POWERING WORKPLACE PERFORMANCE
In business development the focus is often unfairly skewed towards rote process improvement and automation. While technology can provide us with many solutions to streamline your company, it is through creative thinking that we are able to achieve unique breakthroughs, creating compelling products, better services and a more engaged company culture. Here’s our tips for how to encourage creative thinking within your business, regardless of its size.
Ask the right questions
Without a doubt, high impact leaders know the best way to encourage creative thinking is by asking creative questions.
Know the difference between creative question and an information gathering question. Both have their place in an organisation, but where information gathering questions should be used sparingly to fill gaps in process and procedure, a creative question challenges both parties to think at a higher level about the issue at hand. “Why are we doing it this way?” is just as valid as “How do you think we can make this better?”
Make time and use it wisely
I think the single biggest barrier to creative thinking is time. I remember seeing a presentation by Kieran Flanagan from the Impossible Institute who said that her and her business partner Dan Gregory normally start with one hundred ideas each before getting together to discuss a brief, and most people only come up with three or four. I’m pretty sure our obsession with productivity and a culture of busyness is hindering creative endeavour as people can’t justify spending time on an activity that has an unknown timeframe and unknown outcome. With my team we aim for 80% capacity, which leaves 20% for other things. If we want creative thinking we need to give people the time, space and permission to be creative.
You’ll have to work with your team to make time for creativity. Our weekly schedules are full of meetings and milestones that are necessary for business as usual, but can stifle our desire to be more creative in solutioneering. Creatively often works best within a frame. Set parameters, time, location and objective, and make the most of these hours to bring inspirational thinking to the fore.
Celebrate while you can
I try to measure success by the process and not the outcome. I try to celebrate when people do something rather than when it comes to fruition. For example, if people submit a good proposal or a good paper, that’s reason to celebrate rather than wait for a stochastic, random outcome to happen. I think that the more we focus on the things people actually control, which is what they do and not what the world does, it’s more connected to measuring success and more connected to rewarding the right things.
How we define success is as important as success itself. In business there will always be a new hurdle on the horizon, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate wins big and small. Reward yourself and your team for actions and results will follow.
Promote cross functional collaboration
I have led hundreds of cross-functional teams through process improvement events where creative thinking was essential to the team’s success. I quickly learned there is a tremendous amount of power in a question. By asking their teams A LOT of questions, high impact leaders leverage this power to unleash creative thinking.
Creativity thrives through collaboration. Diverse ideas and experiences are the ingredients for innovative ideas and solutions. Bringing together teams from across organisations isn’t always a smooth ride, but friction and conflict can be turned into collaboration by asking the right questions, and asking them often. Challenge your own beliefs, find answers by encouraging a platform of honesty, respect and discovery. Build cross functional teams that leverage the organisation’s strengths across divisions, rather than just up and down the silo.
Provide freedom and accountability
Humans are creative by nature, so you can’t ‘encourage’ creativity in business per se. You have to change the behaviour of leaders. Command and control will never enable creativity (and it’s our prevailing leadership model) commensurate with our ability to be creative. Creativity comes from common cause, some level of skill and freedom to experiment. It’s a byproduct of accountability. It only needs small sums of money as such, but it needs volumes of psychological support. Freedom to experiment, learn, make mistakes and incrementally move forward. In fact, it needs most of the things we seem least willing to provide to people in modern organisations.
Freedom and accountability might seem like strange bedfellows, but they are two sides of the coin of creative expression. Accountability motivates all of us to do our best. It not only makes us feel responsible for our words, deeds and actions, but demonstrates trust in our abilities and a sense of ownership in the outcomes of our business.
Work with your team members to discover their needs to freedom. It might be more time to work from home, or at irregular hours. It might mean self review or even peer review. Balance their needs with more accountability. You’ll find that it not only opens up creative avenues for your team, but encourages them to act responsibly in the face of adversity.
Focus on developing your whole team
High impact leaders lead with questions. Their primary focus is to unleash the team’s potential by facilitating creative thinking and decision-making among the team members. They don’t want to make all the decisions. They do want to intentionally grow and develop every member on their team. They also understand asking questions is one of the most effective ways to do just that. Great questions always lead to great answers.
Chained to the daily grind, stuck in our normal routines, it’s easy to forget the big picture. Creative thinking isn’t just the exclusive domain of ‘Creatives’. All team members should be encouraged to express their ideas.
