“Please Do Not Ask Me to Be Creative!”


dinosaurParticipants will often express this sentiment, “Please do not ask me to do anything “touchy, feely”, creative, or silly (these are often all lumped together as similar by your participants) . Thus, when we as facilitators suggest something creative, we are often met with resistance, sighs, and “deer in the headlights” (i.e., scared) looks. Interestingly, I find that some of my facilitator colleagues are also resistant to introducing creativity into their events. There are many reasons both participants and facilitators avoid creativity. The goal of this article is to help you as the facilitator and your participants warmly and enthusiastically embrace creativity in both every day and special meetings…and know a few easy ways to do this.

Why Bother With Creativity in Meetings and Events?

There are many reasons to introduce creative processes on a regular basis in your meetings and your workshops. The more you introduce these techniques, the more likely you will experience enhanced connections amongst participants, heightened energy and ability of the group to resolve very difficult problems, and improved productivity. These are a few among many possible benefits.

I just took a wonderful course called “Facilitation for Innovation – Inspiring Group Creativity”. It has been brilliantly designed by a dedicated group of Technology of Participation (ToP®) facilitators is and offered through the Institute of Cultural Affairs USA. We can also bring it to your organization or group! This workshop reminded me of many wonderful creative possibilities. I share a few below.

Two Things to Keep in Mind About Creativity

In this course they talked about a number of principles of creativity and I’d like to highlight two of them which seem especially important to me.

#1 – Everyone is Creative

#2 – You Need to Practice to Make it Easy for You

Let’s talk about the first principle. Everyone is creative. “Not me”, you say! It may seem like you decided a long time ago that you were not creative. This is probably because somebody gave you a negative message about your ability to be creative. Yet if you let your mind wander to explore all the times you’ve solved a tough problem, expressed an interest in music, enjoyed cooking, gardening, photography, writing code for software, etc. you cannot deny the fact that you are creative.

I’ll share a short story about one aspect of creativity that I decided was not part of my genetic makeup. I decided a long time ago that I was not musical. However, in the 1990’s I took a course on Accelerated Learning that gave me a very strong incentive to try to bring music back into my life. My inner secret was that I would learn to sing. I knew that I probably would never sing as good as those that audition for those new reality shows such as The Voice, Asia’s Got Talent, America’s Got Talent, etc. For some reason this course gave me the inspiration that if I tried to learn music, I would have amazing side benefits such as a better understanding of math, a new appreciation for my ability to learn, and increased ability to solve problems. So I started out with flamenco dancing lessons where I had to use the castanets and learn about rhythm. Then I took piano lessons and learned to read music and play some basic songs. Finally, years later, I had the courage to take singing lessons. It was hard work and although I don’t take those lessons now for a variety of reasons, I can attest to the fact that it added a huge richness to my life. And, I have a much greater confidence in my ability to learn new difficult things. I share this story because I had a belief that I was not musical. I know without a doubt now that if I had continued my lessons for another 5 years or so, I would have made some huge strides in my ability to sing and perform very well.

Actually both those principles, everyone is creative and you need to practice are illustrated in my story above. Luckily, what I am encouraging you to do as facilitators and leaders will likely not be a 10-20 year project. You can learn some very simple creative techniques in a day and use them successfully as long as you have the right attitude toward them.

Your Role as a Facilitator of Group Creativity

group-creativity-exerciseIn the ToP course that I described above, they suggest that there are 3 things we need to do to be successful in helping groups be creative and come up with innovative solutions to complex problems:

  1. We need to believe that we as facilitators are creative and that the group has tremendous creative potential. We need to be comfortable in facilitating a creative environment.
  2. We need to know enough about creativity, group dynamics and our specific group’s culture to be most successful in choosing the most appropriate creativity tools and techniques.
  3. We need to keep growing our creativity toolkit. There are literally hundreds of effective exercises and designs that will help the group go deeper and broader. We need to be confident in our ability to instruct and lead a group through these exercises.

What Does a Creative Meeting Look Like?

A meeting that is fostering creativity and innovation is likely going to sound pretty lively. There will be laughter, odd ball ideas, very little initial evaluation of ideas, and a fair bit of trust in the room. Expressions of both the left logical brain and the right more intuitive creative brain will be encouraged. You might start out with some warm up exercises to help the group start to have fun and give them permission to be less formal with each other. One of my favorite examples I learned from creativity and innovation expert, Shane Sasnow is called “What Is This?”

Description of a Great Warm-Up Game

Basically, you give the group a rolled up piece of flipchart paper taped in the shape of a tube. As they stand in a circle and each person receives the paper tube, they act out what they imagine the paper roll to be and then let others guess what they are acting out. One of the group members may be inspired to take the tape off the paper and create something new with it. That’s when a paradigm shift occurs. If this doesn’t occur, then the facilitator can do undo the tape sometime after the second round. It is helpful to encourage the group to do at least 2-3 rounds of coming up with new ways to think about this very simple object. You can find more creative exercises and the rationale for creativity in our PDF download called “Creativity and Innovation – The Art of Group “Innovative Think”. See a link in the Resource section below.

After the warm-up of any type, you might have your group move through a fairly systematic analysis of the problem (left brain but using creative ways of doing this analysis) and then be asked to look at the problem from a variety of other perspectives. Finally, you might get the group to design an example scenario to test out their solution. This is sometimes known as the prototyping phase. The Stanford School of Design has an excellent free online video that you might want to look into (see below under Resources).


How Do You Convince the Group to Take on Creativity?

I have found that the most important thing to get the group to agree to do something different, silly or creative is to explain the neuroscience behind what you’re asking them to do. This might, for example include creating hemispheric connections between the left and the right brain so that the mind can more quickly go back and forth between a logical solution and an intuitive solution. We teach more about this in our self-paced virtual course  “Meetings That Rock: Essentials” course.

The second most important thing I have found to get a group to be creative is to have a lot of energy and enthusiasm about their ability to perform this short creative exercise. I might for example say to them, “The worst that can happen is you’ll have fun and it’ll be over in 15 minutes.” This happens to me almost every time I introduce this very cool activity I learned from the Institute of Cultural Affairs. It is a ToP method called Story, Song, Symbol Workshop. Imagine it’s the end of the day and you’re asking the group to create a fairy tale story, an original song or lyrics to an existing tune and a logo or some other kind of drawing to represent some aspect of the work they have produced that day. Yes, it’s true they give me those blank stares and when I tell them they only have 7 minutes to do it, they look even more incredulous. However, I assure them that every group I have ever done it with has come up with fantastic results and I have great faith in their ability to meet this norm. I’ve done it with hundreds of people in the room as well as with smaller groups of 8-10 people. One hundred percent of the time, it has been amazing what the group comes up with and they get some fantastic new insights about their work. The whole exercise takes about 15 minutes. Here is an example of where I’ve had to believe in my ability to deliver a creative exercise, know what it looks like and trust in the group to dig deep.

So don’t wait…the tools and methods are out there for fostering group creativity!


Books, Articles

You can find a much briefer explanation in the book called “More Than 50 Ways to Build Team Consensus”. It has many other wonderful methods for teambuilding and creativity.

TeamConsensus cover


The Stanford School of Design Virtual Crash Course In Design Thinking

5 TED Talks to Kickstart Creativity

Edward de Bono on Creative Thinking

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

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