Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Why Sharing Your Work, Setbacks & Struggles Breaks Creative Blocks

We all get stuck. You find yourself sitting at your desk, frustrated by the fact that every solution you generate just doesn’t seem right or seems too similar to the failed solution before it. Later that evening, while trying your best to describe the complexity of the challenge to your friend, the solution presents itself to both of you. Why does this happen? What is it about the act of sharing your frustrations that yields the necessary insight?

We tend to believe that creative work is a lonely endeavor. But, research – not to mention past precedent – suggests otherwise. In fact, one of the single most effective ways to enhance your creativity is to regularly break the cycle of isolation and interact, talk, and share your work with your colleagues and friends.

Psychologist Kevin Dunbar studied the workings of four prominent microbiology laboratories for insights into how new theories are developed. What he found was that the majority of creative insights and great discoveries actually occurred during regularly scheduled lab meetings, where individual researchers revealed their latest findings and shared their most difficult setbacks.

Dunbar describes how the majority of findings in any research laboratory are failures or at least unexpected results. During these regular meetings, researchers shared their results and also developed analogies trying to describe what might be causing their problem. (Analogies are actually quite common in scientific insight. Consider how Watson and Crick used the double helix or twisted ladder analogy to explain their findings on DNA molecules).

Dunbar discovered that as the researchers developed analogies, and as other researchers built on the ideas around those analogies, the solutions to their problems just seemed to develop. Sometimes, a researcher would spend a week vexed by a problem and the solution would seem to present itself in just 10 minutes of discussion with peers.

One of the single most effective ways to enhance your creativity is to regularly break the cycle of isolation and interact, talk, and share your work.

In contrasting the four labs, Dunbar also found that the more diverse the lab team, the easier these breakthroughs occurred. The labs made up of researchers from the same background typically generated the same ideas and stayed stuck with the same problems. He believes the reason is that individuals from the same background often develop and understand similar analogies, but when two individuals from differing fields share, they have to work harder to develop analogies that each party can understand and those “long-range analogies” offer more connections to possible solutions.

This research runs counter to many of our impressions of lone creatives or mad scientists striving for years to overcome setbacks and to perfect their work. However, many of the most creative companies have been sharing their problems and building on each other’s insights for years. It might even been how they became so creative. Consider two in particular: Google and Method.

Google is often praised as one of the “best places to work” and an oft-cited reason is its free meals program, which gives employees a variety of gourmet meals on demand in various locations throughout their Mountain View, California campus. This free food is not just meant to increase employee happiness – it increases creativity as well. Douglas Merrill, the former Chief Information Officer at Google, reveals that one reason behind the free food is that it encourages Googlers to interact with others outside their department and share what they are working on and the problems they’ve encountered. Google has even designed these eating spaces to encourage discussion among people from unrelated departments. The benefits of these connections are difficult to track, but it is not unreasonable to assume they parallel those experiences at Dunbar’s microbiology labs.

This research runs counter to many of our impressions of lone creatives or mad scientists striving for years to overcome setbacks and to perfect their work.

In some cases, this sharing may not even need to happen face to face. Cleaning products standout Method utilizes a forum they call the wiki wall the same connective end. Wiki walls are floor to ceiling whiteboards that are put up in common areas. Here’s former employee Tom Fishburne describing the wiki approach, “Ideas are grouped by project. Everyone [can] add to an idea at any time over the entire course of the project. Pictures and prototypes are added for all to see, comment, and build on. Slow hunches have time to take root.” He continues, “Projects are not the result of one Eureka moment at one point in time. They are the cumulative result of hundreds of minor and major Eureka moments throughout a project.”

These findings imply that getting individuals to regularly connect and share their work, setbacks, and insights can amplify the creativity produced by each. So the next time you get stuck, don’t go it alone. Rally your colleagues, or even just a friend, to talk over the problem, and see what happens.

What Do You Think?

Do you have more creative break-throughs in conversation with others?

David Burkus

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David Burkus is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.
load comments (19)
  • Angela Booth

    I love the idea of the “wiki wall” — great idea. I think I’ll create my own. :-)

  • David Ramos

    Fantastic idea, I think it’s time to let go the creative solipsism, greetings

  • davidburkus

    David. Thanks for the kind words. Awesome use of solipsism by the way. I’m knees deep in research on the power of others to boost our own creativity. Have you read Scott’s recent article? Similar ideas.

  • davidburkus

    Angela, it’s such a cool concept. I wish I came up with it. There’s a product called ideapaint that turns any wall into a whiteboard. Might be a great place to start.

  • Srinivas Rao

    Hi David,

    My platform is a podcast where I do nothing but interview people, so I ABSOLUTELY have some of my most creative breakthroughs in conversations with other people. Nearly every conversation I have results in an opportunity to try something new or an idea for a blog post. In fact I notice my mind always bursting with new ideas for blog posts when talking to somebody. One of my friends said it best to me when I was sitting and having drinks with him “Wow, everything is a blog post to you.” I think there’s a point at which we develop filters through which we view the world.

  • davidburkus

    For sure. We see the world not as it is but as we are. Thanks for the comment…my platform is also a podcast and blog where I interview folks. Ironically, I never made the connection between is and this piece. Now I need to go back and listen to my old shows to see if that’s what tuned me into Dunbar’s work.

  • James

    I gotta say I loved this, especially the wiki wall.

    I’ve been noticing more and more that I have breakthroughs, when it comes to my website, when I’m talking with others. I’ve had some blocks lately and that’s what has really kept me moving and opening my mind. So thanks for the reinforcement!

    I feel like a lot of people are afraid to get in conversations because they think someone will muddle their hard work. When really, it’s just choosing what you really want to do from the options that come about.

  • davidburkus

    It can definitely feel like a muddling at first. The hope (I suppose) is that the process of muddling provides a broader perspective from which to select the chosen path. Great point James. Thanks.

  • guest

    How do you do with virtual teams? MediaWiki pages are intimidating for non-technical people to update.Scrum meetings are OK but lose permanence in the whoever-we-talked-to-last-is-the-number-one-priority world.

  • 99U

    We actually sell Idea Paint in the Behance Creative Outfitter! ; )

  • davidburkus

    Oddly enough I thought Google Wave was perfect for this, but it was scrapped. What might actually be better, though, are the virtual face-to-face Google Hangouts. I’m attracted to the idea that such face to face meetings make keeping track of who said what harder and hence less likely to have outcome affected by rank.

  • Louis House

    Excellent read! Thank you David. some actionable and brilliant advice!

  • davidburkus

    Thanks so much. Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

  • Jason Beck

    Have you tried CampFire? I don’t know if they have a free plan (the way Wave was free) but it has the collaborative transcripts (of chat).

  • davidburkus

    I haven’t but I will look into it. Thanks so much.

  • Ashley Silver

    I have had exactly the same experience. I find when I explain something to people I often had epiphanies which links all the missing pieces. The point is that we think in different ways and use different parts of our brains at different times. Sometimes I find myself thinking in verbal mode and at other times I find myself thinking in idea mode. Each of these different modes use different working memory and each bring their own perspective. I joke that if I ever want to learn something thoroughly, I need to teach it to other people. If I have a whiteboard on which to explain it I learn even faster.

  • davidburkus

    Ashley, exactly what Dunbar theorized. Proven yet again. Thanks so much.

  • Chris

    I like this post! It’s really cool.

  • Writership

    We are social beings, and this makes good sense. A supportive community makes a huge difference in our creativity and our lives generally. Thank you for articulating this so well.

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