Ideation is the process of thinking creatively about the demands of your customers, market pressures, competitor behaviour and organisational capability. Everyone’s capable of ideation from the framework of their own skillset. Develop the entire team’s confidence and capability through creative thinking as a team, and you’ll reap the rewards of higher functioning and happier staff.
Show trust to those who have earned it
What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today? I think it’s trust. I think we, in organizations, there’s always some bad apples and I think we manage too much to prevent the bad apples from behaving badly. The cost of course is that everybody suffers in the process so we create bureaucracies that are aimed to making sure that the bottom tenth of a percent cannot do anything harmful. Of course, in the process, we burden everybody and in a very bad way.
Fairness is more than just equal opportunity. Most team remembers in any organisation are there because they want to be. We can make the most out of what we do by showing trust in our team members, and not exerting excess effort on the few back apples.
Let go of fear
You enable people to think and do differently. As Richard Sheridan of Menlo Innovations says, you must first drive fear out of the organization in order to make it safe for people to create. That said, you want individuals and teams to work within the vision and mission of the organization and behave according to its values.
Many of us instinctively know that fear, particularly fear of failure, is among the biggest hurdles in fostering a creative organisational culture. While it would be great to just click our fingers and turn organisations into creative places free of of fear, it takes a significant amount of creative thinking from leaders to drive the fear away.
Great leaders will take the reins and lead by example. A creative culture starts from the top, and sometimes those at the top have to smash their own hierarchies to demonstrate their creative capability. Let go of your fear of failure and move forward as a leader among your team, not separated from it.
Ask questions, listen to advice
Low impact leaders lead with directions. They focus on controlling the team and making decisions. If they’re asking a question, it’s simply to gather information to be used in their decision-making process. Beyond gathering information, they don’t ask questions and don’t want unsolicited advice.
Let go of total control. Every leader that has successfully turned their team into a creative powerhouse knows instinctively that freedom is a key catalyst to achieving the kind of creative problem solving that helps organisations big and small thrive.
Leaders want to hear what’s on the minds of their team, if only to provide a space for unburdening concerns and fears. Empowering great teams is all about clearing a space for innovation, where new approaches are encouraged and failure doesn’t equate to punishment.
Push the limits of creativity
How do I encourage creative thinking within the business? I ask people when we brainstorm to push ideas to the limit. To not take into account moral or legal considerations and just express the idea in its purity. Then we might scale back because of all kinds of logistical, moral, legal consequences, but the beginning I try to encourage people to just push, push the idea and present like an image of the principle that they want to think about or test rather than something that is already constrained.
When thinking creativity, there really shouldn’t be any limits on ideas, as ideas themselves don’t have consequences. As new ideas become purpose and process, you’ll need to consider consequences, but not before. Creative thinking is only stifled by over regulation.
Learn happily from your mistakes
It’s important that we create an environment where it’s ok for people to make mistakes and experience stuff-ups occasionally. We learn far more from our stuff ups than our successes. There are two key attitudes that go along with this approach and if leaders don’t adopt them, the culture will never change. The first is to suspend judgement. Winston Churchill said, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” If your people feel they’ll be assessed and judged for their failures or lack of result, they are never going to try anything new. The second is to be seen to take risks. Model the behaviour you want to see in your team. I’ve found failure to be a great motivator. It pushes me forward to do better next time. But I’ve also found it very liberating. I LOVE new ideas and challenging the status quo because that’s where genius is found. Make it clear to your teams that it’s ok… their actions are valued when they take a risk.
There are many ways to learn from our mistakes. Perhaps the worst (but most common) is to self critise and retreat into our shells. In organisations where creative thinking is not the norm bright stars dull quickly when the first mistake isn’t met with an opportunity to learn happily.
Instead, accept that all journeys have their course corrections. Creative thinking is about mistakes, and mistakes are really just great ideas that didn’t stick. All in all, it’s better to have a hundred creative ideas and only use one than to never think creatively at all.
Foster goodwill and see it returned tenfold
What common mistakes do I witness leaders making? A lot of my research recently has been about motivation in the workplace and one of the things I find is that people have a really bad understanding of what motivates people. They don’t give people enough autonomy, they don’t give people enough control, they don’t give people enough credit. Things that truly motivate people. Lots of modern organization demand and depend on goodwill, and the question is how do we get goodwill from people, and it’s not from, it doesn’t come with paying people bonuses, it doesn’t come from trying to control people. It comes from giving people credit and autonomy.
