Maximizing Marketing Creativity

It’s all about the little things

In the 1990’s, psychologist Kevin Dunbar at McGill University set out to determine where scientific breakthroughs come from. It was an exciting idea: imagine if you could uncover a method that would reliably lead to far more scientific breakthroughs… you could change the world!

So Dunbar went about observing a number of scientists in their natural environment: the lab. He set up cameras in several molecular biology labs and conducted hours of interviews. What he found was that there was indeed a pattern to where breakthroughs come from, but not in the way you might expect.

His discovery, chronicled in Steven Johnson’s incredible book Where Good Ideas Come From, was not how breakthroughs occurred, but where. It turns out, most important ideas didn’t emerge from a single scientist toiling away over a microscope in isolation. Most breakthroughs happened during regular lab discussions where a dozen or so researchers would present and discuss their latest work.

The Liquid Network

Johnson refers to this type of informal group as a “liquid networks” — the collective flow of energized minds working on a problem. According to Johnson, “Every idea is fundamentally a network of ideas. When you create an environment that allows the kinds of serendipitous connections to form, innovative ideas are more likely to happen.”

Brilliant ideas thrive with a diversity of disciplines. It’s often a variety of ideas bouncing between different roles that triggers a big breakthrough. The only snag with applying this same theory to your marketing team is that most teams I’ve worked with tend to be more like this:

That may seem over the top, but think about it: your team probably sits grouped by their function and more than likely in a way that blocks them off from as much contact as possible. This is the exact opposite of the liquid network that contributes to breakthrough ideas.

This isn’t meant to be a criticism of such teams. Of course they work that way, it makes perfect sense. Instead, this article is meant to open your eyes to the creative potential that could be unlocked for your marketing team with just a few small shifts in your routine.

How You Sit

One of the first things I noticed when I joined SalesLoft was the way the marketing team had their desks arranged. Everyone had found a wall and pushed their desk against it, willingly facing a blank wall or window rather than their coworkers. While it sounds bad or even antisocial, this certainly isn’t unusual and is actually pretty common in most marketing teams I visit. It happens without thinking, often out of a false perception that this is the layout that will help the team do their best work.

On my first day in the office, I asked the team if they would be open to changing the layout of their desk to a more open format. As nobody really has a strong opinion about such things, the team willingly adjusted to a format where they faced each other and the various disciplines of the departments were more commingled.

It was a tiny shift, but in just a few days, you could see the communication getting better. Conversations were moved off Slack to the strange new word of face to face. As the team communicated more, they had a better understanding of the focus and challenges of their teammates. After a time, they began to use this better understanding to exchange new ideas and help each other develop new solutions. It’s a small change, but it has a dramatic impact on the network of ideas on your team.

How You Interact

If rearranging the way you sit seems like nuanced or unusual advice for improving work performance, this next one will be even more counterintuitive: get out of the office.

Have you ever found yourself in this situation: You’re stuck on a particular problem at work or in your personal life so you take a break. You grab coffee with a coworker or you work on other projects for awhile. Slowly your mind starts to let go of the problem you were so focused on and BAM, the answer you were looking for pops into your head all on it’s own? While surprising, there’s nothing miraculous about these moments. In fact, they’re quite common.

Your brain comes up with new ideas and solutions by making connections between disparate ideas, and this only happens when you relax and let your brain wander. This is as true for the large network of ideas on your team as it is for the smaller network of ideas in your head. Working 9–5 from your desks every day is about as effective at generating new ideas as trying to force yourself to come up with a solution to a problem alone. To truly tap into the organic flow of ideas and creativity on your team, you need to put yourself in a more relaxed environment.

Take your team out to lunch once a month and let the conversation flow organically. Go for walking meetings to check-in and bounce ideas off one another. Grab coffee with coworkers from other teams and hear about their work. The more you can expose yourself to new ideas and opinions, the more connections you create for yourself and your team. More connections means more potential for creative insight.

Creativity is a nuanced attribute of your team, often influenced by the overlooked or unseen elements you never think about. But as Kevin Dunbar discovered nearly 20 years ago, there are certain steps you can take to give your team more opportunity and capacity for creative breakthroughs, and they don’t cost you a thing.

Take a step back and look at the way your team works today. Look at it objectively. Are you overflowing with collaboration? Are ideas exchanged freely and organically? If not, it’s time to start focusing on the little things that can make a big difference.

About the author: Matt Wesson is the Director of Content & Creative at SalesLoft. Follow him on Twitter or see more articles on his LinkedIn page.