Creativity In The Workplace

Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.George Lois, Damn Good Advice

When Leon Battista Alberti declared, “A man can do all things if he will,” he condensed the ideals of the Renaissance into the figure of the Renaissance Man—a person with knowledge of a wide range of subjects. Since then, knowledge has become very specialized and having the breadth of knowledge in the wide range of subjects embraced by Renaissance Men is impossible.

The Renaissance man still walks among us, but we now call him groups. A group can have a collective knowledge that far exceeds the knowledge of any individual.

Brainstorming, invented by advertising executive Alex Osborn, was designed to maximize effective and creative group problem-solving. Research on brainstorming initially failed to show an increase in the number and quality of ideas when compared to individuals working alone; but in the last two decades, research has revealed that brainstorming can be productive if the procedures guard against impediments that naturally occur like conversation being controlled by a limited number of individuals and shared data being disproportionately represented. When small groups of individuals attempt to collectively arrive at a solution through discussion, great solutions can be uncovered.

Yet, most companies don’t engage in a creative process because most of their prior “creative” meetings haven’t produced significant results. Nothing new happens, the same people come up with the same line of thinking, and the same ideas keep recurring. The solutions generated are mostly dull and uninventive. In the aftermath of these “brainstorming” sessions, everyone goes back to their desks and does what they’ve always done.

In this scenario, it’s no wonder most companies quickly abandon creative engagements. Considering the way these meetings are run, a lack of productivity is exactly what should happen. What most companies have isn’t a creative deficit. Instead, they have a process deficit.

By consistently returning to the default tendency of a group—a lack of productivity—these companies miss out on key insights that can lead to business growth.

So how do you get more creative productivity from your team? Promoting individual creativity is hard; inspiring a group of individuals to be creative together seems insurmountable. What follows is the result of our search for generating creativity in the workplace. It works brilliantly for us. It’s worked for our clients. We hope it serves you well.

Pre-project Considerations

The Team

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.Carl Jung, Psychological Types

You’ve got an important problem to solve. The team is assembled. You hold your breath because you know the inherent challenges—like allowing the conversation to flow freely, not forcing a pre-existing idea on the group, and not getting stuck on one idea—that arise in bringing a team of unique individuals together. How do you structure your team to increase productivity and solve problems more effectively?

Although it seems obvious, it is best to construct the team around the problem. What special skills are required to complete the project? Think outside the immediate scope of the problem: What skills could be relevant that would constitute a non-standard approach? Don’t select people solely based upon position in the company. A person’s position doesn’t determine one’s desire or ability to effect important changes. If people are more concerned with maintaining the status quo than driving the company forward, they will only hinder the progress of a team dedicated to making changes. Find the people with the broadest applicable knowledge base and the strongest passion, and make the team leader the person with the broadest knowledge base over all areas of the project. Make sure the leader is able to lead without being controlling or demanding.

The Environment

Environment plays a role in people’s ability to complete a project. The space should allow for efficient communication—proximity is power. Having to constantly travel long distances (even within a building) to get things done can hinder or even cut off essential communication. If your workspace is large, can you create a flexible, project-oriented workspace design to minimize travel distance between individuals that need to communicate directly on a regular basis?

If possible, the brainstorming or meeting space should take people out of their normal working environment. A change of scenery is very effective for breaking people out of their standard routines and for facilitating creativity.

Designing The Project

Setting The Stage

The first two meetings are guided brainstorming sessions. These meetings should be facilitated by the person in the leadership position. The goal of the leader is not to force communication in any direction, but to ensure everyone stays on track with the process and to set the open, nonjudgmental tone for the meetings.

The leader must make it clear that no one will be criticized for his or her ideas. The goal is to get as much feedback, ideation, and data out of the group as possible—not to discuss a specific solution. This method is contrary to the way most people approach group brainstorming. The goal is not to come into the meeting with an idea in mind and then try to win people over to your way of thinking; it’s not an essay contest or a debate. It is essential that the leader both makes this distinction clear and ensures that team members don’t stray from this behavior.

Although most people would assume an inverse relationship between quantity and quality (measured by usefulness and originality) of ideas, studies show there is a direct relationship: The more ideas you generate, the higher the quality of your final solution. The reason for this is that new ideas are really just combinations of other ideas.

