Credit: Andria Lo

One big preoccupation since the pandemic has been whether remote work and burnout has stifled creativity and innovation. Without in-person whiteboard sessions or other in-person interactions to feed off, has the capacity of workers to do world-changing and business-inflecting creative work been depleted.

Into this moment, Sarah Stein Greenberg has published Creative Acts for Curious People, a book of exercises for thinking, creating, and leading in unconventional ways that are used at Stanford’s, where she is executive director. We reached out for suggestions for what we can all do to activate creativity and innovation at this moment. Here is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity:

Many people worry that creativity and collaboration suffer when teams are working remotely, in hybrid fashion, or flexible configurations. Do you think that's the case?

There are some challenges that we have to be more intentional about designing for when we're working remotely, but there are also advantages for some folks. One of the challenges is a lack of in-person vitality that you can sometimes feel. When I think about my most creative sessions with my team, it's a full-body experience. Someone jumps up from the table or someone's at the whiteboard, and that part is definitely missing when you're just sitting, grounded in front of the computer. But if you're creative about the formats that you're using and the interactions that you're staging, there are some real opportunities, particularly for folks who are more introverted.

They can express themselves in a completely level playing field by using the chat or by using a blend of written and verbal interaction. There's also this interesting role for more parallel processing. When everybody takes five minutes to document on a Google doc the share-out or idea, it's not just one moment in time where someone says an idea and someone builds on it. Instead, I can keep revisiting it the whole time we're having the conversation or the meeting. And so I've actually, in a funny way, really enjoyed starting to incorporate more of digital tools into our organization and into our meetings in a way that I never thought that I would.

It's been a mix. Undeniably, some of the interactions we're used to are not possible right now in remote or hybrid formats, and some new [interactions] are emerging.

Some managers seem to love having the chat or Google doc in parallel with a video meeting, but a lot of others really hate it...

I personally always want to know what's going on for people, and if they can't share it, then I can't know. Even though it's messier sometimes, and it's a little more chaotic, it's a more accurate reflection of what's actually happening in the room than if you're controlling more of the conversation. I will say, when you're the one leading the meeting, it's often super important to have a second person monitoring the chat and responding, because I think it's actually quite hard to be good at and focused on projecting, sharing, and facilitating while also monitoring this new input. It's an interesting moment for us to reconsider leading a meeting as a team sport.

Deputize people with these different roles. Particularly in hybrid meetings, you can make sure that somebody who is online is the person who's running the online experience because they can empathize and identify with attendees. That is really important. For me, it's not that there are straight pros or cons; there are implications and consequences. How are we going to use them to more intentionally design for the kinds of behaviors and the kinds of interactions that we want?

Are there any tactics or approaches that are especially successful for kick-starting creativity, for remote and hybrid teams?

As you know, I just finished a new book called Creative Acts for Curious People. One of my favorite assignments in the book was created by an amazing instructor at the named Glenn Fajardo. Glenn has been teaching cross-cultural teams about creativity and collaboration for many, many years. One of the pieces of research that he's turned up looks at how interactions and relationships across cultures—even across significant distance—can spur your own creativity. The catch is it has to be a meaningful relationship. It can't just be a superficial one. Drawing from that background, he's created a whole bunch of different ways to get teams kick-started when those are the exact conditions. The one that I really enjoy, and that's in the book, is called the wordless conversation.

In that interaction, you pair up with somebody—perhaps somebody you don't know very well, but who's on your team. And for a whole day, you take pictures or short videos as you're going through your day. What are you having for breakfast? What are you doing? When you walk around the block during lunch, what's in your immediate environment? What's your work life like? What's your home life like? The following day, you take 20 minutes to have a text-based conversation where you're not using any words, you're just sending those pictures back and forth. The goal is not to generically send random photos. It's to actually have a conversation in which you are relating to what you've just been sent. So you might send me a picture of your breakfast, and I might send something back like my mid-morning snack.

But we're not using words. It's fascinating to see how you can actually develop a whole visual language between two people, even people who don't share a primary verbal language. The kinds of relationships where you start to be able to trust another person, understand them, and anticipate what they're thinking about are a fundamental criteria for a team that can work together creatively. There are tons of opportunities to address this creative challenge we're all in, of finding ways to connect and build rapport, even with colleagues that we've never even met before in person.

Research shows that the best way to build trust and collaboration on a team can be to start by developing trust one-on-one...

I love to build towards the group trust by starting really small with those pairings. Another one of the assignments in the book is my own personal favorite form of sequence. It starts with a pairing. Then that pair finds another pair for stage two. Then, that quartet stays together for the final part of the exercise. Only then do you do a big group debrief. As an introvert, I need to start with that one-on-one connection. You have a little bit of psychological safety with that one other person. Then you get into a slightly bigger group, and then the group trust comes. There's a way to build toward heightened trust, but you've got to start with a deep interpersonal connection first.

Is it more challenging to kickstart creativity given what everyone has been going through—including emotional and mental trauma and burnout—over the last year and a half?

It's undeniable that folks are tired and that trying to find ways to stay inspired, both personally and as a team, is really challenging. As leaders, we have to make space for deeper emotions to emerge. We certainly cannot pretend that everything is normal, that we're somehow coming back to a normal place, or that we don't need to process what has happened and what is continuing to go on. There is a set of reflection practices that have to do with understanding, processing, and digesting what has happened. A lot of that is important to do before you can get into the present moment. The other thing I'll say—and I've really noticed this with our students over the past year—is that there is a real sense of inspiration and purpose that gets built when you understand and connect with someone else. For our students, that comes when they're able to, even if it's online, interview people they might be designing for in their projects at the design school.

