Roundtable: Creative People Talk about Creativity
This installment of “Roundtable” gathers three creative thinkers to talk about using creativity to communicate their ideas and about what inspires their creativity. Unlike traditional “Roundtable” discussions, where each participant answers the same questions, this issue’s “Roundtable” poses questions to each participant based on their areas of experience. Esra'a Al Shafei and Joy Anderson — both of whom made it onto Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business list for 2011 — each talk about using creativity for social change, and Lisa Linke of the Second City discusses the importance of a creative environment in both improv comedy and business.
Esra'a Al Shafei Lifts Voices for Social Change
Esra'a Al Shafei has founded three organizations that take a creative approach to advocating for social change. Mideast Youth, a nonprofit movement, uses digital media to amplify diverse and progressive voices advocating for change throughout the Middle East and North Africa. CrowdVoice.org is a user-powered service that tracks voices of protest from around the world by crowdsourcing information. And Mideast Tunes is a platform for underground musicians in the Middle East who are using music as a tool for social change.
Perspectives: You’re working on several projects with related themes. Let’s focus on one, CrowdVoice.org, which is powered by users contributing content. How was the idea born and how have you communicated it to others to get them involved?
Esra'a Al Shafei: The idea of CrowdVoice.org was born when I was stressing to find relevant news and coverage about social justice causes that I care about in a way that was visually organized. I wanted to create an open community that allowed anyone to contribute coverage, videos, articles, blog entries or photos about a specific issue that activists in a certain country are protesting about. The issue wasn't that content didn't exist. It did. People were blogging about these events in different places, posting videos anywhere from YouTube to Vimeo and using Facebook and Twitter to publish direct images from these locations. The problem was that it was a monumental task to look for these sources. It required using multiple browser tabs, hopping from one website to another in a distracting fashion, monitoring multiple feeds, and subscribing to multiple people’s commentary. That's overwhelming. CrowdVoice was created to eliminate that noise and organize all of these sources in one place where people can quickly access and navigate through this content so they can better witness each protest or human rights movement from various perspectives, and it uses a crowdsourcing model to ensure that the content is up to date and accurate.
Users and contributors of CrowdVoice find out about the site primarily through Facebook and Twitter, but many also find it organically through search engines. We have blog widgets, and some users find it through the various blogs and sites that place our widgets on their page.
Perspectives: Where do you turn for creative inspiration?
Esra'a Al Shafei: I turn to innovative advertising models and creative Internet startups for inspiration. They really allow me to challenge myself in finding new and interesting ways to involve diverse communities in causes that typically do not get much attention and in figuring out how we can apply those new experiences or technologies to generate interest, awareness and direct action.
For instance, I really enjoy studying how companies communicate their products, especially via guerrilla marketing campaigns. An example would be the numerous agencies that adopted QR or quick response codes in fun and unique ways to get people curious and excited about their products. It inspired us to use QR codes to raise awareness about important causes, such as the right of education in Iran. The campaign is called "Can You Solve This?", and QR codes are used by the campaign as a strategy to bridge offline content with online content, so that people who would normally not be exposed to these messages would have the chance to be informed about the topic of education rights in Iran. The code is distributed internationally by volunteers and can be found anywhere that is likely to get a person’s attention, from public transportation and outdoor banners to T-shirts, stickers and car magnets. Once someone scans the QR code with their phone, the user is taken to the campaign site where they can view an animated video about the cause and send letters of concern.
Perspectives: What do you consider your most creative idea ever? And how did you use communications to bring it to life?
Esra'a Al Shafei: I would say Ahwaa.org, which is a bilingual tool for LGBTQ youth in the Middle East that leverages game mechanics to facilitate authentic, high-quality interactions. Communication is essential to making the site successful, but the topic of LGBT rights remains taboo in most parts of the Middle East. So we needed to create a place where people felt encouraged to share their stories, advice, and experiences with regards to LGBT issues in the region — safe from prejudice and abuse.
The game aspect of the site helped communicate to users that Ahwaa was that place. It also is a key way users communicate to each other about the kind of content they want to see on the site. The more each user participates with responses that others mark as "helpful," the more points a user gets. Once a certain number of points is obtained, the user has the ability to access parts of the site that are restricted, with access given only to those that the community feels are trustworthy enough, which is judged by their points (and, therefore, the quality and helpfulness of their contributions). We employed this strategy to encourage communication on a difficult topic and ensure the site contains quality content to make it a strong resource for the gay community.
Joy Anderson Launches Social Ventures to Create a Better World
Joy Anderson began her career as a high school teacher in Brooklyn, where she worked to inspire students for eight years before she eventually turned to consulting. She has provided strategic counsel to large nonprofit systems, and 10 years ago she founded Criterion Ventures, a hybrid for-profit/nonprofit firm that identifies large-scale social and environmental problems and designs, and implements collaborative ventures and projects that generate solutions to the problems.
Perspectives: As founder of Criterion Ventures, what communications challenges did you face in bringing the concept to life? And how did you use creativity to address those challenges?
Joy Anderson: There is always the challenge of balancing between the leading edge and the bleeding edge. The idea that you can change how a market works — which is what our various ventures aim to do — can be difficult for people to grasp. So, our ongoing challenge is figuring out how to expand people’s beliefs about what is possible.
