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Creativity and Idea Generation in Remote Teams

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Will Burns of IdeasicleX about creativity and idea generation in remote teams.

Key Takeaways

  • Idea generation does not happen to order – ideas will happen when they damn well please, when they want to, and the odds of an idea increase when you're out living life.
  • Four people is the ideal size for an ideation group – large enough for diversity of thinking and small enough to avoid politics
  • Studies suggest that you can improve your creativity with various tactics that sort of trick yourself into being more creative
  • The best ideas come when we let go and remove pressure – go outside, go for a walk, don’t focus on the problem
  • The color green improves creativity



Shane Hastie: Hello, everyone just to let you know our online software development conference QCon Plus is back this November one to 12. You can expect curated learning on the topics that matter right now in software development. QCon Plus is a practical conference, laser focused on learning from the successes and failures of domain experts of early adopter companies. If you enjoy the conversations we have on this podcast, you'll get a lot out of QCon Plus. To learn more about the conference head

Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. Today I'm sitting down with Will Burns from Ideasicle X. Will, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Will Burns: Oh, thank you, Shane. I appreciate the invitation.

Shane Hastie: So probably a good starting point, who's Will and who’s Ideasicle X?

Introductions [00:57]

Will Burns: Yes, good questions. I'm still trying to figure out the Will part, but that's a lifelong journey. So I've been in advertising for over 30 years at some of the more creative agencies in the United States market, like Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, Wieden and Kennedy, Arnold Mullen, and a couple of others, and I've always loved creativity. When I was in college, I studied psychology because I just loved how the mind works, particularly as it relates to creativity. And I remember in high school if you don't mind a quick aside, in high school, we had to do a study on a study, if that makes sense. So we had to find some research study that we found fascinating and write about it. And I found this one where this guy was testing the potency of detergent, and he had three different kinds, one in a red box, one in the blue box, one in the yellow box.

This is back in the fifties or sixties. And he went around to housewives and tested them to see if they thought it was too harsh, if it was too soft, or if it was just right. And what he found is that the red box was too harsh, the yellow box was too light, and the blue box was just right. Now what turns out it was the same exact substance in every single box. So it was only the perception of the color that influenced the perception of the product's performance. And when I saw that I was hooked. I was like, I've got to get into some form of psychology and marketing. So that kind of launched my career, I think, in 10th grade.

Shane Hastie: Ah, the human brain is a fascinating machine. Is it a machine? Well, maybe that's a discussion for another day.  Ideasicle X?

Will Burns: Ideasicle X is a SaaS platform designed specifically for virtual brainstorming. And what it does is it manages the entire process from recruiting a team of four, we do four through trial and error over the last 10 years, we found that four was the ideal number, I can go into why in a minute, but you can recruit a team of four. You can pull from our freelancers, you can put your own freelancers in there, you can use your own employees, whoever you want on that team to come up with ideas. You can then monitor the ideas as they're getting populated on the site, so it's not a typical freelance model where they go away for a week and you don't know what they're doing, and then they come back and you pray that they nailed it. You can actually see these people coming up with the ideas as they happen.

And the rest of the team can see those ideas as well, and they're encouraged to build and riff on the ideas to make them even better. So they're all working on the same team and you have total visibility into that as a customer, and then you can pay the freelancers, if they are outside freelancers, you can pay them on the platform and rate them sort of like you would rate an Uber driver and then move on to the next project. So it's really designed to be a hyper-focused SaaS platform that only does one thing and does it very, very well.

Shane Hastie: Let's explore brainstorming, a technique that's been around for a long time. I've seen recently and not so recently that there's quite a lot of, "Oh, brainstorming is old fashioned doesn't work anymore”. But on the other hand, yes, it does.  So obviously you have a bias towards it, but what are some of the challenges with brainstorming as a creative technique?

The challenges of brainstorming as a technique for idea generation[04:18]

Will Burns: Brainstorming is inherently a gun to the heads of the people doing the brainstorm because it has a beginning and an end. You might have one hour and you're going to do a brainstorm, and everybody has to come up with ideas within that hour. And they do have the benefit of each other's thoughts they can build and riff on each other's thoughts in real-time. But the fact is creativity just doesn't work that way. Ideas will happen when it damn well pleases when they want to. And the odds of an idea increase when you're out living life. They happen in the in-between times of the day, more likely than when you sit down to come up with a bunch of ideas. And so our platform is designed to take advantage of that, to brief them in a time deferred way on the platform, and then go live your life.

And if you're an aisle three of a grocery store, and you have an idea that hits you because you saw an end cap with some word on it or color or shape, you can just pull out your phone and post the idea right then and there and the rest of the team will find out. But the problem with traditional brainstorms is not only that, but it's also the human dynamics that get in the way of an in-person brainstorm.

