Conversation stimulates creative thinking. Verbalizing ideas in a social context causes ideas to be flipped around, and looked at from different perspectives. Joking around can actually be a very positive factor. Playful conversation sparks creativity. Creativity happens when ideas are challenged and things are put together in new ways.
Something happens when we express ideas with language. We have to find the words to describe what we are thinking, and that act helps clarify our ideas. It is usually one of the first steps that we go through when we take an idea from our imaginations and implement it in the real world. Sometimes verbalizing an idea helps us see the idea more clearly and objectively. There have been times when I have an idea brewing in my imagination, but the moment I start to tell someone about it, I can immediately sense certain strengths and weaknesses that were not apparent when it was just thoughts inside my mind. When that happens, I usually re-state the idea with a different set of words that reflect those new insights - and this process can go on and on. Converting ideas into language makes them stronger.
Something else happens with ideas when we have someone respond to what we have said. Sometimes we find ourselves needing a better way to articulate the ideas in our heads, and sometimes, we find our ideas being questioned or challenged. All of those factors trigger our brains to flip the ideas around inside our imagination to be able to respond to that conversation. That flipping around of ideas is almost like magic. Incorporating someone else's perspectives into our thinking is like a high-speed prototyping and testing process. It also has the advantage of shaking us out of any ruts that might be in our thinking that may be preventing us from seeing better ideas. One idea ignites another. Half-baked ideas can suddenly become whole when exposed to someone else's thinking.
Extremely valuable conversations can also begin around a topic rather than an idea. At one of the early TED Conferences, I remember one of the speakers telling how a copier company had improved maintenance for their customers' machines by stimulating conversation between the service technicians. The company created opportunities for the service technicians to congregate on a casual basis, and they started to share stories with each other about how they solved various problems in the field. The result was a dramatic improvement in their maintenance capabilities.
Plan or build opportunities for these kinds of conversations to take place. Provide areas in the workspace where people can easily congregate and talk about the work they are doing. Schedule events that stimulate the conversation. For example, at Pittard Sullivan, every Tuesday we served a light lunch in one of the several open meeting areas around our office. I would prepare a relevant topic in advance and get the conversation started, then everyone would join in and I would take a back seat to the conversation. Since we worked in the media and entertainment business, there was always something deeply relevant and interesting to talk about. These sessions were open to the whole company and attendance was voluntary. It was a very popular event with active participation from every level of the company. The conversations could be heard to continue throughout the company for days or weeks. The design of our workspace and the fact that we deliberately nurtured conversations about our work became a part of our culture and spread on its own.
A disciplinarian might worry about too much casual conversation diverting the energies of a team, but in a healthy creative environment, the participants naturally find a balance on their own between casual and focused conversation. Top-down attempts to quash off-topic conversation can actually chill the whole process. It's okay to occasionally re-focus conversations, but spontaneous off-topic conversations are a necessary part of loosening up people's minds to let ideas flow. The randomness of off-topic conversation actually stimulates new thinking about more relevant topics. Creativity is about putting things together in new ways, and randomly introduced elements can bring about all sorts of wonderful new ideas.
Great conversation has more to do with active listening than talking. I used to say "two ears, one mouth, use them in that proportion," but the proportion should actually be more extreme than that. If you want some great views about active listening, pick up my friend Mark Goulston's outstanding new book Just Listen.
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