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How to Hone Team Creativity During Confinement

Unsociable people are more creative because they don’t fear solitude.

Now that COVID-19 has put most social habits on hold and work has shifted consistently to the virtual space, it’s time to reset some well-established practices and beliefs. To rethink them; to debunk long-lasting myths such as that brainstorming in a group makes people more creative.

“Sometimes you need a little crisis to get your adrenaline flowing and help you realize your potential.” —J. Walls

Carve out time alone. Fearlessly.

Don’t fear this situation of social withdrawal, because people who embrace unsociability tend to be more creative. Evidence shows that what matters is the motivation driving isolation: “Anxiety-free time spent in solitude may allow for, and foster, creative thinking and work,” points out researcher Julie Bowker in a recent article.

Translate learnings into practical advice for your team.

Teams focused on execution and collaboration tend to look negatively at reflection and creative isolation. That’s why the cultural shift happens gradually, once a new routine is established. Reframe this time of distancing as an opportunity to set time aside for fruitful ideation:

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

1. Generate Ideas Separately

Half a century of research has proved that brainstorming groups are less creative than individuals. In the former, the participants get involved in social relations – and the related taboos. But teams are the backbone of modern organizations, thus brainstorming has become the star among all problem-solving approaches. People have come to believe that collaboration is the condition for better creativity. But this has been proved wrong.

Creativity is a solitary art.

When you have a creative assignment, set the terms of the problem, then let everybody work at the task on their own. Participants should write down ideas on paper sheets in a given time before meeting with the rest of the group for evaluation and cross-fertilization.

2. Brainstorm Only to Evaluate and Combine Ideas

You want to reunite your team after everybody has brainstormed individually. Collect the sheets and discuss the ideas. Usually, participants vote for the best idea or combine different ideas into one final version. This brainstorming should happen as a relatively short meeting. 

Participants can also keep brainwriting during the creative brainstorming – to criticise and discuss based on the given ideas. You might opt for anonymity so that people can focus on criticising the idea, not the person.

3. Give Rules, Goals, and Meaningful Feedback

That creativity works better when there are no rules is a myth.

Set clear goals for all stages of your creative sessions. People can identify with a given goal and feel more driven to achieve. Moreover, constructive feedback is helpful during the evaluation phase of an idea.

A recent study shows that positive feedback can enhance creative fluency, provided that leaders have a good vision and knowledge about how to positively affect the ideation process in real time. Directive feedback has to do with stimulation, not with control and negativity.

4. Strive for Ideational Fluency

Generate ideas quickly; generate many. Encourage people not to censure themselves even if they believe their ideas to be rudimentary. The more ideas you produce, the more chances you have to find that one breakthrough idea. This is D.K. Simonton’s “equal odds rule.” It states: “The relationship between the number of hits (i.e., creative successes) and the total number of works produced in a given time period is positive, linear, stochastic, and stable.”

Behaving like a perfectionist who’s waiting for the one breakthrough idea is not the right strategy. The more ideas produced per individual, the higher the chance of producing good ones.

5. Foster a Culture of Dissent

Office culture tends toward conformism; it levels opinions and ideas to a gray average. But it’s dissent that fosters creativity and divergent thinking. Disagreers, challengers, devil’s advocates – these are the creativity boosters that every organization needs. Therefore, allow everybody to be inappropriate.

Competing views stimulate divergent thinking way more than consensual opinions. Although politeness and non-evaluation constitute core brainstorming instructions, evidence shows that the opposite is true: “The freedom or permission to critique, even criticise, can create an atmosphere of freedom and enhance the generation of creative ideas.”

Introduce these methods into your team’s existing creative process a step at a time. Cultural change will happen – and more interesting ideas will pop up. Confinement constitutes an opportunity for positive social withdrawal, once you leave fears, controlling drives, and anxieties behind. Being unsocial can be so good.

Originally published on

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Authorship as an extravagant concept

Originally published on

Authorship is not quite dead: the concept remains deep-seated in Western culture. However, alternatives with a focus on participative writing are becoming increasingly common in literary and business contexts, thereby starting to discredit this peculiar form of individualism. Is participation just more fun?

When we think of an author, we think of creative process, individual ownership of a unique idea, and the copyright law protecting the originality of that craft. The common narrative of authorship is meant to involve not more than one (struggling) artist, for the path to beauty is inevitably solitary. The resulting bond between the author and her text is indissoluble. Yet authorship is a recent concept, not a universal truth; it results from historical, cultural, and economic conjunctures related to Western capitalism, bourgeois culture, and patriarchy. In other words, it is relative, whereas writing can perhaps be seen entirely differently.

