Sunday, December 2, 2001 (SF Chronicle)
Teams can free individuals' ideas
Kathleen Mitchell

We would hardly expect to learn something about teamwork from the Surrealist artists of the 1930s, but a game they played demonstrates that sometimes ideas blocked in one person's mind can be liberated by the energy of a group.

As the artists sat in a circle, one would draw on a piece of paper, fold it over with only a few lines showing above the fold, and pass it to the person on the right. As the paper moved around the circle, each artist would build upon the previous lines. The abstract art that resulted demonstrated that a group could create what one person could not create alone.

This game also revealed how chance contributed to creativity. When the artists got together, they had no idea how their art would result; they just knew they were going to create art, and they were willing to stick with it. Seven decades later, this priceless art has been on display at the Art Institute of Chicago and other prominent museums.

In "The Art of Innovation," Tom Kelley, president of IDEO Product Development, a firm that conceptualized such innovations as the PalmPilot, wrote that for innovation to happen, a process has to exist that encourages serendipity. Observing and brainstorming, he said, pave the way for chance ideas to become innovative opportunities.

The Surrealists and Kelley recognized that for ideas to come alive, they sometimes need a team of people to encourage new ways of creating and thinking.
We do not always get to choose how our teams are convened or who will be on them, but we can choose our role and how we can use the energy of the team to foster creativity and innovation.

Here are a few lessons about teamwork that we might learn from the
Surrealists' game:

-- If your ideas are blocked, toss them around and see what comes back. Sometimes we get a bit too close to an idea and cannot take it to the next step. Toss the idea into a brainstorming ring, set some guidelines about the session - such as no censuring, just building - and grab onto the unexpected inspirations that arise. Sometimes it is hard to see your idea chiseled away by comments from others, but like beautiful sculpture emerging from a block of stone, ideas can start out one way and turn out much better.

-- Everyone has something to contribute, even if it is just a line. People in teams lose motivation not from a lack of ideas, but from a scarcity of encouragement and acknowledgment from other team members. Every idea needs to be noticed. Even if an idea falls flat, positively acknowledging the person's contribution builds a sense of safety and openness.

-- Fall in love again with creating. Judith L. Estrin, chief executive officer and co-founder of Packet Design, and former chief technical officer for Cisco Systems, observed in a New York Times interview that the dot-com world has experienced problems because people fell out of love with technology and innovation and fell in love with getting rich quickly.

Sometimes teams have to learn to love learning and creating again. Good ideas take time - and often the patient shepherding of a team of people - before they can transform into innovations that will stay around for a long time.

Copyright 2001 SF Chronicle