Encouraging Team Creativity
Helping Your People Think Creatively
According to a 2010 study by IBM*, creativity is the single most important attribute that CEOs think is important for future business success.
The importance of creativity and innovation can't be overestimated. After all, you can have the best products and processes now, but if your organization lacks creative thinkers, it's going nowhere fast. Without new ideas, new products, and new processes, you'll be left behind by your competition.
In this article we'll explore the importance of creativity, and we'll help you think about how you can foster creativity and innovation within your team.
The Importance of Creative Thinking
Clearly, creative thinking gives us great new ideas, and helps us solve our most complex problems.
However, by encouraging creative thinking, you can also help your people become more engaged with what they do, increase their self-confidence, and improve their morale. Human beings, no matter who they are or what they do, have an innate desire to think and act creatively. (It's not a magical trait that shows up only in artists or musicians: all of us have a deep well of creativity at our disposal, just waiting to be let out.)
Organizations that suppress this natural drive end up creating teams that are stale, disengaged, dissatisfied, and unproductive. Clearly, teams like these are incredibly bad for business!
Barriers to Creativity
So, if the creative drive is so instinctive for us, why aren't people creative all the time? The reason is that there are many common barriers to creativity, especially within organizations.
The attitude of the leadership team is probably the most important factor. In another recent study, researchers concluded that the support that leaders give has a potent influence on team creativity. Without encouragement and support from above, people don't feel safe enough to take risks with their ideas, and, therefore, creative thinking is stifled.
Other issues with team creativity revolve around the common problems that teams face when people work together in groups. For instance, one team member may be dominant, drowning out everyone else's ideas in favor of his or her own. Or, other team members may be shy or apprehensive, and lack the confidence to express their creative ideas.
Also, as teams discuss options, some team members may forget their own ideas while they're waiting for their chance to speak. Others may feel creatively blocked as they listen to other people's ideas.
Additionally, Groupthink can hamper creative thinking, because people's desire for consensus overshadows their desire to come up with innovative, risky, solutions.
Other barriers, such as the pressure to conform, and a natural respect towards authority, can also play a role in stifling creativity.
Strategies for Encouraging Creativity
Despite these many barriers to creativity, it is possible to foster creative thinking in your team. But it does take a concerted effort to develop an environment that encourages creative thinking, both in the short and long term.
To encourage creativity in your team, use the following approaches:
Micromanagement can be a major inhibitor of creative thinking. This is one of the many reasons why, as a leader, you should try to avoid micromanaging your team. Give your people the space and freedom they need to think creatively, and work and excel on their own.
The relationship between you and your team should be one built on trust. Without trust and mutual respect, creative thinking can't occur.
This is because creative thinking involves a certain amount of risk, and people don't take risks with those they don't trust. If this is an issue, learn how to gain the trust of your team, so that your people feel safe enough to think creatively with you and each other.
You can also create a sense of safety by reminding your team often how important creative thinking is to you and to your organization. You may feel that you "sound like a broken record," but repetition will drive the message home, and will demonstrate that your interest isn't a passing fad.
Don't Penalize Failures
Many people resist expressing their creative ideas, and especially acting on them, because they're afraid of failure. Or, they might be afraid that they'll be penalized if their idea doesn't work.
As a leader, it's important to help your team overcome the fear of failure, and recognize that good things can come from it. Many failures hide important lessons and insights that, when taken to heart, can lead to greater successes down the road.
Failure can also lead to wonderful new products and ideas. For instance, one of 3M's most famous products, the Post-It note, is the direct result of a failure. A researcher in the company was trying to develop a new glue, which turned out to be incredibly weak. Another 3M professional heard about the failed glue and started using it to keep his bookmarks attached to pages. The rest, as they say, is history.
This classic story is just one example of how failures can lead to innovative new ideas and products. Learn about the failures in your own organization, use business story-telling to help your people accept failure, and discover the important lessons that these failures are hiding.
Use Effective Brainstorming Techniques
Brainstorming is a popular and effective technique for generating ideas. However, many of the barriers that inhibit creativity, such as Groupthink, deference to authority, and shyness, crop up during brainstorming sessions. This is why it's often more effective to use variants of brainstorming than it is to use brainstorming itself.
If you have a member of your team who tends to drown out everyone else's ideas, then use brainstorming techniques such as Round-Robin Brainstorming or Crawford's Slip-Writing Method. These techniques encourage idea generation, yet ensure that everyone in your group has an equal chance to contribute.
If you believe that your team's creativity is being suppressed because achieving consensus seems to be people's top priority, see our article on Avoiding Groupthink. And if you sense that the size of your group is a problem, explore using the Charette Procedure. You may also want to press your team to analyze problems in depth, instead of settling on the first or easiest option. Tools such as the 5 Whys Technique, Cause and Effect Analysis, and Root Cause Analysis will help your team explore problems in detail, so that they can come up with creative solutions to them.
If you want to introduce a new twist to your brainstorming sessions, try brainwriting. This technique allows your people to develop each others' ideas, while everyone still has an equal chance to contribute.
Lead by Example
Never forget that your team looks to you first when it comes to creativity. Encourage your people to think more creatively by leading by example.
Come up with your own creative ideas, don't be afraid to take risks, and stick up for team members whenever they have an unusual idea. The more you demonstrate your own creative thinking, the more your team will feel safe enough to follow suit.
Sometimes, people may find it easier to come up with creative ideas when they're working alone. Whenever you can, encourage them to take time to explore new concepts and ideas. If possible, allow them time to pursue projects that they feel passionate about. Also, consider setting aside a specific space, such as an empty office or conference room, and provide the tools and resources that they need to pursue these ideas.
This sense of freedom and empowerment can go a long way towards fostering a sense of creativity and excitement within your team.
You won't get much creativity from your people if they're carrying a crushing workload. If you want creativity, give them the time and space they need to be creative.
Creative thinking is vital in many business situations. Without it, you won't come up with great new ideas, and your organization will be left behind.
As a leader, it's up to you to encourage your team to think creatively. There are several ways to do this.
First, make sure you know about the common barriers to creative thinking. Groupthink, shyness, and a fear of failure can block your team's creativity.
Next, encourage your team to think creatively. Build trust, so that your people feel safe to express their ideas, don't penalize failures or bad ideas, and lead by example.
The more time you spend fostering a sense of safety and encouragement within your team, the more creative thinking you'll start to see.
* You can read about this study, which polled more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 nations, here.