Authorship is a recent invention

The Oxford English Dictionary recognized authorship back in 1710. Before then, the term did not exist, although the idea had been developing for centuries before. In the Middle Ages, storytelling was oral. Instead of readers, there were hearers; discourses and contributions were mostly anonymous. Then, letter writing became a skill, a profession. Moreover, with the print revolution and the advent of copyright law, the ideas of individual authenticity became more rooted in society. When capitalism established itself as a cultural and economic view, individualism and bourgeois culture affirmed themselves, thereby cultivating the ideal ground for the blossoming of authorship. That’s when critics started to emphasize the creative project as an individual enterprise.

However, isn’t writing often a collaborative endeavor where external influences don’t appear in the records?

Think of how a book is conceived and produced: it rarely results from the work of one person alone. First, there is the research, for which the author often seeks external support; indeed, real life is frequently used as inspiration (this reminds me, for instance, of how straightforwardly Truman Capote turned his network of friends into literary material), though some solitary writing might still take place. Next, the copy will be revised, reworked, and edited several times before it’s ready to be published. More and more people intervene in its creation, even though the work appears under just one name.

Ghostwriting is the counterpart to authorship; in fact, it can represent the sublime prerequisite of its existence, for a ghostwriter creates an author. If the idea of authorship hadn’t become so powerful in defining the legacy of a public person, the ghostwriter wouldn’t have a reason to exist. However, as occasional transparency infiltrates the ghostwriting world through open acknowledgments of their contribution, unprecedented light is shed on the intrinsic collaborative nature of writing a book on behalf of somebody else. Admitting the existence of a ghostwriter defeats the purpose of having one, critics retort. Readership is as culturally biased as authorship, and it craves for one unique voice, not a multiplicity of voices.

Winners and losers of traditional authorship

Of course, plots don’t unfold that easily. If authorship appears to be persisting regardless, it is also because it protects the agency of the artist and her intellectual property. Writers across the globe claim their right to authorship; likewise, authors from minoritized groups attempt to penetrate the publishing industry and obtain artistic legacy. Just because (white male?) postmodern scholars have decided to deconstruct the concept shouldn’t mean that other groups should not leverage authorship as a tool for empowerment. To this extent, authorship carries a political dimension worth defending.

Yet the truth is that few writers can live off their creative efforts, no matter the community they belong to or their political agenda. Often, successful authors benefit from the recognition they have gained within their main professional field. Celebrity authors are a minority. Some enjoy their status, while others, like Elena Ferrante, have been trying to escape the limelight for decades. In a 2015 interview with The Paris Review, she remarks:

“I’m still very interested in testifying against the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media. This demand for self-promotion diminishes the actual work in every sector of human activity, and it has become universal. The media simply can’t discuss an artwork unless it can point to some protagonist behind it. And yet there is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence.”

E. Ferrante

Within late capitalism, authorship ends up being caught in systems of privilege and inequality. Digitalization has seen the decline of hard copy sales. Publishers do not support writers with marketing the way they used to. Freelance bidding platforms show the extent to which rates for writers have sunken—and competition is high. Add to this that the self-publishing machine undergoes massive piracy, thereby reducing the chances of unknown writers making money from publication. In addition, the amount of free and relatively high quality content available online is discouraging readers from paying for the words they consume. Not to mention the real legal issue of plagiarism. The social and economic conjuncture worships authorship while simultaneously undermining its foundations. Not really an asset.

Collaborative writing as a viable alternative to authorship

Authorship is dysfunctional in such a lovely way. Over the past decades, nobody has been able to debunk it. It won’t happen anytime soon, because viable alternatives that take the complexity of the issue into account are lacking. But writing practices evolve.

Writing groups give everybody a chance to write. If you have no time to write a novel but you have a great idea, why not team up with other authors and get it done? The Italian collective Wu Ming is one successful example. Their texts get reworked to such an extent that the original version of a specific excerpt becomes irrelevant. Personal writing styles are blurred. This requires a lot of team play, discipline, and mutual understanding. It means abandoning one’s own claims to ownership, one’s ego. But it can work.

Content marketing is another field where authorship is trivial. In fact, content marketers are often ghostwriters for brands. Intellectual property is strongly regulated, meaning that the brand owns every word produced—the brand is the author. But this has one obvious disadvantage: the advertising scope of the writing restrains creative agency. Yet a focus on the actual processes shows that writing content for businesses is a participative endeavor that can inspire writers everywhere.

