How to Start ‘Riffing’ – 9 Pointers for Co-creation

Riffing is an exciting way to co-create and an essential aspect of creative leadership. In this article about co-creation we explore the main mental blockers and enablers to riffing, and nine surprising practical pointers to tap into this power.

Imagine you are in front of an audience, drawing.

You are holding a pen. Waiting for your partner to finish drawing a line. Then you are supposed to add a line. Building towards something. You have no idea what yet, no idea at all where this is going. You are not allowed to speak.

Does it sound nightmarish to you… or like fun?

This is not a children’s game. It is a creative leadership exercise; designed for you to experience what mindset best enables co-creation. You will also find out what mental patterns hinder this mode of creating together that jazz musicians call riffing. This riffing is a creative leadership skill also known as the mode of co-creation. For some people, it almost defines creative leadership itself. It refers to consciously working together to allow a previously unknown solution to emerge.

Riffing is consciously working together to allow a previously unknownsolution to emerge.

Exercises like the drawing-one-line-at-a-time mentioned above are aimed at generating a strong insight around creative leadership through a real-time personal experience. At THNK these exercises are called Eye Openers. This particular one we call ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ and the insights it generates are shared further below.

Drawing one line at a time is not a metaphor for riffing; it is a real experience of it. A metaphor for riffing would be to say that you are in a team of three in a canoe, each holding a paddle, and you are trying to go down this unknown river. In order not to get stuck in the mud or hit rocks, each must play his or her part. Each must put their paddle into the water at a helpful moment so you can catch the current in the middle and start flowing rapidly. Even there you all must stay active and alert to keep the momentum going, especially when going down rapids.

A good creative team will know this riffing state and be able to create the circumstances for riffing when their process requires it. When selecting people, creative leadership will look for riffing ability in the team members. It is a skill that goes by many names. Michael Johnson at Pixar refers to it as ‘being good in the room’. Stefano Marzano, while he was at Philips, asked: can someone ‘cook at the table’?

After years of working with creative teams and using Eye Openers to gain insights into creative leadership, we would like to share what we have learned about the blockers and enablers of riffing.

First of all, what makes riffing hard are your own mental habits, your own thoughts and beliefs. From our experience, there are four types of thoughts that get in the way:

  • I don’t know exactly what to do – and that is bad
  • I need to control this
  • I’d better just play it safe
  • It’s not working and so I’m switching off

Predictably, what helps creative leadership induce the riffing mode sounds a lot like the opposite of these four blockers. We have organized the enablers into three main beliefs, with each three practical behavioral pointers. The three enabling beliefs are:

  1. Creativity happens between people
  2. It is impossible to lose
  3. Creativity needs other parts of your brain than just the focused part

Creativity happens between people

It makes a huge difference if you believe that creativity happens between people. When you don’t think that one person is going to come up with the solution but that only through the interplay of minds something new will be generated. In other words one person will not be able to paddle the boat anywhere really new or exciting. What can you actively do to make this belief have effect?

Stay connected

When it feels like something isn’t working, a defense mechanism in our brain triggers a desire to switch off: to not be here, to not be trying, to have something else that is more important to think about. When you experience this desire, it is important to counter it by ‘leaning in’ to the process, forcing yourself to be part of it and stay connected. Leaning in is often meant very literally as in physically leaning your bodyweight towards the others, connecting with them and the board you may be writing on.

Share control

You may hear some people say that ‘giving up control’ is important in creative leadership processes. In an article on what Google looks for in new hires, Thomas Friedman quotes Google’s Lazlo Bock on stressing the importance of being able to take and quickly give up control. Bock calls it Emergent Leadership. Likewise, we say ‘share control’ rather than ‘give it up’. Creative leadership is inherently an inclusive act – one who guides the team to work together and share control. Creative leadership assumes each team member has a responsibility for the process and takes an active role in it. Think again of the metaphor of paddling a canoe on a fast river. There is no rudder; no one is holding a central control mechanism. The control is shared by the entire team, each team member handling one paddle.

Build on others

Building on others is fundamentally different from distributing the work (to free up time or to increase quantity of output). This would be building with others. Building on others entails combining creative input and having one’s creative contribution trigger the other team members’ additions. The result is a true co-created product where the individual contributions have merged. This is the essence of the creative leadership that says “no one is perfect but a team can be”.

It’s ‘impossible to lose’

The second enabler of riffing is believing that it is impossible to lose. We all know the mindset when we want to win and not lose. It might cause us to feel a pang of envy when someone says something brilliant because we would have liked to have said it ourselves. Or we may filter out thoughts before we speak them because we are afraid we might sound stupid. This win/lose way of thinking is something every human can fall into and it is not always bad. However, to get into riffing mode it is important to recognize it and have a strategy to get out of this mindset. Put simply, to get out of the win/lose way of thinking we have to make it impossible to lose. Here are three ways for creative leadership to accomplish this:

Treat ideas as things without owners

If no-one owns an idea, then by definition you can’t win or lose because someone ‘had’ a better one. The myth of the genius who comes up with brilliant ideas is counterproductive to reaching the riffing state. If we see ideas as floating around and not being tied to our egos we can riff much more easily.

