In a world that is constantly changing, there is a need for creativity, a belief corroborated by LinkedIn’s research that found it was the number one soft skill needed by organizations. But, can creativity be developed, and can leaders create a culture of creativity? Opinions differ, with many people believing that creativity is something we are born with and not something we can teach or develop.
One perspective around creativity comes from an in-depth and repeatedly cited study by George Land, Ph.D., who discovered that everyone is born with creativity, but education system and society erode this ability over time. In short, creativity is not learned, but rather is unlearned, posing the question of whether creativity can be relearned.
Another perspective is Albert Einstein’s contrarian definition of creativity, which states that “creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought.” Viewed from this perspective, it appears that creativity can be developed and improved upon—as long as it’s an environment where creativity is valued and encouraged.
1. Kick-off limitless green-light thinking
Too often, leaders ask their teams to solve problems but lay down ground rules or constraints such as a limited budget. Other times, they share their ideas first, which is also limiting because people think their ideas have to mimic the boss. Instead, give them the tools they need such as clear goals, results desired, or training on effective brainstorming techniques—then get out of the way.
2. Coach people on forgetting the “buts” and “hows”
When brainstorming, people tend to critique each other’s ideas. The most common tactic is to say, “That’s a great idea but…” , and nothing shuts down the flow of creative juices faster. “But” is the first cousin to “how” and often people will also say, “How is that going to work?” or “How could we manage that solution?”
To keep ideas flowing, avoid addressing processes or tactical steps until later. Instead, coach people on how to listen and ask questions that encourage more ideas and innovation. Instead of using ‘but,’ try saying ‘and’— for example, “That’s an interesting idea, and we might also consider…”, or “That is a creative approach, and it sounds like it might be expensive”, Or simply, “Interesting. Tell me more.” Other phrases people can use are:
- “Hmm, I wonder what would happen if we tried that”
- “What else could we do to solve this?”
These phrasings are more likely to encourage curiosity, which is a key component to creativity.
Model this behavior whenever possible in meetings and be sure to help your teams understand what you are doing and why. The ‘but’ habit is hard to break; encourage everyone to bring it to your attention when you say it, and to do the same for each other.
3. Ensure diversity
When forming your work teams, think hard and often about looking for people who are not like you. We tend to hire in our image because that’s what makes us comfortable. When assigning partners, creating small groups to a project, or hiring, foster diverse perspectives by considering people’s age, their work experience, and skillsets, strengths and weaknesses, and personalities. Balance the team with people who are outgoing and enthusiastic with co-workers who are analytical and tap into both seasoned and green employees.
4. Encourage risk-taking
There is no more powerful way to shut down creativity than by punishing, criticizing, or scolding people for taking risks. “Failure is not an option” is one of my least favorite phrases because it creates fear. Instead, develop an environment where failure is a way to learn and grow. One way to foster creativity can start with what everyone thinks is the worst idea and then mapping ways to transform it. Avoid finger-pointing and instead have people focus on what went right, which ideas have merit, and what they learned from their efforts.
5. Encourage collaboration with a touch of competitiveness
Typically, we think of collaboration as the antithesis of competitiveness, yet combined they can be a powerful motivator for creativity. When your team is facing a problem or a complex project, have small groups work on it together and encourage them to give names to their teams to create a bit of ownership and fun. Let teams know they will have to present their ideas to the whole group and if it fits your culture, gamify the process through leaderboards such as those available through Oracle Work Life (a part of Oracle Cloud HCM).
When employees are encouraged to think creatively, the entire organization benefits. Employees themselves feel empowered, energized, valued, and valuable. Setting teams up for creativity is essential for effective leadership.