In a company’s content agenda, different teams collaborate to gather information for specific pieces. For instance, the product department will brainstorm with the marketing unit and the developers to create a booklet on, say, the Internet of Things. Texts will be written by marketing, revised with the help of other departments, and then finally undergo several stages of approval, which are not necessarily embedded in the company hierarchy. Individual production becomes scattered and is quickly shared and edited via collaborative platforms such as Zulip, Slack, or Confluence. Businesses manufacturing complex products are producers of complex knowledge, the elaboration of which needs the joint forces of experts. I know how exciting such projects can be, when guidelines and schedules allow for some creative freedom.

Models and training programs exist for making collaborative writing effective in a corporate environment. Distributing tasks, scheduling deliveries, managing and aligning expectations, and solving conflict are just a few of the requirements of such collaboration.

As a trained academic writer, I went through cultural shock when I entered the field of content marketing. I was looking to express my personal style, my identity as an author, wanting my name at the end of my blogs. However, the accent was on the fact that knowledge production is a collaborative endeavor, not owned by one individual. So are the words to describe that knowledge. My job consisted of producing drafts and making them available for editing, in meetings where experts would improve my technical vocabulary or address issues I hadn’t even considered. Sometimes, topics were drafted in stand-up meetings. The collective effort would make the content credible and lively. It is enthralling to see the transformative path texts take when people with very different backgrounds come together and unlock their creative potential.

Individual authorship affects writing as a creative act. While protecting individual agency and intellectual property, it is also subjected to many constraints—financial as well as cultural. However, every writing project carries a collaborative dimension. Maybe the only difference lies in the final attribution of the intellectual property. Writing groups question the authenticity attached to individualized work. While authorship-intensive industries such as academia seem to be behind the drag curve, the marketing universe can allow for innovation—when collaboration as a company culture is promoted, that is.

Business writing ends up being a gratifying profession for writers, meanwhile also triggering spaces for interesting participative experimentation. The techniques developed in such contexts can, in turn, inspire writers along their personal creative path.

Art is free. As are the modes of its invention, too.

Please get in touch via the contact form for more information about my copywriting and ghostwriting services.

Anthropology and development

A feel-good essay

Originally published in anthropologies. A Collaborative Online Project. A. Diz, F. Radenbach, S. Rossignoli. 2012.

Development is dead

Or at least whatever it was we used to call development is on the way out. Post-hegemonic America and Europe are no longer the sole sources of aid to a so-called developing world. According to a recent article in The Economist, China is closing in on the US as the world’s main donor – Brazil, India and Saudi Arabia are also increasingly big players. Of course, the statistics do not tell the full story, particularly when the distinction between aid and trade is not always clear. But the fact remains that the world of development is hardly what it used to be back in the heady days of America’s Marshall Plan.

Consider China’s growing role in development. Looming on the horizon as the next super-power and already supplanting the US as key trade partner in many parts of the world, the role of China in development is challenging the rules of the aid game. In 10 years, China has achieved some of the economic development goals that Western aid has not been able to accomplish in 50 years. It could be objected that the trade of oil and minerals for loans, railways, hospitals and roads is a purely self-interested exchange, but the fact that China has framed its relations with developing countries as collaborative south-south alliances (e.g. Westad 2002, 162) dispels some local fears of neo-colonial domination. Given its own history, China can present itself to its new benefactors as an exemplary case of rags-to-riches(-and power) success while fostering apparently reciprocal, bilateral relationships. From the perspective of the beneficiaries, Chinas has not made its aid conditional on any ideologically-based reforms. Of course, this is not to say that Chinese development is bereft of problems. Reports of corruption, environmental damage, lack of transparency and harsh labor conditions are common. Just like Western development, the extent to which Chinese development is purely altruistic is debatable – natural resources flow in one direction, and the new infrastructure often serves the purpose of accelerating this unidirectional flow.

At any rate, one of the main consequences of the new competition over potential aid recipients is that there is no longer a monopoly over the supply and distribution of aid, nor over the way development projects are implemented on the ground. There is no question that, at least in some places, China’s new development regime is creating beneficial opportunities for the developing world. For instance, when the world’s copper prices slumped by 60% at the end of 2008, the presence of Chinese investment maintained local employment in Zambia’s mines. Additionally, local politicians are increasingly able to play off different donors against each other in order to reach more favorable deals. We’re not yet in a position to judge exactly what the changes on the ground will be, but there can be little doubt that the new development actors have the potential to create considerable social change.
Given this swiftly changing context, the world of development is increasingly fertile ground for anthropologists seeking to engage with the public sphere in creative ways. Here are two ways that we think anthropology can be put to good use:

As new development regimes change people’s lives in unexpected directions, anthropology can help us understand how this situation creates opportunities for positive social change 

Many anthropologists will argue that they should remain as skeptical and critical of these neo-imperial projects as they were of the older ones. If nothing else, the shifts in the development field are sure to bring about a host of new problems.
But there are also new possibilities. Ethnographic fieldwork is ideally situated to capture not only the harmful aspects of new development regimes but also the opportunities for social creativity that may arise as the “ancient régime” crumbles. Fieldwork lets us delve into the cracks and work at the interstices, revealing how development creates new aspects of social life as much as it destroys and dominates others.

