How does your company compare? And what can you do as a leader to encourage creativity in your workplace? Here are some principles and practices I use to help clients foster creativity and innovation at work.
Robert Altman, on accepting an Honorary Academy Award for film direction, said, “The role of the director is to create a space where the actors and actresses can become more than they’ve ever been before, more than they’ve dreamed of being.”
I once had a client who directed our team just like Robert Altman. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, nor felt so exhilarated. “Bob” was an executive at a global technology company and we were part of a team working on a leadership development project that was challenging in complexity and scope.
Bob provided the resources we needed and a sense of humor and encouragement throughout the process. He wisely knew when to lead, follow or get out of the way, and set the example for us to do the same. His good-natured humor made it safe to speak candidly without worrying about politics, and we felt comfortable strategizing, contributing ideas and critiquing.
We kept drilling down, mining what I call “group gold” to tap into the brilliance that each of us brought to the table, to produce extraordinary results. This only happens through taking concepts through several iterations to fully hone them, and it’s hard work.
“What brilliance do you bring to this project?”
It’s an arresting question. We don’t usually think about our brilliance—we see it as too egotistical–but I have found this to be a profoundly transformative question. We inherently know what our brilliance is; we just don’t usually voice it.
I was inspired by Brian Fraser’s story, in his book Jazzthink, about being interviewed for a position at a consulting firm. Their first question was, “What brilliance do you bring to the project?” He said that question made him think differently—and made him listen differently as well. “I remember keying in on the brilliance and strengths of others in that same interview, and imagining how our varied brilliance might blend together in a remarkable performance. I stopped worrying about how I was doing in the interview and began enjoying the possibilities that were emerging in the conversation. The creative flow of the entire process had been created by that simple, but profound question.”
Imagine having meetings like that! I have used this question as an icebreaker to set the stage for creativity, and to create an opportunity for people to experience each other in a new way. I also ask everyone to listen for the brilliance of others as they explore ideas. Setting the tone of the meeting in this manner has had a huge impact on each group I’ve worked with. It raises the energy in the room, and improves camaraderie and collaborative creativity. As one participant remarked, “It helped me appreciate the richness of diversity amongst my co-workers.”
Develop whole-brain creativity
Everybody is creative in some way, not just the so-called “right-brain” people. The ideal creative team embodies four different types of intelligence: analytical, artistic, relational and operational.
- Encourage analytical people on your team to use their superpowers to synthesize information, and frame opportunities. Creativity in analytics = better insights and answers.
- Encourage artistry by exploring your intuition and imaginative ideas, and envisioning future possibilities.
- Apply relational intelligence to creativity by empathizing with the needs of your customers (and team), welcoming diverse perspectives, and considering the impact of your idea from a systemic point of view.
- Activate your operational intelligence by planning actions, mitigating risk, and implementing your ideas.
As Sir Richard Branson has said, practice your ABCDs: Always be connecting the dots. Be on the lookout for what is new and interesting. Take time to use your intuition to interpret what you have discovered to generate great ideas. Focus and direct your ideas on creating value for your customers (both internal and external). Branson has embedded this practice into the DNA of his companies.
Coaching for creativity
What is the best way to motivate employees to do creative work? Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer explore this question in their book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. As you can see, the answer is in the title. The authors studied the inner life of thousands of employees in seven different companies. They discovered that: “When people are feeling happiest, proudest, and most motivated, the single most prominent event in those days is making progress in meaningful work. If the person drags out of the office disengaged and joyless, a setback is likely to blame. Small wins can boost inner work life tremendously, and spark creativity.”
Their study also revealed that most managers don’t have a clue about how important progress is to employee creativity. Only 5 percent of managers correctly identified progress as the No. 1 factor in creating fulfilled, engaged employees. Managers can aid progress by giving employees what the authors call “Catalysts” and “Nourishers.”
Catalysts of progress (events that helped a project move forward) include setting clear goals; allowing autonomy; providing resources; giving enough time (but not too much); offering help with the work; learning from both problems and successes; and allowing ideas to flow.
Nourishers of progress include interpersonal interactions that lift people’s spirits. Inhibitors (events that induce setbacks) and Toxins (interpersonal interactions that serve to undermine employees’ spirits) can have an extremely negative effect on the work environment.
Be a catalyst for creativity by inspiring excellence, listening for brilliance, applying whole-brain thinking to your work, removing the barriers to progress, practicing your ABCDs and discovering opportunities for innovation that benefit all concerned.
This post was first published in IABC’s CW Magazine February 2015