Jeff Zych

Fostering creative environments

I recently read Smashing Magazine’s article “On Creative Leadership” that talks about creating an environment in which people can be creative. This section really resonated with me because it’s something we do occasionally at Optimizely, and talk about doing more of:

Every month, my team and I enter our planning room for at least three hours. We lock the doors, opening it only for pizza and beer deliveries. Our mission is to solve one problem. In past sessions, we have redesigned the user interface that powers our systems, solved marketing problems by “remarketing,” and found new and creative ways to present information. The role of an impresario has had such a direct and positive impact on the way we do business that I am now introducing the role to every team in our 100+ person company.

Why does having an impresario work? Well, certain rules guide the team to moments of insight:

  • Identify a very specific problem to solve, and stay focused.
  • Provide the necessary tools to spark inspiration (white boards, markers, paper, etc.).
  • Be technology-agnostic! Don’t worry about how you will solve the problem; focus only on the why.
  • There are no wrong answers; some are just better than others.
  • Celebrate failures.

My team looks forward to their time spent locked up together because it gives us an opportunity to be creative in front of each other. Support their ideas, and help them grow. Don’t force your opinions and thoughts. If the group is moving in the wrong direction, ask them questions until they find the right path.

The design team at Optimizely has done this a few times, and it’s always been extremely rewarding and productive. For example, recently another designer and myself locked ourselves in a room all day to redesign our jobs page. By the end of the day, the page was almost fully coded.

This setting allowed us to be productive for two key reasons. First, we were insulated from distractions, which can quickly kill productivity and focus. Second, we had instant, high-bandwidth communication that enabled quick feedback and input from each other when needed. No waiting around for emails or responses via IM.

Given the success of this and other similar sessions, we intend to do more of these focused work sessions in the future to foster our creativity and productivity.

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