Science of creativity

Designed by: Barking Productions,
PO Box 597
Bristol BS99 2BB
Phone: 0117 939 3171

The Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) allocates government funding to research by UK universities and other organisations. The engineering team identified a training need in preparation for the forthcoming International Review of Engineering event. Although the team is already a high-performance unit, the staff wanted to enhance their teamworking skills and develop creativity, spontaneity and risk-taking.

The challenge
An important part of the team’s role is to encourage people in the research community to be bold and adventurous in their work, so it was important to nurture these qualities in the team. Developing cohesion and trust was vital to maintaining performance and team spirit as there is a high turnover of team members.

Barking Productions was asked to design and deliver a high-impact event that provided a challenging and creative learning experience.
For the international review to be successful, working together confidently and feeling equipped to respond to the needs of the research community were critical.

Barking Productions is a company of creative trainers and comedy improvisation performers. It believes that people can learn to demonstrate energy, expression and courage and become more creative, spontaneous and confident in taking risks.

Developing these very qualities was the challenge with the EPSRC team. The design of the training was informed by the fact that the team wanted to break new ground. Barking Productions’ work also needed to dovetail with a training day to develop teamworking skills, run by training company JTS, which would take place the day before.

The activities and themes had to reflect the team’s challenges in their day-to-day work and to take people beyond comfort and hierarchy into challenge and growth. Barking Productions designed an event combining: comedy improvisation technique, entertainment, story-telling and film-making in the form of a 24-hour film challenge entitled ‘A Journey to Find the Elixir of Creativity within the Realms of Scientific Research’.

Exercises included dealing with the restrictions and demands of time, budget and stakeholders. Participants had to maintain creativity in the midst of pressure and practical concerns. There were multiple relationships to negotiate and new skills to learn in limited time. Film was provided to give the training a creative medium, so participants were taken outside their working boundaries with the added benefit of producing a tangible output.

To maximise learning, we built in a review process to explore team dynamics and ways of linking their experiences to the workplace and the international review.

Barking Productions began with a performance of its comedy improvisation show. This gave delegates the opportunity to buy-in to the style and to see people acting spontaneously, taking risks and at times making mistakes while providing them with an entertaining experience.

To begin the story-telling process, participants took part in exercises to lose inhibitions, teach them trust their instincts and work together to generate a narrative.

The next 24 hours were devoted to the film challenge. The team was split into two groups and given their brief. Each team was required to create a storyboard outlining the development of their story, allocate people to play different roles, find suitable locations, create costumes and sets and then shoot the film. Unexpected challenges were thrown in to mirror real-life problems.

The teams were also provided with professional film production and editing assistance for the second day. The teams set about their challenge with immense energy and creative enthusiasm to realise their films, both of which were very successful.

The training is being evaluated at a number of levels. A review session was built into the event – including time for action planning – and this was developed at a team meeting two weeks later. A final evaluation was planned for early December when the international review was completed.

In addition, attendees were asked to develop personal learning plans for discussion with their team leader.

The immediate response to the event was very positive. Participants found it to be very effective in terms of strengthening the team and clarifying their roles and positions within it. It has helped to energise the team and generated a feeling of acceptance and trust.

People commented on how valuable it was to work with colleagues in a different setting, losing inhibitions and often being stretched to work outside their ‘comfort zones’.

Verdict: A truly memorable event
This was a highly successful event, which has become enshrined in the folklore of the EPSRC team.

Barking Productions is skilled in keeping energy levels high, enabling participants to feel confident about stretching themselves. Staff returned to work having learned a lot about themselves and their colleagues, and with learning points that they could put into practice immediately.

  • Relevance to business * * * *
  • Impact on the team * * * * *
  • Value for money * * * *
  • Novelty of approach and design * * * * * 
  • Quality of the trainers * * * *

Key: * -disappointing; * * * * * = e xcellent

Comments on design and delivery by Neil Bett and Chris Grimes, creative directors of Barking Productions

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