In James Webb Young’s advertising classic A Technique for Producing Ideas, Young calls upon the observation of the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto: “An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” Creativity is really nothing more than changing something old into something new by creating new combinations that haven’t been used before.

The more ideas that get out there, the more combinations of ideas are possible. It’s why a higher quantity of ideas results in a high-quality solution. Encourage people to say whatever comes to mind within the confines of each segment of the meetings.

Session 1: Generating Ideas

The following meeting structure will help you set up a productive session:

  1. Define the problem. This should be done before the meeting and brought to the meeting by the leader. The problem must be specific—the more specific the better. A clearly-defined problem and goal provide the necessary focus for the meeting. You should be able to answer the following questions when the meeting begins:
    a. What is the problem?
    b. What is the specific end goal? This should be measurable; defined by time, money or quantity.
    c. When is the deadline?
    d. What is the budget (if applicable)?
  2. Lay out the facts. Spend time listing and recording any background research to create as much context as possible for the team. This can include data collected specifically for the project or data that is the result of the knowledge of the participants. This is not the place for opinions or inferences, just facts.
  3. Create an environment of openness. Underlying beliefs and opinions that people don’t feel justified making openly—like personal, emotionally-based opinions—can cloud almost any discussion. A gut reaction that certain ideas are out of line with the company’s goals can also make someone hesitant, but that’s all right. There’s no need to provide support for someone’s feelings now; this part of brainstorming is the time for gut reactions. The sole purpose of the exercise is to allow the discussion to be carried out unimpeded by hidden motives or desires.
  4. Look at the current situation. If the project is designed to re-examine and change a current situation, it’s time to look at what’s already in place. This step isn’t necessary if it is a brand new project that is not designed to replace an existing situation. However, if there is a current situation, first look at what’s going on now from a negative viewpoint: What’s wrong with it? If it worked before, why does it no longer work optimally? Be as specific as possible. Once you look at it negatively, consider it positively: What about this procedure or situation still works? Could it be tweaked to work without major changes? Does it need a major overhaul? If something needs to be changed, consider the characteristics of the current approach and preclude using solutions that stem from that approach in the discussions. Knowing what it shouldn’t be will help with understanding what it should be.
  5. List new solutions. Based on current ways of doing things in the company, or procedures in the specific field, what solutions would effectively solve the problem? There’s no need to justify these solutions at this point; just get them out there. This also isn’t the time for wild solutions; instead, explore standard solutions that are not currently being employed.
  6. End the session. After the solutions are listed, it is time to end the meeting. No conclusions should be reached. The ideal time for this first meeting is on a Friday. The mind has a way of coming up with ideas and solutions when the direct focus is not placed on the problem. Almost everyone has experienced a situation where, after failing to try forcing a solution, they took a break and suddenly a solution popped into their head. This step is sadly ignored in most decision-making processes. The best place for this step is after all the information has been gathered and looked at as described. During the weekend, everyone will be doing something unrelated to work, incubating their ideas without wasting valuable time during the week.

Session 2: Finding the Solution

The following steps for Session 2 will guide you to an optimal solution:

  1. Start with a brain game. The best games are exercises that get people thinking critically about a problem in a new way. These exercises don’t have to relate to business—research shows that when the critical-thinking mindset is activated by any task, the mindset carries over to the next task to produce results.
  2. See if anyone has any new solutions. Referring to the first session, see if anything came to anyone over the weekend that uses standard solutions.
  3. Get people to give wild solutions. Have the participants use their imagination and dream up wild solutions to the problem. It doesn’t matter if they seem crazy at first—just get everything out there. Standard ideas from other disciplines that have never been applied to a problem like the one being tackled can be very useful.
  4. Get everyone’s gut reaction to the options presented. There’s no need for any justification. This serves the same purpose as step three from the first session.
  5. List the weaknesses. Go over each solution and have people come up with possible weaknesses of each approach.
  6. List the strengths. Go over each solution again, this time listing their strengths.
  7. Make a decision. By the time you get to this step, the solution will probably be obvious. If not, look at the solutions side-by-side. If consensus cannot be reached (and you have the resources), see if both solutions can be tested simultaneously for the next week by different people.
  8. Articulate the decision as a concrete goal with a specific result. It is imperative that the goal is framed in terms of the specific desired result. A targeted result must be measurable including a definitive deadline. A result that says: “Design a new product packaging” doesn’t offer sufficient clarity and direction. Be as specific as possible.
  9. Delegate responsibilities. Assign tasks to everyone present that makes full use of their skills. It helps to know who you’re working with. People may have skills you’re unfamiliar with that would benefit the project.

