Let’s take it back to 2007. Good ole “W” was still rocking the White House, the iPhone was first introduced to us, Jason Bourne was in his Ultimatum state; both the world economy and The Office were in good standing. It was a beautiful time.
Me? I had just begun working as a church musician, doing my best Chris Tomlin impersonation and singing “You lift us up on winggggggs liiiiiike eeeeeeeaglesss” in the shower each morning. On most weekends at my church, I would play keyboards and switch to acoustic guitar when it was my turn to lead a song.
I remember one Sunday I had planned to play keyboard on the first two songs, have the worship pastor pray while I transitioned instruments, then lead the third song with guitar. On top of this, I had decided to have a volunteer – we’ll call him Charley – fill in on keyboard during that third song. Pretty simple; right?
Now, Charley was not exactly a “real” keyboard player. At best, he could hold down some basic chords. So I told him, “Before I leave the keyboard, I’ll select a nice pad setting and you won’t have to worry about anything.” He agreed, the service began, everything went as planned. The second song finished, I pulled up the pad setting on the keyboard and turned down the volume a bit (just for safe measure). I got up from keyboard, Charley sat down at the keyboard, the worship pastor began praying, and I started putting on my acoustic guitar. And then…it happened…
To this day I’m not sure how this transpired…but between my leaving the keyboard and Charley playing the first note, the keyboard sound was switched from “a nice pad setting”, to “space shuttle launch sound effects”. The worship pastor was petitioning God to fill this place, while, at the same time; the audible equivalent of an erupting volcano was buying up all the real estate.
And remember how I had turned down the volume a bit? Forget it. We had gone all the way to 11.
Was this a major disaster? Yes. Was it also really hilarious? Absolutely.
I’ll never get tired of reminiscing about that story because it reminds me that (1) we’re never totally in control of a situation, (2) keyboards have the dumbest layouts ever, and (3) life is exciting when the predictable and unpredictable are bumping into one another. Leaders are born out of disasters, as are our greatest stories.
As I think about my creative team, our workflow, and goals we intend to achieve, I think it’s important to remember this balance as we meet and brainstorm together. Our creative teams need to be having fun.
Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, says that around age 3, children begin to understand that their minds have an infinite range of imagination. It’s fun to invent creatures, assign them names, give them backstories, and none of the facts have to add up. It’s a free-for-all of creativity.
Gopnik also outlines how, around age 6, children develop an entirely different concept of fun – one that involves rules, boundaries, “fair” and “not fair”. It’s as though they’re realizing that, in order for us all to play together, there has to be a system that keeps each individual from inventing too much. There has to be a stated level of order.
And thus, Gopnik’s suggestion is that, as we grow up, the activities and experiences we enjoy most are the ones that strike a balance between these two different worlds – one of boundless creativity and another of defined structure. All the predictability of positions, timers, rules, and other conditions in a football game are the ideal balance to the unpredictable plays and scenarios the players will create as they go.
The same could be considered for our creative meetings. Here are three ways I try to establish a sense of order:
- Meet consistently. You’ll kill the fun for some people if the meetings feel sprung on them. Sure, impromptu meetings can be exciting, but they’re not a foundation. Consistency allows for preparation. Preparation breeds confidence. Being confident in your work is fun.
- Outline the meeting in advance. Before my team walks into the room, I like to draw up every topic we’re going to cover (and ideally, to email this a few days out). A meeting without purpose or direction is boring and often awkward.
- Know your team. Some people like to brainstorm, some people like to analyze, some people like to create, some people like to tell stories, etc. As the leader, know how to involve each person in the discussions in a way that they naturally enjoy. It’s amazing how fun it is for my audio guy to talk about new microphone models. One of our musicians loves to brainstorm video ideas. It energizes some people just to be given a challenge.
Here are three ways I try to regularly mix up the order:
- Allow tangents. My team loves when an outrageous personality overshadows the news. Antoine Dodson, Basil Marceaux, Charles Ramsey, keep ‘em coming. We can be talking about Easter song selections and suddenly find ourselves watching a YouTube video of a news excerpt. Let it happen. The opportunity for your team to share something they enjoy will open up their willingness to contribute to other topics.
- Theme the meeting. Nobody has enough money to do something crazy every week, but occasionally it’s good to surprise your team. One week when I was presenting a video concept to the team, I set up the room like a theater, served candy and popcorn, and showed it like a film. When it’s time for Christmas brainstorming, my assistant makes hot apple cider and cookies. Go outside. Go bowling. Change the meeting location every three weeks.
- Encourage outrageous ideas. Crazy suggestions often provoke laughter. That’s a good thing. But even better than that, a lot of outrageous ideas have something achievable hidden within. Don’t ever be quick to say, “No, we could never do that.”
There are so many other ways you could do this. The key behind all of it is intentionality. Find the balance of order and disorder that allows your team to cherish their time together and produce exciting ideas.