Now, if you think about the last one you were in, I bet you there was one person who did a lot of talking and thought he or she was the smartest person in the room, but maybe wasn't and there might have been another person who's more the introvert who didn't say anything but probably was the smartest person in the room. And so you're not really getting the benefit of that. There's political posturing within the organization. Somebody trying to look smarter than somebody else, because the boss is in the room. There could be gender bias. There could be racial bias happening.

The benefits of making ideation distributed and asynchronous [05:58]

Will Burns: All these things get in the way of creativity, and so it was funny, I think you'll find this interesting, early on when I first started playing with this concept and we were reverse engineering another platform to basically do what we wanted it to do. Now we have a platform that we've built just for it. But when we were reverse engineering, one of my female experts who had done a few projects on the platform said to me, "I love that we're reduced to a typeface." And I thought that was really interesting, especially coming from a woman that she loved that nobody could dominate. She loved that nobody judged her ideas for anything but the content of the ideas, because none of that human stuff, baggage, could get in the way.

Now some people might argue, yes, but you're losing the chemistry of people actually being in the same room. And I admit that that's true. I'm not saying that in-person brainstorming doesn't work at all, it certainly does. But what I am suggesting is the benefits of virtual, I believe, and I've seen it, I've been doing this for 10 years, outweighs the benefits of any chemistry that might be generated because chemistry happens virtually too. And it's chemistry that's in the right place. It's got its heart in the right place because it's always just about the ideas.

Shane Hastie: This is radically shifting everything about brainstorming. Okay, we've all had to shift from being in person to working remotely, but I've seen a lot, and we've had people on this podcast talking about how this shift to remote with synchronous activities, they've still enabled that productivity to continue, you're saying going beyond even the synchronous to the asynchronous and it's not quite anonymous or is it anonymous?

Will Burns: Well, it's funny, in the beginning, when I had a closed system where I would just go out and get the projects and I would brief the team and the client had no visibility into the sausage making, I had several people that were my friends and creative experts who wanted to remain anonymous. And so we made up superhero names for them on the website, and clients would trust me because they know that I've worked at some great agencies. I know some great people, so they were cool with it. It wasn't a big deal. But now with this platform, that's no longer possible because a customer can log in and they can search everybody that is public on that database. I should quickly say that this is targeted to the advertising marketing space, but there's no reason why this couldn't be used by engineers, this could be used by Hollywood, this could be used by scientists or researchers, anybody that needs to get the right expertise, the right talent, working on a project together can use this.

Shane Hastie: We were talking about the anonymous aspect of it and the shift from synchronous to asynchronous.

Will Burns: Yes. And that's a really interesting part, and this goes back to my point about how creativity works, that when it's synchronous there's pressure. When it's asynchronous there isn't pressure. And what I found is that creativity abhors pressure. Creativity abhors fear of any kind. And so if you can infect the brains of this team with an inspiring brief, where they're like, "Oh, this is a good one. This is a juicy one. I can't wait to work on this." Then that's all you got to do.

Now, like I was saying earlier, they can just go live their lives, bump into things, read something, see something in a TV show that connects and collides with what they have stewing in their minds about the brief and ideas emerge. And then again, all they got to do is pull out their phone and post the idea. And so it's that asynchronous bit that is quite different from a classic brainstorm where you need to coordinate a time where everybody can be together in one room, that is not asynchronous at all. It's forcing creativity where it's unnecessary in my opinion to do so.

Shane Hastie: Coming back to one of your earlier points, you said four people. I've been in brainstorming sessions with 30 people.

Four people is the ideal size for an ideation group [09:59]

Will Burns: That's crazy. An in-person brainstorm with four would be far better than an in-person brainstorm with 30. That's just insanity to have that many people because you can barely get a thread going of thinking with that many people. It's funny, when first started Ideasicle, I did play with the number, and in the beginning, I didn't know, I put nine or 10 people on a project and they were all pretty famous creative directors from big agencies. And what I found is that they sort of clammed up. They would only post an idea if it was a perfect gem. They've got an all figured out and it takes them a couple of days to do that. But the real magic of this platform is that people post stupid ideas. They post half-baked ideas.

Creativity requires bad ideas in order to get to the good ones, and if people are holding back in any way, even with just a fleeting thought, like I saw a movie this weekend, there was a scene that was relevant to this brief, what if we did something like that? I don't know what to do, but what could we do with that? And that's it. That's the half-baked idea and the rest of the team jumps in on that. And so I think that's really the magic of this platform. Any less than four and you lose the exponential effect.

Typically agencies work in teams of two where they've got a writer and an art director and that's good, that's better than one, but if you have four, you could have those same two creative directors and a PR person and a social media person. Now you've got four very different perspectives coming in at the problem with very different ways of seeing the world and of seeing their disciplines and what the communication or the idea could be.