One of our key areas of work involves getting people to look at investing based on how it impacts women and girls, and not just on profits. In putting forth an idea like this, our communications approach focuses more on being patient than on being persuasive. We’re not going to change people’s minds. Instead, it is about continuously putting an idea in front of them until our communication about it, along with ideas from elsewhere, shifts the way a person perceives it. We have cultivated some people for two years on an idea before getting it to click. It could be that I’ve said something 45 times before, but today I said it in a different way.
We continuously look for ways to be more creative in the way we communicate, and we’re exploring being more creative through social media. However, because of our focus on personal relationships, we’re still trying to figure out how to involve social media while staying true to our ideals about how we invite people into a relationship or a specific concept.
Perhaps one of the more creative things we do is something we call “convergence,” which is a different style of conference. We invite people to come together for an in-person, two-and-a-half day meeting to discuss a specific topic, but there are no set speakers or agenda in the invitation. Only after people sign up to attend do we design an agenda, putting group discussions together based on the conversations we imagine those specific individuals having with one another. This approach has been successful in attracting 50 to 60 thought leaders to each convergence and helping to create sustained conversations.
Perspectives: Where do you turn for creative inspiration?
Joy Anderson: All of us at Criterion Ventures get our inspiration from the conversations we have with people every day, including those with family and friends. I’m a great networker, but on the weekend I want to hang out with my kid and husband and putter from one thing to the next. There’s inspiration in that. Also, because some of the issues we deal with are very serious — including sex trafficking and the role of gender in investing — we can also find inspiration in not taking ourselves so seriously. To inspire creativity in our clients, we use a tool called Structure Lab, which includes a box of colorful cards we created to help people think about the structural challenges of their ventures in new ways. We are now working to take this process online.
Perspectives: How do you get your creative ideas heard over other ideas out there?
Joy Anderson: I spend time with people, practicing the art of conversation. I think many people believe that every conversation has to have a certain outcome to be meaningful, but I think you have to keep an open mind. If you go in already knowing what specific thing you expect, you gain little to nothing. If you listen carefully, you can wind up hearing input that makes your idea stronger and helps lift it over other ideas. That doesn’t happen without real conversation. We have to protect time and space for the conversation before we arrive at the answer.
Lisa Linke Facilitates Improv Workshops for Business Executives
While working as a senior consultant on human resources strategy for Deloitte & Touche, Lisa Linke began taking improvisation classes through the Second City, Chicago’s well-known sketch-comedy club. Recognizing the similarity between improv and business skills, she ultimately chose to pursue performing full-time. In addition to performing comedy, she now facilitates improv workshops for corporate teams for Second City Communications.
Perspectives: Creativity seems to naturally come to mind when we think of Second City’s comedy. Do you talk about what it takes to be creative?
Lisa Linke: At Second City, we spend less time talking about being creative and more time creating a culture where people are comfortable taking risks. The fear of failure doesn’t lend itself to creativity, so we aim to have an environment where every idea is valued. We don’t want anyone to be afraid to offer an idea that may be seen as too edgy. At the same time, we recognize that overconfidence can hinder creativity, too. If you get a lot of creative people together who have big egos, the interchange that’s often needed to bring an idea to its fullest potential doesn’t happen.
A critical component of our approach is that no one comes in with “the” solution. Everyone has to be willing to listen to everyone else’s ideas, and then be willing to add to those ideas or be comfortable with someone else adding to theirs. That takes trust and vulnerability, and these two things aren’t always common in theater or in the corporate world.
Perspectives: What is the most common question you get from business clients?
Lisa Linke: People always ask, “How do you process or test an idea once it has been created?” It’s a great question, because what people tend to fall short on are not ideas, but getting their ideas to their fullest potential. With improv, the best way to test ideas is simply to put them out there. You act in the moment. You see how people respond and you adjust the idea based on the response. The key is not to lose the idea, but to make it better.
In the business world, the job of keeping a new idea or product alive might fall to someone with the title of product champion. At Second City, championing the product is a team function, not an individual function. Similarly, product champions in business can be most successful by getting others to believe in the idea and help champion it. It’s also important to test your ideas outside of your usual circle. In comedy, we have a saying that “we’ve been in the monkey house too long,” which means we can no longer tell when something smells bad. To avoid this, we work in ad hoc teams so there is constant discovery and new input. Sometimes it might be necessary to seek a perspective from outside the organization.
Perspectives: Comedy, like public relations, tries to elicit a specific reaction from an audience. How does Second City use creativity to get the reaction you’re looking for?
Lisa Linke: A lot of times creativity is about perspective. How people perceive our ideas is subject to what else is happening in their world or in the world at large. Thinking creatively about a sketch performance is critical to getting the intended idea across. But creativity is not always about creating something new. It can be about seeing something in a different light. Even the tiniest modification to a performance can have an impact on people’s reaction to it. Our process of listening to everyone’s ideas and trying new things helps determine what that modification might be.
Trying new things is important, because if we’re trying to be creative by doing the same thing again and again, we can yield product but it will feel like harder work every time. Many of the companies we do workshops for have a meeting cycle that revolves around the same team, the same room, the same time every week. That may be efficient, but it is not an ideal setting for creativity. You have to find ways to be creative within the boundaries of business.