Understanding and connecting with someone else is part of the process of developing empathy, and there's a psychological name for it, prosocial motivation. When you have empathy for somebody else, you have a sense of urgency about wanting to try and meet their needs and to help them. For me personally, that's where a lot of my inspiration comes from. That inspiration then transfers into my own creative work.

What have you learned from this past 18 months-plus in terms of what allows teams to thrive and do their best work?

It's a combination of acknowledging the challenges of the moment while continuing to focus on what we're trying to achieve as a group. People have to believe that there is something bigger than themselves that is worth working for in order to sustain inspiration. You can have those flashes without it, but longer term inspiration requires feeling like you're a part of something bigger, at least for me and for my team. We thought a lot about how to do that, especially because we were working in a context where we couldn't be with our students. We couldn't actually see what's happening. Not only that, but you couldn't get a sense of what was happening in someone else's class or someone else's program.

We intentionally created moments to tell stories about the impact that people were having and about student transformations. You could do the same thing about a customer. Collect some of the inspiring stories about an employee who benefited from a new policy. Think about how your team has affected a customer, retailer, or some other individual in the supply chain. Consider the human impact, not just the business impact. Before, you got that sense of human impact, in our case, by walking around the building, seeing the student work, and getting inspired that way. We have to make space for it as leaders and intentionally include it in our culture when it doesn't happen automatically or organically.

I've read research that shows that that's one of the most important things that leaders can do is to basically identify and repeat stories about the impact of the work that people are doing. And tell them over and over.

If I'm leading a team, what should I be doing right now to help my colleagues and my organization thrive?

Design—and all kinds of creative work—is a way to help people develop skills to navigate the kind of uncertainty that we're in. Running a short creative project where you are helping people to come up with new ideas, focusing on the end user, and having collaborative engagement with others is a really smart thing to be doing right now—and that's any kind of creative project. My definition of a creative project is not knowing what the outcome will be when you start. If you know what the outcome will be, it's unlikely to be creative or innovative.

A creative project starts with a more open-ended question, like what should be our next offering? Or what might we do to redesign the Monday morning staff meeting in the current moment? Because the answer is unknowable, it's a microcosm of the experiences we're all having right now around uncertainty and ambiguity. The project gives folks a chance to practice building resilience and trying multiple different directions. That's a really good way to build the capacity to navigate bigger and more challenging issues. I really do believe in the power of well-run creative projects to help people feel plugged in and feel like they have some agency in this current moment.

Can you summarize the process a leader could suggest their colleagues go through in terms of designing solutions, for new ways of thinking about meetings, for example?

There are a couple of resources I'd love to share. One of them is called the Starter Kit, which was purpose built for exactly this need. If you are a leader and you want to lead your team through your first ever creative project using design, the starter kit is on the website, ready for you to use online with distributed teams. It will give you the scaffolding you need to help people develop one-on-one connections, learn about tools like journey maps, learn about how storytelling fits into creative work, and build other basic skills. Also, there are over 80 assignments in my book. Some of them are focused on building your individual skills, some of them are about leading a team, and some of them are all about end to end design projects. You could think about using those, either as is or in an adapted form, for the kinds of challenges that you're facing in your own organization.

Some people believe there's this ‘water cooler magic,' where serendipitous interactions between people in the hallways between meetings in the office are key to innovation and creativity and organizational culture. What is your view of that thesis?

I think there's a little bit of magic if you're in a positive and healthy culture where people are excited to interact and engage with each other. I've certainly been missing that. One of my recollections from the very early days of the pandemic is of someone on my team naming that, saying ‘I'm missing spontaneity. I'm missing serendipity.’ We took that as a design challenge. Our team that looks after culture and employee experience started thinking about how we can have a little moment of spontaneity and serendipity every week. It's as simple as changing our Monday morning staff meeting to have a 10-minute breakout room session in which we're trusting zoom to do a random mixture of people in the breakout rooms.

That allows people who are not normally working together, or who aren't on the same team, to get out of that and have that water cooler moment. It's useful for leaders to think about, in their organizational culture, what needs are being met by the water cooler. How else can we design for them given the constraints we have in terms of our interaction. Frankly, it's a really valuable thing if a leader is standing up and saying, ‘We're making time for that. We're really going to invest in those human connections because they're important to having creative moments and collaborator moments.’ The value of that cannot be understated. That is a real leadership decision. Can I make the time? Can I orient us around that human layer of work, not just the getting stuff done piece? The human piece is not in addition to, or outside of the work; it is the work. You have to build that into the heart of the culture, and you have to make time for it.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic makes a distinction between soft work and hard work. Hard work is writing your research report or doing an Excel spreadsheet and soft work is where there's interaction between colleagues that is work, but it's not hard work.

That's so interesting. I'm reminded of hard skills and soft skills, and I long for a way to name those categories so that one doesn't sound like it's a ‘better’ type of work because I do think that soft skills and soft work are vital. If we can hold both of those categories up at parity, then I think we're getting somewhere really important.

  • Read an excerpt from Creative Acts for Curious People describing the Futures Wheel exercise for structured imagination.
  • Access the Stanford d.School Starter Kit, which explains design techniques that your team can use.
  • Buy Creative Acts for Curious People from or Amazon. (We may make a commission when you buy a book.)