Working Together

This process should create a clear solution. As everyone plays a role in determining the solution, each team member is more likely to be motivated to follow the project through to completion.

No matter who came up with the final solution, the project is the property of the group. Everyone is accountable for the project’s result. If anyone fails, everyone fails. This attitude creates a support system and encourages communication and responsibility.

Although it’s important to have group consensus, it’s equally important to focus on the contributions of the individual. Have specialists take leadership roles whenever possible. People with specialized knowledge are best equipped to run the related part of the project, allowing them to shine individually.

The leader should focus on maintaining the balance between the group project and individual expertise, ensuring that proper ideas and communication are being exchanged and making sure each person has what he or she needs from the group in order to do their best.

Schedule Meetings

Weekly meetings should be scheduled to monitor progress. They don’t have to be long; they are simply to facilitate communication and follow-through (creating accountability), and to monitor the project’s progress. If something isn’t working—and chances are something won’t—identify it, and have the group brainstorm fixes. Repeat the process of listing standard fixes, then wild fixes, examining the weaknesses, then strengths, and finally determining a usable solution. This adaptive use of the process is something many companies miss and end up wasting time on something that could be solved quickly with the expertise of the whole group.

These weekly meetings also establish benchmarks that will keep people focused and motivated to produce. These times are a showcase for highly-motivated people as well—they will force themselves to accomplish as much as possible so they can contribute their individual talents with the group. This perspective is contagious: hard work propagates hard work.

Play Along

Imagination and the creative impulse can transform problems into new solutions and opportunities.  Creativity is a powerful force that we can access—when we start to have fun with a problem.

If you want to ignite your team’s creative energy, learn to see this process through. It’s easy to jump to the end and skip steps. We all have the urge to try to get the better ideas faster. But the creative process can’t be rushed. We must honor it.

If you can learn to foster an open environment and set up the optimal conditions for creativity to thrive with your group, the collective creative juices will begin to flow and transform your business.

Viola Spolin, co-founder of the improvisational style of theatre, taught children to play games to solve problems; playing stimulates the mind to create solutions. How can you play? If you are selling a book, what if you were forced to use the book as another object in an activity or discussion? What associations would arise? You can check out Spolin’s Theatre Games for the Classroom for exercises to jumpstart your mind for creativity.

Playing along will take you out of your comfort zone; that’s part of its power. If you’re having trouble playing along, try adopting the mindset of a child. Children are happiest when they are allowed to play. Children have always used their imagination to create something new.

More Points to Keep in Mind

  • Push people to listen to others when they are speaking. The single most important factor in producing ideas in a group brainstorm (that outweigh those produced by an equal number of individuals working independently) is the attention paid to other people’s ideas. Ideas propagate ideas, but only if people are paying attention.
  • Make sure there are no distractions. Turn off the cell phones. No one should leave the meeting when everyone else is working. Too much rambling and too many tangents create a background noise that has been shown to impede the generation of ideas.
  • Guard against heavy discussion among group members directed towards a solution; this is especially important early on. If some information dominates a discussion, the final solution often gets skewed toward this solution. It also makes it less likely that someone else will present unique information.
  • Be wary of anyone who is “the expert.” With difficult decision-making, there is a tendency for groups to come to a consensus that mirrors the solution suggested by “the expert,” but this doesn’t necessarily produce the best solution. Focus on the collective expertise of the group rather than the individual.
  • Delegate a set amount of time to each segment of the session. If sessions have no clear ending time, they tend to end up with ramblings. There’s no need for the same ideas to be stated more than once.
  • Be flexible: If it seems like more time is genuinely needed, spend more time on it.

Commit to this creative process to generate new, exciting solutions. Having fun with this process will lead to success.

Want to explore creativity further?

If you have any questions or if you’d like us to bring our creativity workshop to you, email me: [email protected].

Best of luck in your creative endeavors!

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