Creative Leadership

Innovation from the lab

How Meetings Make Us More Creative

Meetings might seem like a bore, but they can boost our creativity.

No one is a fan of meetings anymore.

Most people seem to abhor the idea of sitting around a conference table checking off items from an agenda while their “real work” waits impatiently for their return. A quick glance at the world of business books echoes these ideas, with statement such as “meetings are toxic” (Rework, Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hannson) and whole books titled Death by Meeting (Patrick Lencioni). It seems the overwhelming majority of opinion sides with these statements and movements are underway to reduce or eliminate meetings.

I’d like to defend meetings.

While I can not return the hours wasted in meetings or present a foolproof method for ensuring every meeting is productive every time, I would like to mount an argument and present evidence for the following statement:

Meetings make us more creative.

The evidence for this claim is found in research from the field of molecular biology, or rather research on the field of researching molecular biology. Psychologist Kevin Dunbar studied the workings of four prominent microbiology laboratories for insights into the creative work of experimentation. The findings from these field studies defied the conventional image of the lone scientist staring into a microscope to reveal a great discovery. Instead, Dunbar found that the most creative insights and greatest discoveries actually occurred during regularly scheduled lab meetings, where individual researchers revealed their latest findings and shared their most difficult setbacks. The creative discoveries produced by these labs occurred only after these individuals conspired together to find a solution or draw connections between previously unconnected insights.

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These findings imply that getting individuals to connect and share their work, setbacks and insights can amplify the creativity produced by the team. Whether your researching the actions of individual cells, or leading a cross-functional team for a new program launch, you stand to benefit from the creative power of our old friend: meetings. 

For further proof, consider two software companies: Atlassian and Google. Atlassian, a software development company based in Australia, regularly has what they call “FedEx Days,” where developers drop their normally assigned tasks and work on whatever they want. At the end of the 24 hours, Atlassian holds a meeting. Not a bland, sit around a large table meeting, but a social event with food and drinks where the developers share the end result of their 24 hours. The company reports that these events are responsible for numerous new products, software fixes and process improvements.

While Atlassian throws elaborate party-like meetings, Google takes a simpler approach: free food. Google is often praised for its free meals program, which gives employees a variety of gourmet meals on demand in various locations throughout their Mountain View, California campus. This free food is not just to increase employee happiness—it increases creativity as well. Douglas Merrill, the former Chief Information Officer at Google once revealed to me that another reason behind the free food is that it encourages Googlers to sit down, interact with others outside their department and share what they are working on, what problems they’ve encountered and what counsel they can give to others in the Googleplex. The benefits of these connections are difficult to track, but it is not unreasonable to assume they are similar to those experiences at Dunbar’s microbiology labs. 

Creative work sometimes appears a lonely endeavor, but this is largely a stereotype. Regardless of the format, be it a regular staff meeting, an after hours party or a gourmet lunch, there really is something to the way connection opportunities can magnify the creative output of teams.

If you disagree, I’d be happy to meet and discuss it further.

David Burkus is an assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University.

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