And so I advise our customers to make sure you don't have all the same kind of person on the team. Make sure you really mix it up so that you can maximize the amount of ideas, and I think that's where the number of ideas comes from. We average, I think 45 to 50 ideas per session that are only three to five days long. And that's a lot of ideas and I think it's because we have those four different perspectives continually. Whenever somebody posts an idea, there's a collision with the other three, and whenever they post a build to an idea, there's another collision with the other three. So it's this constant flow back and forth that inspires whole new ideas. Even if they're working on another one, they might be like, "Oh wait, what if we did this?" And then all of a sudden we've got a whole new idea that they've just riffed out of thin air.

Shane Hastie: So how do you know when to stop?

Will Burns: Well, it's funny. I did find that any longer than a week, it tends to die on the vine. The minds get emptied of energy for the project. So I recommend anywhere from three to seven days. I've done projects that are 24 hours where a creative director in Boston, it's kind of a funny story, was like, "Will, I need you to come up with a bunch of ideas using your platform for a meeting I have tomorrow in New York because I'm too embarrassed to tell my creative team that I forgot to tell them about this. So can you pull something out of?" And I was like, all right, we'll do it. We'll do it. And so within 24 hours, we had 10 fantastic ideas for him to take in. I don't recommend that, that's a little quick, but if they get three to five to seven days total to work on it, that's plenty of time to interact with life and interact with each other and have ideas emerge.

Shane Hastie: In the quote-unquote traditional brainstorming, the second phase is when you then do critique the idea. So traditionally you would go through in the unfiltered, get the ideas out there, no idea's a bad idea and so forth, and then you go through and you rank them, you filter them from a point of view of, is it feasible? Is it viable? Could we do this? Should we do this? Some sort of filtering ranking mechanism. How does that happen?

Filtering ideas after generating them [13:55]

Will Burns: What I've seen agencies do is, and we have a mechanism on the platform where you might have 40 or 50 ideas, but you can go in and flag your favorites and then you can export those into individual PDFs. And what a lot of agencies do is just print those out, put them up on a wall, if they can, if they're working together, and have of their teams, their internal teams shop them. Meaning they'll walk and peruse like, "Oh, I've got some energy for this one." It might not have scripts yet. It might not have the radio, it might not have the promotion yet, but it might be a big campaign idea that they feel some juice for. And they'll be like, oh, can we do this one? Can we take this? So it starts with whoever the organizer is, is effectively the curator.

And along the way, they may even be posting ideas. They may say, "Hey, that's a really cool idea. What if we did this and this?" So they can not only monitor the ideation as it's happening, they can post ideas and course correct. So if the team is going off in the wrong direction and can say, "Hey, you know what, we got to rein this back in to remember the brief is about blah, blah, blah."

So the organizer is the curator, and typically the agency will then shop the ideas out to teams to see if they have the energy form to bring them to life. What does not come out of this process are finished comps, ready for presentation. What comes out of this are raw ideas that the agency can then go and develop further and develop into a real presence for their clients. Now, some projects don't require comping up. If you're looking for brand ideas in the form of a tagline, you know the tagline is the tagline. There isn't much coming up to do. But with promotions or with larger advertising campaigns or things like that, you might need to do that work inside and sort of design to do that.

Shane Hastie: So with the radical shift that we've had in the last 12 to 18 months, the shift to remote work, you mentioned you've been working remotely for many years. What are you seeing in terms of these shifts among creative people?

Creativity in the shift to remote work [16:00]

Will Burns: I think the biggest thing I'm seeing is how surprised they are at how productive they've been. In the beginning, when COVID first hit, the advertising world was scared to death. This is a business that for decades and decades has been an in-person business. The agency's culture is manufactured in the walls of a building in New York, on Madison Avenue, or in San Francisco, or wherever. And the people are all together. So there was a seismic shift when COVID hit and they all of a sudden had to work remotely and they were all in a panic. I talk to agencies all the time and I remember when this happened, I'm like, what are we going to do?

Will Burns: And then, because the advertising world is a very creative world and what is creativity if not problem-solving, they started to solve the problem. And they're like, all right, we can't be together, we still have deadlines, we still have campaigns. In fact, they had more deadlines because most of their clients were canceling campaigns that were about to launch because they're no longer relevant, for restaurants that are closed or for other campaigns that just didn't feel like it was hitting the right tone, given the seriousness of COVID and lockdowns. And so a lot of agencies had to scrap all that work. They had to come up with new campaigns at the exact moment that they now had to work in a completely different way.

