The experience was all too familiar: I was well into developing a new brand identity for a large company. Great ideas sprang forth like daisies—not just from me, but a surprising range of people across the organization. Yet these were quickly trampled and discarded by an onslaught of naysayers or literalists who held enormous sway because of their position. This went on for weeks, squandering untold hours, fraying nerves, disrupting productivity and costing the company a pretty penny.
In the end, one so-so idea managed to fight its way through the gauntlet of obstacles to become the dubious “winner.” I felt like tossing my creative director badge and becoming a Walmart greeter. But I did come away with one very valuable lesson: group dynamics can and often do derail the creative process.
Introverts need not apply
We live in a world where sharing and collaboration are expected and often mandatory. In fact, today’s enterprise can be an incredibly complex machine run by a myriad of interests—Sales; Legal; Operations; IT; etc., all of which may need to be considered in any major marketing campaign.
Digital communications and collaborative tools like GoToMeeting® have made it easy for everyone to log in, drop in and chime in. But the brick-and-mortar company has evolved too, with open floorplans, large meetings and brainstorming becoming the norm. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain talks about the “new groupthink” that “elevates teamwork above all else.”¹
The problem is that while success in business often depends on left brain sensibilities and extroverts that relish teamwork, creativity is usually the province of introverted right brain thinkers more comfortable working solo—shut in their writer’s garret or art studio.
This conflict of personalities and approaches is at the heart of what makes collaborative creative development so challenging.
The boss talks softly, but carries a big stick
According to psychologist Dr. Jeremy Dean, “groups rarely foment great ideas because people in them are powerfully shaped by group norms: the unwritten rules which describe how individuals in a group ‘are’ and how they ‘ought’ to behave.”² While history offers many notable exceptions, my experience in the less lofty but no less earthshaking world of marketing compels me to agree.
It’s not that there aren’t creative people in a typical work group. It’s just that group dynamics can keep good, potentially groundbreaking ideas from rising to the top. Why? For one, job titles and lines of authority often set the tone and dictate outcomes. Company cultures vary, of course, but it is refreshing when you find execs that do more than pay lip service to the ancient Roman ideal of primus inter pares or “first among equals.“ Commonly, once one of the “big guns” weighs in, you don’t often see subordinates mounting a sharp or sustained disagreement. (At least not if they want a promotion.)
Way too many cooks
On the opposite end of the spectrum—and potentially just as worrisome—we find over-compromise (an über-democracy, if you will) in which everyone’s opinion is given the same weight. This dynamic not only makes it hard to find common ground, it can also transform the “winning” concept into an unsavory stew of many different and sometimes clashing ideas.
In the end, a perfect paradox
It is also important to remember that marketing creative is not forged in a vacuum. It is not destined for an art gallery, but instead the marketplace. It must both amaze and perform by attracting people to your brand and triggering some kind of action—all while standing up to legal scrutiny and constant competitive pressures.
The irony, then, is that although groupthink can kill creative, gathering critical input from all members of the group helps produce work that is more effective, robust and durable.
Tips for “Getting Your Group On”
Here are some suggestions for making your next collaborative creative project a success:
1. Create and circulate a great creative brief.
A good one will detail all the essentials key stakeholders need to know, such as major messaging points, legal mandatories, etc. It also allows you to get initial buy-in and possibly limit the number of active reviewers, which makes the next two suggestions easier to implement.
2. Make your work group small, and progressively smaller.
Walton’s Third Law of Creative Development: the speed and quality of creative approval is inversely proportionate to the number of people involved. So, keep your work group as small as possible. Use an inverted pyramid approach to cut the final decision-makers down to one or two.
3. Have “good fights.”
In a perfect world, your group ditches their job titles, checks their egos at the door, and elects a moderator. With this kind of egalitarianism, disagreement can be encouraged and managed to produce better work.
4. Keep folks from going out-of-bounds.
Feedback from other departments can make your creative better, more accurate and more robust. Just keep Charley in IT or Fran in Legal from overpowering everyone else’s opinion and hijacking the project.
5. Respect the right brain.
Most companies succeed by delivering a repeatable process involving systems and procedures, legal and regulatory mandates, etc.—all very left brain. But right brain people need love and respect, too. So, after everyone has had a chance to weigh in, make sure your creative marketing lead is empowered to be one of the final decision-makers.
6. Give people time to reflect.
Asking for a final decision right at the end of a presentation only intensifies group dynamics. Give people a day or two to reflect and solidify their thoughts.
7. Consider anonymous or private feedback.
You’re likely to get a more well-considered, forthright opinion if you let people email their feedback after the presentation, without having to speak up in front of the group. “Blind” voting also works well.
Teamwork is essential to the prosperity of almost every serious organization. Running and marketing a business is more complex than ever. And digital communications have made collaboration as simple as a mouse click. Refine your approach, and you’ll have greater success developing creative in a group setting—without signing up for group therapy.
 Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. Crown Publishing Group. January 24, 2012.
 Dean, Dr. Jeremy. Why Group Norms Kill Creativity. PsyBlog. June 8, 2009.