Theme of this week’s podcast: Creativity in the workplace

This episode is a case study of the Daily Show, and how they come up with ideas for their shows. Adam Grant focuses on the writer’s room, and how they come up with creative content week after week.

[Check out our review of Episode 1 if you missed it!]


Key Takeaways

What is the first thing we think of when we think of creativity?

We think brainstorming, right? You get a group of people together and come up with ideas.

That doesn’t really work in most cases, though.

But why?

“First, people silence themselves because they’re afraid of looking stupid. Second, some people silence others by dominating the conversation. And third, everyone just supports the boss’s favorite idea.”

When talking to the staff at The Daily Show, Adam noticed something was different.

He noticed that the room was full of creative bursts. Psychologists actually have a term for that; it’s called burstiness.

What is burstiness?

“Burstiness is like the best moments in improv jazz. Someone plays a note, someone else jumps in with a harmony, and pretty soon, you have a collective sound that no one planned. Most groups never get to that point, but you know burstiness when you see it. At The Daily Show, the room just literally sounds like it’s bursting with ideas.”

Psychologists understand burstiness as a pattern of how rapidly we’re taking turns in conversation and interrupting each other. (Grant, 2018)

Studies have found that the most innovative and productive teams were bursty.

What are the ideal conditions for ‘burstiness’?

Psychological safety

Coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is

“a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

Basically, it’s where you can take risks without feeling afraid.

Without that sense of safety, creative bursts don’t happen, because people censor themselves.

Warning: Building psychological safety takes time. It’s sort of like trust.

How is psychological safety built?

  • Welcome criticism:

    “If you’ve ever brainstormed, you know you’re supposed to put criticism on hold. Let every thought fly. There’s no such thing as a bad idea. But actually, that’s a bad idea. It turns out that people are more creative in groups where criticism is welcomed. It raises the bar. Psychological safety doesn’t mean that everything is all warm and fuzzy. You still need to have standards.” (Grant, 2018)

  • Create a space where people feel like they can be open without a threat of being made fun of or reprimanded; where they feel comfortable laughing at themselves; where you always know that there’s going to be someone else to help you out.

Not having to worry about who is secretly judging you, or wondering what you can or cannot say, or feeling like you need to conform to the majority opinion of the group, is precisely what frees us up for creative bursts.

A proper balance of structure

Why structure?

“If you agree together on some rules for when and how to work, you can focus all your energy on doing the work.”

The Daily Show has built task bubbles into each day.

What’s a task bubble?

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

“So think of a time when you’ve walked into a meeting and tried to jump into the discussion, but you couldn’t. It felt kind of like there was a force field that you just bounced off of. That’s a task bubble, where people are totally absorbed in a common project. It keeps the group focused. That way, everyone can build on each other’s ideas and bursts. Task bubbles give the writers and producers the space they need to hone and refine their ideas. Without these protected hours for collaboration, they’d all be working at different times, out of sync.” (Grant, 2018)

You need the right mix of people in the room

  • We know we’re notoriously bad at judging others, especially in the context of work. So what can we do?
    We can try to remove bias from our selection process.
    Ideas: blind auditions, multiple interviewers
  • Invite diversity:

“Diverse backgrounds and perspectives help with creative bursts, but we don’t always realize it. When everyone in a group is the same race, they do worse at creative problem-solving but they think they do better, because they’re more comfortable. Diverse groups are more creative. It’s not just because they have access to a wider range of ideas. They feel more uncomfortable, and that discomfort motivates them to do extra preparation and share new information.” (Grant, 2018)

Spend time with one another

The most important element in raising the level of creativity of your team is the time members spend getting to know each other. The more time we spend with one another, the greater the likelihood of developing bonds that lead to psychological safety.

Questions to think about

Are your teams ‘psychologically safe’? How do you know?
Do people feel psychologically safe around you?

What is your approach to creativity? What do you do if you need your staff to be creative?

Do you have some form of structure in your workplace?

Applications for business

  1. Create the conditions for psychological safety.
    If you’re not sure whether your team members feel psychologically safe, ask them. Here is a great resource for this.
    [Tip: some members may prefer their responses be kept anonymous]
  2. Implement task bubbles
    Task bubbles allow for the unified focusing and complete immersion of your team on one task, which allows for optimal creativity and productivity.
    To do this you will need to set boundaries; when/where you and your team will work, and for how much time. And most importantly, commit to it.
  3. Invite diversity: diversity of all sorts: of race, ethnicity, language, opinions, etc.
    The more diverse your team, the less comfortable each individual will be. The less comfortable each member is, the more likely they will be prompted to do extra preparation and share new information.
  4. Allow your team members to get to know each other; spend time together!


Grant, Adam. “The Daily Show’s Secret to Creativity “. Audio blog post. WorkLife with Adam Grant. TED, March 7th 2018. Itunes App.


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