The Cohort is Poynter's bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.
Last weekend, I went to a peanut-butter-and-jelly-themed birthday party. It was a party for a 30-year-old, not a child, but that’s beside the point. What was notable is that guests were tasked with bringing foods inspired by the classic sandwich, and they went above and beyond. People brought homemade peanut-butter-and-jelly-inspired noodles, tapioca, baked brie, tofu skewers and meatballs. Someone made a cake that looked like a giant sandwich. Another guest brewed a peanut butter-flavored beer. There was even a PB&J take on a sandwich that Hemingway famously loved.
If guests were directed to bring something — anything — we would have likely been eating loads of chips and a random assortment of Trader Joes’ best appetizers. But thanks to the PB&J theme, everyone’s culinary creativity shined. That’s because of one simple rule: People are at their most creative when you give them boundaries.
Creativity within boundaries is a lesson I’ve applied many times over the years. It’s something I’m low-key obsessed with, in part because I believe creativity is crucial in the workplace. Being a creative person who can lead creative teams is one of the most effective ways to stand out at work. And if you’re someone who regularly offers up creative solutions to problems and executes on those ideas? Damn. You deserve a promotion.
In the journalism industry, we find ourselves strapped for resources — there’s finite time, manpower and money to work with — and in dire need for fresh ideas and approaches. Thankfully, those limited resources can help, not hurt, creativity. “Although ‘creative constraint’ sounds like an oxymoron, one way to spark creative action is to constrain it,” write Tom and David Kelley in Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All. “Given a choice, most of us would of course prefer a little more budget, a little more staff, and a little more time. But constraints can spur creativity and incite action, as long as you have the confidence to embrace them.”
It’s tempting to view creativity as a nice-to-have, but we can’t wait until the news slows down or that replacement writer is hired. The journalism industry needs new approaches to storytelling, fresh ideas around organizational structure and workflow, and bold experiments in revenue streams. On a smaller level, creativity is core to team morale and job enthusiasm, things some of us might be lacking. Creativity is good for us, our teams and our audiences.
So let’s pledge to get off the breaking news treadmill and block off time for a (productive) brainstorm meeting. Look for ways to make sure that everyone gets a shot at innovative projects, not just the lucky folks on the enterprise team. Put a whiteboard in the breakroom with a simple prompt to get people thinking outside the box.
You never know what people will come up with. I’m still dreaming about that French toast sandwich with Nutella and strawberry compote.
Things worth reading
Meet the women leading diversity coverage for NBC News. I love this honesty: “ I think everyone makes it look easy when they have a good job or are wearing nice shoes, but anyone who wants to work in journalism has downs and ups, and we don’t want to talk about the downs as much as we should.” There’s no shortage of women in journalism schools, but newsrooms are a different story. Bravo to Hearken for figuring out a hiring process that works and sharing it with others. And this profile of Lisa Ling is great, especially on how she balances traveling and parenting (spoiler alert: it’s not easy).
Karyn Lu, 37, was one of the first people I met during my early years at CNN. She was exactly the kind of smart yet approachable colleague you’d hope to work with, someone who helped you realize your potential while also gently giving you guidance on how to make your work even better. We’ve since had diverging career paths, but have kept in touch. Most recently, we collaborated on Poynter’s Fun at Work Week.
Lu recently moved to Denver and just started a job this week as the director of digital experience at a software company called Four Winds Interactive. “I get to work with a fantastic team of designers and developers in a new role that's part culture czar, part research fanatic and part people captain,” she explained. We chatted over email about she approaches creativity in the workplace. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
We’ve known each other a long time! And during that time you’ve consistently been one of the most creative people I know. How do you keep your creative spark alive, especially at work?
Thanks so much! I think creativity really requires bringing your whole self to the table. I'm of the mind that inspiration (for work or otherwise) can come from literally anywhere, so I'm kind of a perpetual hoarder of tidbits of stuff that light me up. I like to start my day by scanning a pretty diverse set of feeds because I'm very fascinated by the way everything converges & connects, from fashion to urban design to health tech. All of the FastCompany newsletters are terrific brain food. PSFK and Pop-Up City are other resources I like. If I see a fun idea I can somehow adapt for my own routine or workplace, I'll try it. At the office, I definitely draw creative energy from others — or a better way to put that is I think creative energy compounds when you make time to be around other curious, kindred people. Afternoon coffee walks around the block are a lovely thing.
