Wisdom//

Managers, It’s Not Enough for Your Team to “Deliver” — Here’s How to Help Them Innovate

Why it’s so hard to be creative at work, and how to get better at it.

Magnetic Mcc / Shutterstock
Magnetic Mcc / Shutterstock

Being creative at work can present a conundrum: Your work life consists of tight deadlines, non-essential meetings, and a focus on delivering rather than thinking outside the box — and yet, you’re still expected to keep your creative juices flowing all the time. This can be frustrating, and may even be causing you to feel stuck.

According to a Gallup workplace study of more than 16,000 employees, 35 percent of workers say they’re only given the opportunity to be creative a few times a year. Considering that nearly 30 percent of workers strongly agree that they’re expected to be creative, there is a huge disconnect between the demand for new ideas and workplace structures that can actually prevent their generation. 

If you’re a manager, you’ve likely been given the difficult task of discouraging your direct reports from making simple choices just so they can meet deadlines. Instead, you want to encourage them to propose unconventional ideas that truly move the needle for your company. But how exactly should you pull people out of autopilot and give them the tools they need to fully participate in, appreciate, and value the creative process? Believe it or not, a few simple changes in the way you hold meetings and hold your direct reports accountable can make all the difference in their ability to be creative. 

Replace brainstorming with “brainwriting” 

While the aim of a creative brainstorming session is to shed light on the ideas of many, a lot of your meeting discourse probably happens with a select few. In her research, Leigh Thompson, Ph.D., a professor of dispute resolution and organizations at Northwestern University, has found that in a six-person meeting, two people will do over 60 percent of the talking. And this phenomenon, which Thompson refers to as a “doom loop,” only worsens when more people are in the mix. “The people who are not quite as dominant don’t speak, because they’ve given up, and the overly dominant people take over. It just becomes this self-perpetuating cycle,” Thompson tells Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management

Thompson’s solution to a failed brainstorm is called “brainwriting.” “Brainstorming is the simultaneous oral generation of ideas. Brainwriting is the simultaneous written generation of ideas,” she explains. The next time you call for group idea generation, have your colleagues write their ideas down — without attaching their names. That way, everyone will have a chance to bring their thoughts to the table and engage in an open, honest conversation.

Schedule flexible check-ins

Risk-taking is essential to creative endeavors, yet risk-taking can take a lot of time and even more trust. Gallup found that only 18 percent of employees strongly agree that they can take risks at work that would lead to new solutions. When employees feel like they can’t take risks, their companies can lose out on opportunities and novel outcomes. To give your direct reports more time to think creatively and take chances (and give you the chance to track their progress and develop a stronger rapport), try integrating creative check-in points into your workflow. That way, your direct reports can try new things, seek and solicit feedback, and course-correct where necessary.

Transform a “delivery mindset” into “divergent thinking” 

When you’re short on time and in need of quick solutions, it becomes all too easy to fall into a “delivery mindset” — or as defined by the Institute for Management and Development, a pattern of “rushing to quick answers” that fall within our comfort zone. Having a delivery mindset cancels out creative efforts, and pushes us to return to the same solutions over and over again. As a manager, push your team members to practice “divergent thinking” instead. According to the IMD, divergent thinking is “a process for identifying new opportunities, finding multiple creative ways to address intractable issues or abstract problems and challenging the organizational status quo.” When faced with a problem, challenge your team members — with compassionate directness — to identify creative solutions they’ve never tried before. Work together with them to create a timeline and outline specifics, and help them put their plan into action. 

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