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Question everything, especially assumptions

12 Ways to Motivate Your Team to Be Creative

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

If you are a manager, your creativity responsibility is twofold. Not only should you be more creative yourself, but you should also be motivating your direct reports to be more creative. It is that combined creativity that leads to innovation, improved problem solving and, I believe, a more fun workplace. To make your job easier, here are a dozen ways to motivate your team to be more creative.

1. Compliment and Criticise Meaningfully

Compliment people regularly and in a meaningful way, not only to their faces, but behind their backs so that people know you are sincere in your compliments and that you have faith in your direct reports. This builds trust which, in turn, ensures people feel confident about sharing crazy ideas with you. It also means they are more accepting of your criticism.

Managers who continually criticise their direct reports, destroy trust. Why share a novel idea with a boss you know will criticise it and possibly criticise you as well? It is safer to keep your head down and follow the status quo in order to minimise criticism.

When you need to criticise people, start with a compliment, ensure the criticism focuses on their actions rather than them and be meaningful in your criticism. If possible, add a challenge to the end of the criticism

"That's an idiotic idea, you moron!" is a terrible criticism!

"I like your thinking about the new product, Lisa, but I feel that it adds unnecessary complexity at a time when we are trying to simplify the user experience. How could you achieve similar functionality with the complexity?"

2. Challenge people often.

Most intelligent people thrive on challenges. And creative challenges are particularly.... challenging. If you regularly challenge your subordinates to come up with new ideas, you will exercise their creative minds regularly and make their work environment more interesting.

In particular, in situations where you might once have said, “it cannot be done”, ask instead: “How might we do it?” Where once you might have said: “We don't have the budget to do that!”, ask instead: “What can we do to reduce the cost of that idea so that we can fit it in our budget?” or “What could we do to convince senior management to buy into this idea?”

When preparing a presentation to a client, don't just open PowerPoint on your computer and call up your standard business presentation template. Instead, start by asking your team: “Let's make this presentation truly original and awesome, so much so that the client begs us for our business by the end. Now, how shall we do this?”

When performing routine tasks, ask, “Can you think of any shortcuts that will make this faster and easier?”

And so on. Constant challenges keep everyone's minds sharp and lead to lots and lots of great ideas on a regular basis.

Don't forget to challenge yourself regularly. It will do wonders for your creative output.

3. Remind people that You want ideas

This may seem obvious, but it needs to be said. Always remind people that you are keen to hear their ideas. Challenges are one way to do this. You should also remind your direct reports in meetings and informal chats that you value their ideas.

Needless-to-say, when people come to you with their ideas. Listen attentively, provide positive feedback and, if there are problems with the idea, challenge the idea owner to solve those problems.

4. Ask open questions, especially about assumptions

Open questions make people think and thinking is good for creativity. If something goes wrong, do not immediately explain why it went wrong. Ask the team why they think it went wrong and what they can do to prevent it from happening again.

In particular, get in the habit of questioning assumptions. Big business tends to collect a lot of big assumptions. Over time, some of those assumptions become invalid. If you do not question them, you may not notice the change. Kodak assumed people most wanted quality printed photographs from cameras and neglected to go digital until it was too late.

Question little assumptions as well. Perhaps you never contact prospective clients on Friday afternoons, because you assume they will be busy finishing tasks off just before the weekend. But is that true? Maybe they will have a more open mind knowing the weekend is coming.

5. Provide Time and Opportunities to Think.

In his paper “Organisational creativity - the top ten enablers" (PDF), Wayne Morris noted that the number one enabler for organisational creativity is providing time to think. And this is an issue I have seen in many companies. Management wants employees to be more creative. Management has invested in idea management tools, innovation training and more for staff. But, employees are so overworked handling day to day tasks, that they do not have time to stop and think.

Worse, in open plan office, the employee who is seen staring off into space is likely to be seen as one slacking off rather than one who is hard at work thinking up innovative ideas for the company.

Make it clear that thinking is good. Encourage your team to think. Let yourself be seen thinking and share your thoughts. Provide comfortable spaces for thinking (see below). Better still, encourage people to go for walks during the day, which is not only good exercise, but great for creative thinking.