For too long perhaps, anthropologists have smugly preached the idea that development is just an extension of neo-colonialism. Some of the most renowned anthropological works on Western development have made this point with the aid of post-structuralist theories, particularly Foucault’s. Most famously perhaps, Ferguson has shown how development discourse is deployed in such a way that poverty becomes a developmental rather than a political concern that reinforces and extends bureaucratic state power (1990). Speaking on a global scale, Arturo Escobar analyzed Western development discourse and its egregious effects on the Third World (Escobar 1984) while feminist scholars have criticized the iconic images of women that development projects convey (Cornwall, Harrison, Whitehead 2007).

Unfortunately, the anthropological tendency to look for domination in development has left out the other side of the Foucauldean coin, namely, the positive aspects that the practice of power contains. Later in his life, Foucault became concerned with “ethical projects: projects to make oneself a certain of person” (Laidlaw 2002, 322). For instance, in “Friendship as a way of life” (1997), Foucault encouraged his readers to discover the potential for new forms of sociality that have not even been discovered as a way of enhancing mutual responsibility and respect. Based on a close examination of socio-historical data, Foucault’s technologies of the self can actually be taken as a method for exploring new ways of understanding and conceiving of society.

Based on the ethnographic record, we should use our knowledge to propose alternative solutions to persistent social problems 

If we extend the case of anthropology’s selective appropriation of Foucault to the anthropological project as a whole, we might say that simply denouncing and lambasting development actually cuts anthropology short of its full potential. Tellingly, Harry Walker recently observed in a review of anarchist anthropology that, “anthropology has an important role to play in revealing the diversity of existing worlds in the service of conceiving alternatives”. Some of the most stunning discoveries that anthropologists have made are stunning not simply because they’re theoretically sophisticated, but also because people in this world actually do them. In other words, we are all capable of leading different lives and creating different societies.
With that in mind here are a few thought experiments for those of you that are so inclined – what might happen if we tried to think of a microfinance project that made use of Marilyn Strathern’s idea of the partible person? What can Janet Carsten’s ideas on relatedness and kinship tell us about the Heifer project? How can Eduardo Viveiro de Castro’s description of perspectival societies in Amazonia inform development projects concerning environmental concerns?

In sum, few disciplines have the ability to produce nuanced, subtle and profound accounts of real, flesh-and-blood, social alternatives in the way that anthropology does. We lose too much when we dismiss development as wrong-headed utopianism or intentional neo-colonialism. This is not to say that anthropologists should not criticize power imbalances and the darker sides of the development Death Star, but perhaps it would be advantageous for all concerned if anthropologists took as close a look at the productive sides of social change and power as they do to its negative ones.

Development is anthropologically problematic – it challenges the relativism that many of us would uphold from the safety of our offices even as it holds forth an ethical program that many of us might actually feel comfortable supporting. How should anthropologists feel about supporting campaigns against female genital cutting? Perhaps the very complexity of this type of question leads us as anthropologists to a sort of paralysis – caught, as we are, between a universalizing discourse we’ve been trained to denounce and an often-times stifling ability to look at things from the native’s point of view. Perhaps the question worth asking, then, is whether there will ever be room for an emic view of development to emerge, or is development necessarily a project that concerns alienable “others”?

In the first issue of this blog Ryan Anderson wrote of anthropologists that, “we are mired in the past, slogging through stereotypes, and ridiculously misrepresented. And it’s our own fault, mostly because we have refrained from public debate and conversation for some reason or another”. If this essay has digressed into the murky waters of post-structural theory, it has done so with the intent of reminding us that anthropologists have the analytical tools and ethnographic knowledge to engage with pressing public matters in creative ways. That development can and should often be criticized is a valid point. But it is disappointing to many anthropologists, and frustrating to most everyone else, that we’ve been extremely loathe to think of, let alone talk about, alternatives.

As our world rushes into a new century, one where many of our assumptions about the way things should be are beginning to unravel, it may be worth thinking about why we got into anthropology in the first place and what we might be able to offer everyone else.

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