Be open to mistakes

This means more than being willing to make them. Creative leadership should operate from the insight that there may be great value in a mistake. So they may celebrate mistakes and share them so that others can build on them. Creative leadership can set up experiments that allow for mistakes to be made in a controlled environment, thus enabling to come to a breakthrough solution.

Be brave

The antidote to ‘just play it safe’. This means purposely going where the safe part of your brain does not want to go. It means forcing yourself to go against the clenching of the stomach, to knowingly and willingly step into the unknown where it all might go wrong, and to speak up boldly, with a bold point that takes things in a bold direction.

Creativity needs other parts of your brain than just the focused part

Our third enabling belief is very much an internal one. Many leaders are good at focusing and getting results. The mental habits that make them good at that can get in the way of riffing. It can be important to recognize this. We need to acknowledge the focused result-oriented part of ourselves as having enormous value, but that it needs to let other parts of the brain – those parts that are less focused, less result-oriented – in, to allow for surprise insights, serendipity and breakthroughs.

Our first two enabling beliefs, believing that creativity happens between people and that it is impossible to lose, should create enough comfort to help you let go of the focused result-orientation. Then you can:

Feel what might happen

All of us have had an experience when a gut feeling influenced a decision or when something simply felt right. It is no longer a myth that your body has wisdom. Neuroscience has shown us that there are billions of neurons in your gut and heart region. So to enhance your riffing skills purposely ask your gut what it wants to say or where it thinks things are heading. See what your body wants to do. Where are your hands moving? If they could speak, what would they say? Be prepared to switch away from your focused problem-solving mind when your body kicks in.

Zoom out

A result-oriented mind tends to zoom in, to go for the core or the essence. But sometimes the essence is actually not at the core, but at a higher level of abstraction. To see the forest for the trees, the mind needs to zoom out, take a distance, pause and reflect. Suddenly the paced mind comes to ease, and a bigger understanding of a larger picture or a more elegant solution emerges.

Look for interconnections that spark

Two seemingly unrelated ideas can lead to something special when put together. A bit like how two people fall in love perhaps. The famous Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg said that literature is bringing two things together that at first glance did not belong together at all. Then these two things start ‘working’ in unison.

Looking for these sparking connections is part of the riffing mindset. It is helped by a curious, explorative mindset towards anything new and different. This fosters serendipity by making new connections, by traveling, and by researching across functional disciplines.

When in riffing mode creative leadership should restrain the problem-solving focused mind from looking for an application too quickly, drawing a conclusion, or dismissing a connection as insufficiently relevant. By withholding judgment and letting curiosity play, the interconnecting spark between unrelated ideas has a chance to happen.

The essential need for co-creation

Co-creation is essential to creative leadership and is a functional skill for a creative team in the creation process, especially in the divergent phases of SensingVisioningPrototyping and Scaling. Whether you call it “good in the room”, “cooking at the table”, “emergent leadership”, “riffing”, or “canoeing” doesn’t matter. As long as you ensure that creativity happens between people, that it is impossible to lose and you use all of your brain, not just the focused part. To recapitulate, here are the three main enabling beliefs and their three practical pointers:

1. Creativity happens between people

  • Stay connected
  • Share control
  • Build on others

2. It’s ‘impossible to lose’

  • Treat ideas as things without owners
  • Be open to mistakes
  • Be brave

3. Creativity needs other parts of your brain than just the focused part

  • Feel what might happen
  • Zoom out
  • Look for interconnections that spark

We would love for you to lean in and build on this article, to share your experiences of riffing, and what blockers, or enablers you have encountered. Also we would love to hear from you in what particular circumstances riffing has been beneficial, or even vital to you or your team.

Riff on.

By Robert Wolfe, Lieselotte Nooyen & Menno van Dijk

About the authors

Robert has been part of THNK faculty since the beginning of THNK as a leadership coach, storytelling trainer and innovation facilitator. Before he was a management trainer and personal coach in many countries, an improv actor, and he still is a writer of fiction novels for young adults. He specializes in experiential learning and voice dialogue.

Lieselotte is a communication trainer, facilitator of creative processes and an improvisor. She brings the principles of an improvised play from the stage to the work space. Both high performance environments that change constantly.
Menno is Co-Founder and Managing Director of THNK. Before that he was former Director at McKinsey & Company, former board member of New Venture, NEMO and other organizations.

THNK‘s mission is twofold: we accelerate the development of creative leaders from across corporate, private, public, and social sectors and from all over the world. Together, we create innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing and inspiring challenges. Dubbed by Stanford University as “the future of higher education”, we stand for creativity, business model innovation, and entrepreneurship for social impact. While a ‘B-school’ professionalizes management and a ‘D-school’ does the same for product design, THNK is a ‘C-school’ that applies creativity for positive change at scale.


    • NY Times:
    • Grunberg leest Karel van het Reve, (Uitgeverij Rainbow, Amsterdam, 2004)
    • Braincell in gut and heart reference:
    • This article was originally published on
    • Main image: Hand draw pencil caricature from