Saturday’s heavy rain in Austin may have sent many SXSW-goers to bed early instead of to the late night parties, which meant that Sunday morning’s sessions were surprisingly overcrowded. Despite the big crowds, I was lucky to get into a great session titled “How Creative People Arrive at Good Ideas,” which was a great follow-up to the session I attended yesterday about startups looking for funding. The panelists were Colin Raney (@ColinRaney), Managing Director at IDEO, Erin Clift (@eclift), VP Global Marketing & Partnerships at Spotify, Scott Aukerman (@ScottAukerman), Proprietor of Comedy Bang Bang!, and Brian Janosch (@BJanosch), Creative Director at Cultivated Wit.

Colin introduced IDEO Process of creating product improvement ideas, which puts defining the problem you want to solve as the first step toward improvement. Once you thoroughly understand the problem, talk to people in the field and watch them when they are in the moment of using the product. Take everything you learn and put it on Post It Notes. Yes, Post It Notes are highly cliché, but they are advantageous because you can move them around and group ideas really quickly. Once you do that, start sketching and prototyping quickly. Keep the process moving.


Erin Clift of Spotify had some incredible insight into creative thinking and innovation – natural for a company that continues to push the envelope of online music streaming. She focused mainly on Spotify’s “Hackweek.” Once a year, all 1200 of Spotify’s employees worldwide participate in a global Hackweek, something similar to our own Race to 3:52 week here at 352 (admittedly on just a slightly larger scale). Unlike most tech companies, Erin pointed out that every employee participates in its Hackweek, not just developers (we do the same for our Race to 3:52). During the Hackweek, employees post project ideas up on the wall and every employee must sign up to participate in at least one project. Cross-functional teams form around the project ideas. Erin touted how great it is to get people in all areas of the organization working together during the week (we agree). Spotify’s Hackweek rules are quite simple: 5 days, no boundaries, but you have to be able to actually create and prototype something within that time. At the end of the week Spotify holds global video conferences to showcase the hacks. The last Hackweek resulted in nearly 600 hacks worldwide.

Scott then talked about the Comedy Bang! Bang! process for creating the comedy routines for their TV show. He felt it was advantageous not to start by being totally blue sky, but rather to put some constraints around the creative session to get quicker results. For example, they’ll host a brainstorming session where they say, “We need to build out the banter in a particular show, what ideas do we have do we have?” By focusing on one element of a show, it gives them constraints and also allows their team to think about what has been successful in the past.

After each panelist spoke, the conversation turned to best practices. The panelists all agreed on several best practices to enhance the creative process:

    • It’s more effective to brainstorm with other people then have everyone come up with ideas on their own. In particular, building cross-functional brainstorming teams is important. Good ideas don’t happen when the same types of people sit in the room together.
Brainstorming helmets encouraged.
Brainstorming helmets encouraged.
  • In order for a brainstorming team to be successful, everyone on the team must get rid of their sense of authorship. The members of the team must not focus on their individual contribution, but rather the results that the team generates together.
  • When trying to solve a problem, those with expertise in the field are sometimes the worst people to involve in the brainstorm. They’ll think of all the reasons why something can’t work. The best problem solvers are “enlightened novices” in the field.
  • Instituting time constraints helps. If you put a time window on a creative process or brainstorming session, it forces the process to happen. If you leave things open ended you get a whole lot of nothing. Also, time constraints get you a lot more energy and focus during a session.
  • Everyone involved in brainstorming must understand they are never going to have a home run idea the first time. Encourage half-baked ideas – they can be perfected later. New employees who haven’t worked in this process before will need coaching ahead of time so they understand every idea is welcome and they shouldn’t wait until they have the perfect idea to speak up.
  • Recruit extremely curious people. Look for people who want to consume content that doesn’t relate to them, just because it might be interesting. Look for people who think things can be better than they currently area. These are the best people for creative thinking. They are able to see something that is working in another industry and find a way to relate it to the problem they are trying to solve.
  • Encourage your team to use RSS readers to follow blogs and interesting content in all kinds of different fields that may spark ideas. This will keep them inspired and interested in the world. Also have them follow companies who are doing really interesting things. If they get in the rhythm of doing this all the time, just like a great athlete practices their game all the time, they will always be able to come up with good creative ideas when needed because they will already be well researched.
  • Ban laptops from your brainstorming meetings. Ignite a brainstorming meeting by asking some weird questions. Also, before the brainstorming session, setup small groups of 2-3 and send them out into the real world to observe and come up with some very rough ideas that can spark the creative process.

I enjoyed hearing how the speakers took the esoteric world of brainstorming and creativity and turned it into a practical structured process within their companies. I look forward to sharing this with my 352 colleagues to help enhance our creative process, and I hope you do the same with your team.

Image credit: Camera Eye Photography


Geoff is a true entrepreneur. He’s passionate about helping companies find, build and grow their next big idea. He launched his first venture at age 16, when he started a computer store in a shopping mall in Sarasota, Florida. Since then, he’s built eight more companies.