meeting.