Document Templates Kill Creativity

Over the last few months I have observed a number of projects proceed badly because of the early use of templates in the process. Yet we think having a template is much better than having a blank page to start with.

Unfortunately starting with the template tends to kill creativity.

An Experiment:

As an experiment I ran two training groups through a rapid fire 80 minute product development process that included:

  • idea generation,
  • a mini business case,
  • persona development and user requirements,
  • product design,
  • and a marketing pitch.

The idea was also passed between 3 different teams who had to learn quickly how to work with each other.

In the first session there were no templates. Just blank sheets of paper and Post-It’s. In the second session I had prepared a printed template with exactly the same questions to be answered that I handed to each team.

Observations:

The results were fascinating.

Session 1: In the first session the teams worked fast and were very creative. When it was time to pass their work to the next team their ‘artifacts’ of communication were adhoc and unclear. At each changeover more information was being left behind with the previous teams and more assumptions were being made by the next team. Yet the ideas were being developed fast, and within the time that was allocated. The teams were also happy to settle for good enough rather than completeness.

Session 2: By contrast the second session that had a template available suddenly made this the focus of their attention. It took them longer to start writing because they needed the template to be ‘right’ and hesitated over writing anything that might be ‘wrong’. They began to run over time and their ability to collaborate seemed to be hampered. On the plus side the templates did provide a consistency of communication. The documents were easy to pass around and share, with nothing getting left behind and fewer incorrect assumptions being made.

Insights:

  1. Starting with a template killed the creativity and brainstorming effectiveness. People felt the need to get the contents of the template RIGHT and would avoid writing anything that risk writing the WRONG thing.
  2. The use of the template was very effective at ensuring that all of the required information was kept together and shared with other teams. Very little information was left behind.
  3. The most effective process would need to combine elements of both of these approaches. It must start away from the structured template to allow creativity, yet before the efforts are communicated there must be some structured way of gathering the information so that all layers of the creative and product development thinking are shared.

To do this effectively requires discipline and practice. Both of these factors tend to go straight out the window whenever there is time pressure.

Templates are useful but they need to be used as a tool to help capture ideas, insights and other forms of information that have already been considered. A more effective tool is a checklist that helps ensure that all of the necessary elements at a particular stage have been considered.

Let ideas flow freely and then impose structure to communicate them clearly. This may seem like extra work and it is to begin with but it is a relatively small investment in time and resources that will save a lot of time later. By separating the creative thinking process from the documentation process you will quickly generate the most valuable ideas which you can then capture in a way that you can use as a reference over and over again.

How do you use templates. What works for you and what doesn’t. Share your experiences in the comments below.