How to unleash your team’s creativity

Creativity is a buzz. It generates ideas, insights, new product concepts, magical new marketing message – and as a byproduct – enthusiastic, energised staff. There are creativity training programs and tools, creativity hubs, hotspots, creativity conferences and creativity consultants. With so many options, what does a leading company do?

Some firms buy idea management software. It works wonderfully well as long as they have people to drive the software, funds to resource work on the best ideas, and a culture where ideas are valued. But just as entrepreneurs build from their own natural talents, the first step in fostering creative thought is to build on the natural creativity of people – ask them for their creative thoughts!

While firms can buy in dozens of creativity techniques, ranging from the disarmingly simple to the bewilderingly complex, leading companies are those that generate their own future.

The Steve Jobs effect

Leander Kahney, in his insightful book Inside Steve’s Brain, distilled the principles that guided Steve Jobs as he set about rebuilding the world’s most innovative company. He captured the dramatic moment when Jobs returned to Apple as CEO after previously being fired from the company he founded:

“Before anyone could react, Steve Jobs entered the room, looking like a bum. He was wearing shorts and sneakers and several days’ worth of stubble. He plonked himself into a chair and slowly started to spin.

“Tell me what’s wrong with this place,” he said. Before anyone could reply, he burst out: “It’s the products. The products SUCK. There’s no sex in them.”

We must always encourage our staff to remember that they are creative, to demonstrate creativity and, following Steve, to demand creativity. Reminding people that they are naturally creative involves two streams. First, simply remind the staff of their creative jokes, wisecracks, lines and talent. Then create the possibility for others: “You may be surprised at what you come up with when you give it a bit of time.” And then we can tell our own stories of silly and successful creative endeavours and offer everyone the challenge of change.

Now I am a mostly serious type but I can enjoy a joke and see the funny side of even the worst experiences (the day after). Technology entrepreneurs who have mastered the most subtle complexities in their field also tend to see the serious side.

Fortunately my good friend Megan helped me out. She reminded me (straight out told me, actually) that while I practised loosening up I could simply delegate the demonstrations and storytelling to the highly visible, fun leader in our team.

Our marketing manager, Potter, happens to be a person not averse to dressing up, dancing and harmonica playing. From time to time he uses all of these abilities, in addition to stories, and his domineering charm. (Example: overheard in conversation with our new programmer: “I haven’t had a creative idea from you in days. You WILL have one for me tomorrow when I buy you lunch, won’t you?”)  Within a few weeks many more ideas were floating around, including one or two that had the smell of significant opportunity.

Under Megan’s tutelage I came to see that this was not a matter of luck. Rather, it was a talent of leaders who know you can’t be all things to all people and look to the best people among their team for particular jobs.

Asking people to be creative works better when it’s regularly woven into a manager’s narrative as they talk with staff. It seems to works best when we show the way and give people some time and space to play (a hot spot over the coffee machine and permission to throw around ideas.)

There were some bumps along the path to our blooming opportunity factory. As staff responded to Potter’s charm, more ideas flowed, more ideas were rejected and (groan) more and more, louder and louder rumblings were heard.

The problem in companies that fail the innovation test is that people become tired of offering ideas; responding to our requests for ideas, only to see them thrown in the abyss. Worse still, supervisors who are too busy to acknowledge the effort that went into considering ideas that require just a bit more effort, or some degree of courage, are like Apple CEO Scully, who fired Jobs because he couldn’t see a path to the future.

Once again Megan helped me see the point here. It takes time for people to learn to come up with good ideas, and the only way they learn is by getting good helpful feedback on why their idea didn’t make it and to be encouraged to strive to build on prior ideas and experience in the way that Steve picked up the nascent ideas of others. There are no bad ideas – only learning opportunities.

Take Toyota’s lead

This is one of the reasons Toyota is the most profitable car manufacturer in the world – even after recent factory recalls and tsunami shocks.

Its Prius is one of the leading hybrid products around the globe. Toyota had the courage and the commitment to put together a new young team to cut emissions and costs.

Each worker on the Toyota production line puts forward more than 20 ideas a year and after team discussion, 95% of the ideas are implemented. They have been doing it for well over 20 years. Fortunately, the world has loosened up a great deal since Toyota started its global-leading culture change.

Every leading company recognises that the Megans and Potters are the Steves doing the job of finding ways to tap into the natural creativity within the gold mines of their team members.

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