Working In Isolation? How The TV Writers’ Room Approach Can Help You Find “The Good Place”

A large component of my work world involves writing – from reports to podcasts, curriculum design to articles… And while the bulk of my writing revolves around the dynamics of people working and interacting with each other, the writing itself is largely done by myself. As I write, I often need to think about world-building – how an author fleshes out the world of their story; the details they add that help the reader to more fully inhabit that world. For authors, this is often a solo pursuit.

But I have become increasingly fascinated with the TV “Writers’ Room” approach to creating, which is entirely different. For traditional scripted TV shows releasing 13 (or, for network dramas, 22) episodes each year (think This Is Us or The Good Place), a writer is usually just one member of a writers’ room, comprising anywhere from 6-12 writers who work closely together with the creator/show-runner every day. Together, they build the world of the show, map out the season, and then ‘break the story’ for each episode. As each episode is ‘broken,’ it is assigned to one or two writers from the room who will then write the detailed script and dialogue. Then it is brought back to the group to ensure a consistent ‘voice’ for the show; because the group works so closely on the development, though, tweaks to the script at this point are minor.

One piece I have heard consistently from TV writers and show-runners is that they rarely ever remember who came up with a specific idea or moment in the final show. They often attribute that to a ‘hive-mind’ where the group’s thinking is more powerful than the sum of the individuals – they have thrown out 100 or more ideas for every one they use, and the process is so collaborative and ego-less that they’ve entirely forgotten who came up with the final ideas that made it to the final script. And while it is a taxing process, writers often describe the experience of a TV writers’ room as one of the most joyful collaborative experiences of their life, bouncing ideas off each other in a ‘blue sky’ environment – an open space for ideas where all ideas are listened to and explored – before narrowing and focusing on one idea that includes multiple perspectives and that has risen above the rest after extensive stress-testing. In other words, an idea they all believe in. A good place, if you will…

So how can we try some of this in our teams this week?

This Week’s Tip:

Try a TV Writers’ Room approach. Bring in a project at any stage of development for others to contribute ‘blue sky’ ideas that you may not be thinking of, as well as potential support. If you work with a team on a daily basis, try this with them. If you tend to work in isolation, find a few trusted colleagues or friends to bring together for a single meeting.

  1. Start small. Pick one small project to use this approach with. Start with a one-hour meeting. If this approach seems helpful, you can always expand in future.
  2. Explain the ‘blue sky’ purpose. Many of us have expectations going into a meeting, and it can be hard to break out of our usual way of being to contribute differently. In this case, invite everyone to share ideas, and spend time exploring each one. Capture/write down all ideas without judgement and explore them all freely; sometimes ideas that would not be feasible in themselves lead to THE idea.
  3. Following the meeting, focus on exploring 2-3 ideas in more detail. If this is a team project, this may be something that can be assigned and/or that others would volunteer for.
  4. Contribute freely to others’ projects. If you’re someone who tends to work in isolation and you’ve invited others together for this experimental meeting, invite them to bring their own project ideas and offer to contribute ideas and support where you can, without obligation.

If this idea is new for you and you find it works well, let us know how it goes in our Facebook group – we’d love to hear some of your successes.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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