Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Leading By Embracing Chaos

When creativity is flourishing, ideas come fast and furious. It's nearly impossible to articulate them all, and they fade quickly. In a meeting, that effect is compounded because each spoken idea sparks others – implications, recollections, brainstorms, wild hares – in an explosive cascade of creativity. How do you capture all of this genius?

In many work groups, the answer is "you don't." Creative energy feels chaotic to those groups, who react with measures to discourage spin-off thinking. That climate of control gives the illusion of order and professionalism, but much of the constructive work is left undone (ideas do have value, after all). Participants leave meetings feeling curiously disappointed, and work products are suitably uninspired. When you hear people complain that there are too many meetings, this is what they're talking about.

There is an alternative strategy, which is to embrace the chaos of creativity. When a group is willing to respectfully consider all ideas, no constructive work will be left undone. Of course, the resulting idea explosion must be contained within the limited "air time" available in a meeting. But that can be managed by the simply-stated policy of giving most of the ideas their hearing offline.

Planning meetings for the upcoming Portland Creative Conference are being conducted in precisely this manner, and it's a joy to behold. The conference is a major undertaking put on by and for the creative services industries. Talk about idea explosion! The meeting leader and all participants are ruthlessly (though respectfully) disciplined in offloading most discussions to sub-committees. And all are diligent about discharging their offline responsibilities and reporting back. There is a knack to doing this effectively, and it is on display here. As a result, the atmosphere is one of excitement, competence, confidence, and trust that I find exhilarating.

I think all meetings should be conducted this way, and most of them could be. All it takes is competence at the table, an invitation to be passionate, mutual respect, and skillful leadership. When it works, it is a fulfilling experience with exceptional results.