Is PowerPoint Killing Your Team's Creative Capacity?

There is nothing more fun in a team than tossing ideas around and landing on the big idea. For teams that are in the same office, whiteboard sessions or ad-hoc “back of the napkin” conversations are the forum for creativity. Because of the informality, they provide a way to work on something together without the expectation of it looking nice during the process. The generative part of any work is meant to be messy, changeable and fun – that’s how the magic happens! Case in point: Pixar, the gold standard in creativity, famously came up with the concepts for four of their greatest movies via napkin sketches over lunch.

But what happens when teams are virtual? What is their medium for co-creating? For many, the answer is PowerPoint. While that can work perfectly well, there is one common pitfall to avoid: the false assumption that "messy slides" equals "sloppy thinking." This assumption causes people to spend lots of cycles making an idea look polished, even in the early stages. And that has three consequences that impact creative collaboration:

  • More time goes into making something look nice than the idea itself
  • Collaborators are less willing to add their ideas  – one of the proven practices of creative innovation is plussing – finding something you like about an idea and suggesting a way to build on it. The more polished something is, the harder it is to “plus” it for fear of for fear of messing things up, having to “start over,” or stepping on toes
  • People go too far down a path before getting input from others, causing needless rework and a dampened spirit when collaborators offer constructive feedback or alternative directions

Ultimately, these unintended outcomes water down a team’s creative capacity and make work less fun. Observe your own and your team’s patterns and consider these questions:

    1. When we have a deliverable to produce or problem to solve, do we start in PowerPoint?
    2. Are first drafts more polished than they would be if we were brainstorming on a whiteboard or sketching on the back of a napkin?
    3. Are team members making more “editing” or incremental suggestions than big leaps or breakthrough ideas?

Most sophisticated organizations have designers who make slides look amazing. Because final presentations do look so polished, people often become uncomfortable or reluctant to share anything less.

To boost your virtual team’s creative capacity, try this:

  1. Agree as a team to place a text box with “Whiteboard” on slides where you want people to engage with the content as if it were on a real whiteboard. Agree that it means “Please look past the visuals and focus on the thinking…”
  2. Ask for the kind of input you want. Instead of “Would love your thoughts” say “Here’s an early concept and I wanted your ideas before I take it too far. What do you think of the direction?”
  3. Use alternative mediums
    • Work on your whiteboard. Take a picture and email it to a close collaborator with a question such as “What do you think of this idea?”
    • Storyboard a narrative in a Word doc and ask a colleague “How could we make this stronger?”
  4. Build in rituals for fueling creative capacity. Again, we can take inspiration from Pixar. They have a daily review process where team members share work in progress. This serves as a forcing function for overcoming the reluctance to show unfinished work and creates an environment in which peers make each other’s ideas stronger.

Embrace the mess. Free yourself from Powerpoint pretty so that you and your virtual team spend more time inventing and less time polishing.

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