6. Provide Space to Think and Talk and Create.

A couple of years ago, the East of England Development Agency undertook a survey of about 1000 people and found that only 10% had ideas at their desks. Moreover, only 6% of woman and 17% of men had ideas anywhere in the workplace.

Thus you need to provide your subordinates with places where they can think and collaborate on ideas. Niches with tables and chairs are simple, yet effective. People can find a niche, sit and talk. More elaborately, you can provide innovation rooms with beanbag chairs and toys in them for people to really relax and think.

Hold creative meetings off-site. Go to a comfy café and, if it is culturally acceptable where you are, allow people to have a glass of wine or a beer. A drink or two has been shown to enhance creative thinking. Many of the co-working spaces, that are popping up in cities around the world, have interesting meeting rooms for rent.

7. Go on Creative Thinking Field Trips.

At least one of my client's employees regularly visit spaces where their products are used. There they are challenged to think of new uses for their products, new way ways to apply their products and new products that would appeal to their existing clients. This is a great way to generate ideas. Escaping the office brings everyone a breath of fresh air. Visiting environments where your product is used puts you in the mind of your client. And that helps you think in new ways.

You can also visit places not directly related to your business and find inspiration. Art galleries, museums of all kinds and unrelated businesses can inspire ideas. Look at how a friendly, family owned restaurant in a small town serves its customers and ask how you might offer the same level of service to your big business customers.

Think about taking a walking meeting in a nearby park or nature trail.

When my first company was very young, I took both of my employees to see the film Jurassic Park and dinner. During the meal, we shared some crazy ideas inspired by the film.

8. Push Ideas.

When we are looking for ideas, we have a tendency to stop when we get our first good idea. You should not do that and you should encourage your direct reports not to do so either. Instead, push thinking further. What are the weaknesses of your good idea? How could you overcome them. Is your idea rather conventional? Then push it. Encourage people to go wild. That's where great ideas come from.

When a direct report comes to you with an idea, ask her to push the idea further or ask “That's a good idea, but I believe you can do better. Play with it and see what you can come up with!”

9. Implement Ideas

This may seem obvious. But many innovation initiatives focus on idea generation without allowing for idea development and implementation. An expensive facilitator might lead a dozen of your most creative people in a brainstorm that results in 150 ideas which are neatly categorised. However, if the organisation fails to implement any of those ideas, the exercise is an expensive and demotivating waste of time. Likewise, idea management software that captures ideas that never seem to be implemented is soon recognised as a waste of time.

And, if proposing ideas is perceived as a waste of time, people will stop proposing ideas.

On the other hand, if ideas are regularly developed and implemented; if stories about those implementations are shared, then people will feel that time spent thinking creatively is time well spent.

 10. Tools

Tools can help employees develop and collaborate on ideas as well as help you capture and manage ideas. Tools can include basic things like whiteboards in meeting rooms for sharing ideas; and pens, markers and paper for working on ideas.

Tools could include toys for building and modelling things, such as building blocks, Lego, dolls, craft materials and anything else people could use to model ideas or build rough prototymes

You might consider software based tools, such as mindmapping software, note taking apps for the telephone and my absolutely free Anticonventional Thinking Questions tool.

11. Encourage Humour

Creativity and humour go hand in hand. Laughter relaxes you and frees you. Crazy ideas are welcome when everyone is laughing already. Laughing frees up our inhibitions and makes us feel good. Jokes, like creative ideas, are usually about bringing together dissimilar concepts in new ways. When a group is laughing, participants often try and outdo each other with funny ideas. And those funny ideas are often very creative ideas.

In my creativity workshops, the groups that laugh the most tend to have the most creative ideas.

12. Be Creative Yourself – and Demonstrate it!

A good manager leads, of course, by example. If you tell your subordinates to be creative, but never share a creative idea yourself – you are not setting a very good example.

You are certainly a creative thinker − after all, you are reading up on creativity! But are you also demonstrating creativity? Do you share your ideas? Do you seek unusual solutions to problems? Do you use creativity tools? Do you participate in creative thinking activities?

If not, do so. Be creative and do not be shy about it! It will only encourage creativity among those around you.




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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




My other web projects

My other web projects 100s of articles, videos and cartoons on creativity - possibly useful things I have learned over the years. reflections on international living and travel. - paintings, drawings, photographs and cartoons by Jeffrey