What advice do you have for leaders who are managing people who don’t see themselves as creative? Are there ways to tap into people’s unexplored creative sides?
I really think everyone is creative in different ways and probably more often than they realize. Tasks like problem solving or brainstorming or even data analysis — which we all do at work — are inherently creative. I can recommend a couple of books to stimulate out-of-the-box creative thinking: "Play Anything" by Ian Bogost and "Steal Like An Artist" by Austin Kleon are both fantastic. Encourage folks to attend events like Creative Mornings or Startup Week or Maker Faire. When you go to a conference for work, pop into a session that has (at first blush) absolutely nothing to do with what you do for work. You'd be surprised at the lightbulb moments you can translate into your own world.
There’s a lot of talk about the journalism industry needing fresh ideas and innovation, which means newsrooms need to be spaces where creativity can thrive. What are some creativity killers that newsroom leaders should watch out for?
Some of the most creative people I know come from newsrooms! Journalists are pros at looking at things in different ways and at connecting the dots, which is what creativity and innovation are all about. I think creativity killers in newsrooms are the same as in other environments — bad organizational or team culture, uninspiring or poorly lit physical spaces, lack of diversity and flexibility all come to mind. Again, I think it's important to help employees feel they can bring their whole selves to work. Newsrooms can be pretty intense, but there are lots of easy (and cheap) ways to brighten up a newsroom, shake up routines and improve culture.
You’re a self-described “play expert.” Can play and work really coexist? What are the benefits of play in the workplace?
YES! Not only CAN work and play really coexist, I would argue they MUST. There is plenty of science to support the fact that play lies at the heart of creativity and innovation. I can point you to research from the fields of positive psychology, neuroscience and management studies that say happiness fuels performance & achievement — but doesn't it make perfect sense that happier people make better employees? There's good reason why companies like Google do things like build giant slides in their offices. Of course, not everyone can do that, but there are hundreds of more grassroots, shoestring ways to cultivate a playful workplace. For inspiration, I'm working to compile a lot of those examples into a handy illustrated guide called "The Play Book" (happy to share with anyone who would like to talk about this further). Happily, for anyone who needs the ammunition, there's a growing body of research to support the idea of playing at work. Play keeps you functional under stress, encourages teamwork, makes you more flexible and resilient, helps you see problems in new ways — the benefits go on. One of my favorite studies shows that a playful workforce that feels young at heart can positively impact a company's bottom line. Here's the trick: We simply have to remember how to play and give ourselves permission to do it again as adults.
Ideas are only as good as their execution. What tips do you have to actually make ideas happen?
Whenever possible, ask for forgiveness rather than permission. It's too easy for people to say no, so use common sense and don't be afraid to take a few calculated risks. If you have an idea and a hunch that it's a good one, the most important thing is to stop talking about it and just do it (or break it into smaller chunks and do the first step ASAP). Don't overthink or over-plan — it's far better to try something quickly, learn from that and move on to the next thing. Also, don't be precious with your ideas! It's a great tactic to practice talking about them out loud. Not only will you hold yourself more accountable, but when you put something out into the world, people become your advocates in unexpected ways and the universe really does conspire to help you.
You’ve carved out a unique work path over the years and you’ve just started a new job in Denver. How do you make decisions about when a job is a good fit for you?
Job-wise, I'm pretty comfortable not knowing what's next — as we keep inventing new jobs all the time — but I do have a lot of faith that the next thing always emerges when the time is right. I look for managers who are also mentors, who will trust me to try new things and learn a lot along the way. And I look for an environment where my colleagues are diverse but kindred. I talk a lot about looking for a light in someone's eyes. Over the years I've learned to trust my gut on when something feels right, even if the step beyond that isn't immediately clear.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Career and creativity-wise, I think it is so, so important for women to support, mentor & celebrate one another. This is something I feel very passionately about. I keep working for women who inspire me, and that's never led me astray. I love seeing networks like SheSays, InHerSight, Ladies Get Paid and PowerToFly pop up. This newsletter is another wonderful example (thanks, Katie!). Speaking of building tribes, I'm new to Denver and craving community terribly. If any of your readership is based in the Denver/Boulder area, I'd sure love to connect in person!
Enjoy this newsletter? Tell your friends and coworkers.
The Cohort is part of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. Props to Kristen Hare, who edits this newsletter and leaves me surprise Post-It notes when I need them most.