(and other secrets for successful design teams)

By Patric Hedlund
April 1999

It was grim. The frayed edges of professional courtesy were rapidly unraveling.

We were into the ninth hour of a marathon four-day charette to design an exhibition plan for the entire third floor of a major new museum project.

Academicians, artists, educators and psychologists from around the country had been flown in and randomly assigned to three independent teams. Each team of guest curators was given a separate conference room and told they had 80 hours to conceive and submit their most competitive design proposals.

No iIndividuals on any of the teams had ever worked together before. There were no pre-designated leaders. We were a collection of diverse individuals with remarkably different backgrounds and temperaments.

The only thing we knew we had in common was a shared passion for the subject of human creativity. Part of the challenge was to invent our own working process. I was assigned to Team Three.

By hour ten, personality conflicts within Team Three had slashed our early enthusiasm into bloody shreds of loathing.

HE was an academic cognitive psychologist who had written three scholarly tomes on the subject of creativity. Analysis, classification and hierarchy were his gods. He liked flip charts and lists. It was his habit to be in charge. He tended to perceive others in terms of their potential to challenge his authority.

SHE accused him of letting his love for taxonomy blind him to the dynamics of the creative experience itself.

He couldn't hear her and didn't think there was much worth listening to. She was just a clinical psychologist whose book on creativity for school teachers was filled with pictures and touchy-feeley exercises. Besides, she was eight months pregnant. Not a contender. Hormonally disqualified and overly impressed with chaos theory.

He assessed the other members of Team Three: a twenty-something graphic artist from Australia who believed that Star Trek Deep Space Nine was channeling extraterrestrial higher truths to unenlightened earthlings; an older gent with the watchful patience of a Quaker at meeting who hadn't spoken three sentences all day; a freckle-faced woman whose passion was gardens (Gardens? How did she sneak in here and what could gardens possibly have to do with creativity?); and a wild blonde cyberartist in jeans and cowboy boots who talked about brainwaves and mind music (which, I admit, is how he described me).

What was a responsible professor to do? Being associated with such people could jeopardize his career!

We tortured ourselves trying to find common ground long after night had scribbled the windows dark. By 9:00 PM we gave up. Our leave-taking was barely civil.

In the morning our hosts called all groups together to give a progress report. Team Three looked at each other in panic and disgust. We had nothing to report! The other two groups now had a major head start on us. This was a nightmare. We were about to publicly humiliate ourselves in front of respected colleagues. Team Three filed dismally into the larger meeting room, eyes pegged to the floor, silently furious with one another. Team One was asked to speak first.

Their spokesman was a charming elder of the field, an aggressive, impressive raconteur from New York with encyclopedic stories of creativity research. Usually boisterous and talkative, he was oddly subdued, scrutinizing his knuckles. He stood slowly, inhaled, squared his shoulders, shifted his gaze to a fascinating fire sprinkler on the ceiling, and said bluntly: "Team One has spent the entire first day fighting. We are still chasing our tail around in circles arguing about how to begin."

Team Two leapt to their feet to give Team One a spontaneous standing ovation. They too had burned a full day mired in personality conflicts.

Arc lightening exploded up my spine. The clinical psychologist gasped. Our sci-fi fan and the somber Quaker started to grin. Our Team Three professor fell off his chair. We all burst into laughter, rolling and bumping against each other until our stomach muscles cramped, gasping and choking with tears running down our cheeks.

Over 35 years ago Arthur Koestler coined the word "bisociation"(1) to refer to the abrupt explosions associated with laughter that can pop thinking out of a single plane into entirely new multidimensional matrices.

More than a decade ago Norman Cousins turned UCLA Medical School's focus to laughter as a momentary seizure originating in the brain that instantly enlists the involuntary and parasympathetic nervous systems to render torso muscles, the diaphragm and the respiratory system into spasm, stimulating the limbic system to secrete a medley of healthful enzymes.

Laughter crosses wires in a flash of surprise to dispel tension, calm fear and open the desire to trust--all essential for collaborative team-building.

It gets better. Scientific detectives fascinated by the relationship between brain development and the infant's earliest laughter (2) are discovering new respect for the most ancient brain centers nestled beneath the right and left hemispheres of the cerebral cortex, such as the hypothalamus and amygdala(3), which govern emotions, the sense of smell and our complex filing systems for memory.

Perhaps there is substance in the old joke that most the world's problems could be solved rapidly if we all just had one Really Great Lunch each week, defined as one in which someone gets to laughing so hard that beer spurts out his nose.

New research reveals that playful laughter stimulates neural reorganization and even the development of new brain structure.

Imaging systems used by brain researchers track laughter as a kind of short-circuit throwing sparks between formerly unrelated neural pathways. The impulse to laugh--whether triggered by a bushel basket full of frisky puppies or Team Three's abrupt situational insight--is a holographic multipoint excitor of sudden chaotic associations between fields of formerly unassociated neurons, triggering growth of dendritic extensions, stimulating neuroreceptors and pumping neurotransmitters into new circuitry.

In a fraction of a nanosecond, Team Three's laughter transformed us into a brilliant working team eager to create a masterpiece together. We traded posturing and positioning for generosity, respect and humor, alternating between raucous brainstorming and careful attention to each member's ideas. The stubborn diversity that had blocked us earlier now became our engine for productivity.

By our next report to the larger group, we'd learned to tap into the true power of synergy, using points of friction to ignite surprising fireworks of creative insight. (We'd also learned that carrot juice and jasmine tea are equally volatile in a Really Great Lunch).

Our extraordinary work was a source of tremendous pride to us, and an inspiration to others. Laughter, we'd discovered, is not a bad way to start a friendship, and the only way to start a demanding collaborative task.


(1) Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964.

(2) Schore, Alan. Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development. New Jersey and Britain: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994.

(3) Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.

Patric Hedlund is an applied media anthropologist who creates immersion experiences to facilitate team problem-solving, currently working on a film about creativity and the brain. She wishes to thank Jay Rounds for his droll wit, along with Art & Nature curator Tricia Watts and Dr.Terry Marks-Tarlow for access to their memories of events reported here.

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