How To Use Structured Debate To Boost Creativity

The scary world of Abstract Thought in Pixar’s ‘Inside Out.’

Many designers fear criticism. But the fact is criticism breeds productivity and even creativity.

When I was in architecture school, I found the process of studio courses so abrasive. We’d come in twice a week to stand up in front of the class and show the work we slaved over. It would often get totally ripped apart by our professor, sometimes even by professionals in the field who played guest critics. Lots of kids cried, a bunch quit altogether. The whole thing seemed like nothing more than hazing. But – it wasn’t until I moved away from architecture that I sort-of-kind-of missed the culture of criticism. Not necessarily the aggressive version I experienced as a student, but the more productive, office-safe version: Structured Debate.

The creative power of structured debate.

It turns out, when a meeting is centered around the presentation of an idea followed by discussing where that idea could improve, the creative process zooms at hyper-speed. Not only that — the process produces concrete developments. Charlan Nemeth, a UC Berkeley professor, performed an experiment comparing structured debate and brainstorming. She found that the group participating in structured debate outperformed the brainstorm group in generating new ideas. Ultimately, she concluded that “debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them.

Here’s how you can apply structured debate to your own team:

1. PPP — Prioritize preparation and participation

We’ve all been in those meetings that circle around into brainstorming la-la-land instead of generating real ideas. It drives my efficiency-driven mind crazy. Being a designer, it’s easy to get tempted by the what-ifs and loose thinking of brainstorming meetings. However, there’s a time and a place for open-ended brainstorming and it often isn’t in the structure of a meeting within a productive work day.

When you do the leg-work of creative thinking on your own and come up with ideas, keep notes, read up on the subject matter, and even begin some initial sketches and designs before a meeting, not only do you make the team more productive, but you’re honing your own talents in the process. Moreover, if the whole team follows suit, meetings can revolve around creative and responsive conversation. That discussion should engage everyone in the meeting and effectively use the structure of a critique.

2. Change the tone of criticism

Bringing an acceptance of critical analysis into meeting dynamics can be a daunting task. But, if everyone’s bringing in ideas but sugarcoating opinions, conversations can get even less productive than before. On the flip side, criticism that offends can create a much worse problem. The key to this whole process is an understood respect between colleagues, a removal of the personal, and a shared belief in the end goal.

What’s also key is reflecting these ideals in terms of language used. To avoid the risk of a personal attack, an example solution is choosing to say “I think this design lacks…” instead of saying “I think you didn’t do…” These details are crucial to implementing this style of communicating to any group, but especially to passionate designers.

3. Use “Plussing” As a Model

Story meeting for Pixar’s ‘Inside Out.’ I love Bill Hader.

One proven way of achieving balanced criticism is “plussing.” It’s a concept famously implemented by a little creative company called Pixar. The rule of plussing is that you can only criticize an idea if you have something constructive to follow. You can say you’re not totally sold on something, but then offer a “what if” or a “but.. I think.” The idea is to create open-ended, but structured debates that actually build on foundations of presented material. Ideas are sometimes flat-out rejected, but it’s only to replace it with a better idea or elaborate on a concept that works.

They’ve seen such success with this format that daily morning meetings at Pixar operate entirely as a series of presenting yesterday’s work and plussing. What’s presented usually isn’t even complete or fleshed out — it’s just bits and pieces of drafts and ideas.

4. Start from the top

When it comes to implementation, Pixar is an excellent model to follow. Not just because of their evident success in generating creativity, but because of their choices to incorporate structural debate as a core value of the organization. It wasn’t just one guy saying “hey, let’s try this today,” it was a company saying, “this is the way we operate.” That approach establishes its importance with employees and can truly integrate with company culture.

What’s really incentivizing for leadership is the after-effect of structured debate. In Nemeth’s study, the group that generated more ideas through structured debate also showed a “lingering” of idea generation. They continued to come up with ideas for the hours following their meeting. So, not only will structured debate get your creative juices flowing, it keeps them flowing. Creating a workplace that garners an ambient state of creativity and idea generation is valuable no matter the industry.

• • •

Using criticism in design can be scary. And designers in a workplace can be even more sensitive to attack. But once the team loosens up to critical analysis and loosens up personal attachment to ideas, the results are only positive. In a lot of ways, breaking this wall can solve many more issues in a team’s dynamic.

So, give it a try: Create a culture of preparation for meetings, educate your colleagues on proper plussing style, initiate an agenda revolving around debate and discourse, and allow the proven benefits of structured debate to take effect!