Creativity In The Age Of Covid
If there is anything I have come to understand in 20 years running a consultancy that helps organizations with people skills, it is that people struggle with collaboration and creativity. Since March 2020, these challenges have been amplified by distance, technology and a lack of in-person connection. However, challenges are meant to be overcome, and when I think about those who are leading by example, I think of people creating comedy on TV. Unlike most businesspeople, TV comedians are judged regularly, instantly and publicly. Yet they are forced to produce content – it is their job. So, how do they do it? What are their best practices for success?
To crack the creativity code in the age of Covid, I sat down with The Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper. I’ve known Jordan since the early 2000s – our improv days in Chicago. Jordan has been in a perpetual state of collaboration and creativity, all throughout this pandemic. In fact, as an outcome of his creative output, Jordan was nominated for a 2021 Emmy for Outstanding Writing For A Variety Special – 2021 for his amazing work in The Daily Show With Trevor Noah Presents: Jordan Klepper Fingers The Pulse – Into The MAGAverse. So, who better to chat with about collaboration and creativity than an expert like Jordan?
Bob Kulhan: Alright, Jordan – creativity, collaboration and Covid. What has this pandemic been like for you?
Jordan Klepper: It’s been a strange time. It’s been a time that’s been focused on adaptability. There are different rules now, than pre-Covid. How do we work within those new rules? How do we be creative within those new rules? Also, how can we focus on what is most important and what you actually care about? It’s been a time of upheaval, and there’s also been some hope that’s snuck in here and there.
Kulhan: Hope is absolutely something that everybody needs more of. With so much unrest and upheaval throughout this pandemic, at what point did you say, “Okay. I’ve got to find funny? I’ve got to be creative?” How are you creative in this time?
Klepper: I think survival instinct kicks in pretty quick. The job I was doing was going out on the road as a correspondent for The Daily Show and that all got shut down. And like the rest of the world, I was forced to work from home. So, the question became, “How can we do that?”, and immediately, we rewrote the rules. Trevor Noah and The Daily Show’s amazing execs had to create and produce a show from home.
Before March 2020, I’d never heard of Zoom, and suddenly, this became the way in which we get interviews, shoot segments, and create content. It’s like, all right, now jump in, make some television out of it. At first it was crude, and then, you start to get the hang of it. You’re like, “All right. I’m learning these tools. I understand what’s working from a creative space.” The rules of what is funny out and about are different than what is funny on Zoom. So you start to adapt the way you think about pieces; the way you pitch pieces; the way you write pieces; the way you edit pieces. We were forced to birth something new (a late-night show). It wasn’t easy, but what choice did we have? We needed to figure out how to thrive within tight restrictions. As you know, Bob, we come from the improv world. And that improv world, I think, benefits from restrictions. It’s a fallacy that freedom to do anything is the ultimate goal. To me, that’s frightening.
Kulhan: Yes, many people think that improv is all about “making something up out
of nothing” and that is not true. Improvisation is about making something up out of everything and thriving within restrictions.
Klepper: I think creativity comes from that idea of restrictions. In improv, the last thing is do whatever you want. I’d rather somebody say, “Do whatever you want, but make it rhyme. Do whatever you want with your hand behind your back.”
Kulhan: In this case, it’s been do whatever you want and do it from your home, collaboratively, with your teammates, on Zoom.
Klepper: Yeah, a brain trained in improvisation doesn’t freeze because the world presented crazy challenges. Immediately, a brain trained in improv goes into problem solving mode. And I think that is true in situations like this, where it’s like, “All right. If we’re moving forward, if we think it’s okay and safe for us to create something in this time, what are the restrictions and how do we succeed?” Let’s get creative and figure out how to make this work, and from that, we’re going to find something fun and new.
Kulhan: You hit it right on the head. Structure is needed. You need restrictions to find that thing that’s really creative. Otherwise, without structure, it turns into The Choice Paradox, and we can’t get anything done.
Klepper: That’s it, 100%. Narrow it down. Take choices off the table. I welcome that, I want the ability to explore, and there’s paralysis as soon as you add an abundance of choices. The paradox of choice.
Kulhan: Many of us will need to communicate, collaborate, ideate and innovate at a high level in this virtual world going forward. Walk us through your transition from working as an on-site team with The Daily Show to working as a virtual team.
Klepper: It used to be a luxury to have 20 people in a room brainstorming ideas. With Covid and the emerging variants, the idea of getting everybody in a room is challenged. So, there’s more onus on the executive level to create space for both collaboration and individual ownership of ideas. You should be seeing a shift like that, where the higher levels put more restriction on what they want from people in the creative phase.
Kulhan: So, the responsibility of leadership is to create a balance between the team and the individual, all based in collaboration and communication and regardless of it being in-person, virtual or a hybrid of both.
Klepper: It is important to not feel completely disconnected, that’s what you’re fighting in this time. A very real challenge is the need for leaders to create a space where people can be creative in a Zoom setting. It’s not easy. It’s how you keep that energy up. Coming as an improvisor, as an improv teacher, the energy of a room… If you want to create good ideas, you must create positivity in that room. You must create an energy in that room that people want to share, where people are open. And now, there’s one more step. How do you do that on a Zoom call? I don’t know if we’ve totally figured that out. There are definitely meetings where you’re like, “Oh, it’s very easy for somebody to just put themselves on mute and disconnect.” So, there’s much more onus on a leader to bring that energy to a larger meeting. But also, maybe, there is an onus on everybody to get better at working alone without the luxury of feeding off of other people’s energies.
Kulhan: Absolutely. Working in virtual teams is totally different, and it’s got to be viewed differently, as well. I love what you’re saying: that you just keep adapting and learning the whole time. What’s working? What’s not working? Because the team chemistry is not the same in person as it is on Zoom, so you have to manufacture it. You must create psychologically safety, so that people will continue to communicate, collaborate and not be afraid to fail.
Jordan hit the nail right on the head. Success will come from both the leadership and the individual team players. Leaders need to create energy and psychological safety – an environment in which their team can participate, freely. However, once the rules of engagement are defined (restrictions), each team member needs to follow the rules. This takes commitment, room to learn and grow, and accountability practices to help change take place, regardless of if we are all in-person, virtual or a hybrid of both.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.