Many businesses have yet to realize that goodwill is an important driver in business accountability and creativity. What does goodwill mean? Fair treatment, equal.opportunity, the chance to be heard and respect for the time and efforts of your team. Creative thinking is a higher order task, and it’s in environments where we feel safe that we can most achieve.
Never stop brainstorming
There are wonderful creative thinking and brainstorming techniques you can use to get everyone thinking outside of the box in your organization. Brainstorming allows you to draw out and harness the best ideas from your team to encourage creating thinking and make the company better.
Brainstorming brings the team together and encourages a ‘no fault’ attitude to problem solving. All business is collaboration and by working together to solve problems and brainstorm new ideas and methods of improvement were not only strengthening bonds, but fostering a sense of accountability and investment in the organisation.
Master the basics, again and again
Perhaps there is too much creativity in business, keeping us from getting the critical work done. In my work with high performance teams, they focus first on the core competencies, reveling in doing the simple things right time after time. They are proud of disciplined execution and fear being distracted by fads and “good ideas”. Only once the basics are mastered (which requires constant training) will they explore creative options. They know that there is never a shortage of creative solutions, most leading to failure. Just take a look at Google: selling ads results in nearly 90% of its gross income. A few years ago I spent a day with the 300 Googlers that make all that profit and their focus was on operational excellence, not crazy new ideas. Theirs is an iterative process: make small, smart changes to boost improvement. They leave the super creative stuff to the teams that are losing money for the company.
Chris Warner has really nailed one of the biggest misconceptions about creative thinking in the workplace. Most revenue comes from repeated and automated processes. There are niche industries where constant creativity is a boon, but in most cases creative thinking is about process improvement and iteration, rather than constantly breaking new ground.
Still, for Google to make all that revenue there’s tens of thousands of businesses creating advertisements that involve both creative elements and analytical investigations. There’s often creativity at the endpoint of most revenue streams.
You don’t need all the answers
Low impact leaders don’t want to appear as though they don’t have all the answers. So, they don’t ask a lot of questions. They don’t want too many people involved in finding a solution because they’re unable to effectively lead a group discussion. So, they don’t ask a lot of questions. They don’t want others to gain influence. So, they don’t ask a lot of questions.
It’s important to nurture innovation through consultation, rather than directive. Including non-core team members in the conversation in one way to freshen up long projects or legacy teams. It’s also important to understand your team’s needs, both goal orientated and across the individuals who will contribute.
Some staff might prefer to work in private occasionally, while others might find having a brainstorming session outside or in a park to be a motivational exercise. As a leader, you’ll also need to set parameters. Creative thinking works best within frameworks. Talk to your team, ask the right questions, and don’t try and answer everything all the time. Part of innovation is stepping into the unknown.
Be honest and open
I think you first need to set the context that it’s okay to think outside of the current norm in their business environment. When you have people in healthy business environments that are open and honest it’s much easier for them to think creatively without being fearful of “that’s a stupid idea” and “hey that’s not how we do it here” and many of the other often heard axioms of the modern business world.In my humble opinion I believe that most of your employees are quite a bit more creative than you are currently giving them credit for and your job as a leader is to ask many more questions and talk a lot less than you are currently. Most managers talk 80% of the time and let their employees speak 20% of the time. I subscribe to the teachings of my friend Gino Wickman creator of the Entrepreneurial Operating System which is a holistic business operating system that I use as the main scaffolding with all the clients that I work with because it simply works so effectively states that the proper way to look at this is that employees speak 80% of the time and leaders speak 20% of the time. In that environment you will greatly accelerate the velocity of creative thinking in your organization.
Nothing improves the creative process like honesty and openness. Be receptive to the communication of your peers and team members. Treat them the way you would treat a customer or stakeholder. Allow space for open and honest conversation. Often, creativity is stifled by a perceived lack of honesty, or the inability to speak freely within the team. Sure, there needs to be some rules in place about what’s appropriate in the workplace, but when it comes to creative problem solving, honesty is the best policy.
Thank you to all of our experts: Mack Story, Fabian Dattner, Jon Baldoni, Sonia McDonald, Dan Ariely, Brian Tracy, Chris Warner, Simon Waller, Chris Hallberg, Lynne Cazaly, Don Tapscott.