So what most agencies did was they, I like to say they used digital paper clips and virtual rubber bands to find ways to work together, whether it's through a Zoom call live or using Google Docs or something like that, which of course isn't designed for idea generation, it's designed for document preparation and teams in collaboration, or even in Teams or Basecamp, these are productivity platforms, but the smarter agencies were using it as a way and sort of reverse engineering them to serve the purpose at a minimal level.

And so they got through it. And so what's interesting about Ideasicle X though, is that I didn't do this because of COVID. It seems like I did because it seems awfully convenient that, oh, here's a new SaaS platform for virtual work. I've been working on this for 10 years and the platform itself the last two years, I was going to do this anyway, because I knew everything we just talked about that virtual creative development I think is better than in person. So it just so happens that we had these lockdowns and people are working remotely. It's great for my business because it's normalized virtual work and has actually increased the number of freelancers that are out on the market because a lot of really talented people got laid off last year when agencies had to constrict and clients, weren't paying them as much, et cetera. I only know the advertising industry well, but that's what I've been seeing.

Shane Hastie: Will, you've done, I'm told, a fair amount of research into creativity in general. What drives creativity in the workplace today?

The best ideas emerge when we let go of the pressure [18:59]

Will Burns: I think to answer that question, you almost need to divorce it from the workplace and just think of it as a human condition, a human trait, if you will. I think the worst thing people can think is that they're not creative or that it's a fixed commodity, that you are a certain amount of creative and that's it. There are countless studies that suggest that you can actually improve your creativity with various tactics that sort of trick yourself into being more creative, and one that springs to mind is just the act of walking. Just walking can increase your creativity by 40%, and they did a study where they isolated people walking on a treadmill, people walking outside, people, sitting down inside, people sitting down outside, even isolating the variable of movement by having somebody pushed in a chair outside, somebody pushing a wheelchair inside. And what they found is the act of walking increases creativity.

And my theory behind that, I don't know if you've ever read the book by Sian Beilock called Choke. It's a fairly old book, but incredibly insightful and in it, she talks about how the working memory can get in the way of creativity, and can even get in the way of performance. Like if you're throwing free throws in a basketball game, your working memory, which is what helps you to focus, can actually get in the way of your performance. And the same is true with creativity. You think about focusing is great for taxes, doing taxes. It's great for assembling IKEA furniture, but it's not great for creativity because what is creativity? It's about divergence. It's about being open to irrelevant information that it might be relevant. And that's an attitudinal shift for people that if they can be open-minded and even just play with it and look around and say, "How can that tree over there inspire an idea that I need to come up with for this project I'm working on?" That alone, that collision of those two thoughts might lead to something, it might not.

So walking is one. Another that I think is really fascinating is called psychological distance. And this is one where they had a couple of different groups, one group was asked to do some kind of creative task, like come up with as many uses for this brick as you possibly can, and the other was asked to do that as well, but they were asked to imagine themselves in Paris on a beautiful lawn on a sunny day, and now come up with the ideas. Whereas the other group was the control group who were just asked to come up with creative uses of the brick. And the people who imagined themselves somewhere else came up with a lot more and better ideas than the people who didn't. And it's a liberation and maybe an end-run around that working memory because you're now somewhere else like the working memory doesn't have to do its job.

And the same is true with walking. When you're walking or taking a shower or washing the dishes or gardening or something like that, which are all when people themselves to be more creative, it's because your working memory is occupied. It's occupied with the task, the menial task of washing your hair, or washing the dishes, or even just walking. And because it's occupied, it's less able to eliminate quote irrelevant thoughts, more stuff gets in. And when more stuff gets in creativity increases. It's a fascinating topic, but even things like coffee shop noise is the right amount of noise to maximize creativity. Any more than that, it's distracting, any less than that, you get too introspective. Like a typical coffee shop is enough to occupy your working memory so that it gets out of the way.

So my uber point here that is very long-winded and I'm sorry, is that creativity is not a fixed thing, that anyone can improve their creativity if they try some of these tricks and just learn about the brain and what's going on.

Shane Hastie: So to get the best ideas, go for a walk and have a cup of coffee.

The color green improves creativity [23:10]

Will Burns: You got it. Yeah. There's another one that's really strange, but the color green improves creativity. You're going to think I'm crazy and end the podcast, but there was a study done where it was an online study where they primed one group with the color green and the other group of the color red. They didn't even know they were getting primed, it was just the color of the page. And then they did the creative task and the people who saw the color green performed better in the creativity task, whereas the people who saw the red performed better in analytical tasks, which is really bizarre.

So now take your example, go walking with coffee out in nature, which tends to be green, and you got a trifecta.

Shane Hastie: Fascinating stuff. Will, if people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Will Burns: They can find me on Twitter at Willoburns is my handle. They can find me on our website, which is And that's And my other contact information is on there as well.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Will Burns: Oh, it was really my pleasure. Thank you, Shane.


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