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Unshackle Your Team’s Creativity

Forward Business Planning

Have you ever wished for more input, insights, and ideas from the employees on your team?

Especially when our businesses are not performing as well as we’d like, we really need our teammates’ creative ideas. But when we gather a group and ask for ideas—whether for new product features, cost reduction ideas, or ways to improve service—we often see the same, recycled thoughts. Or ones that are only a smidgen better than what’s currently being done.

It’s not the employees’ fault. Humans are wired to keep doing what they’ve been rewarded for in the past. We are wired to protect our allies, and to avoid risk. These tendencies tend to hold us back when it comes to thinking in new ways. We are shackled by what’s worked before and have a hard time imagining a new way of doing things.

Here are a few techniques for helping your team break free to develop new ways of thinking about your business.

1) Ask questions that prompt a total re-think

Asking new questions is powerful. A few years ago, entrepreneur Christian Sarkar and Dartmouth professor Vijay Govindarajan asked how we could build a safe, sanitary and durable house for only $300. This question, which they posed in the Harvard Business Review and other outlets, not only stimulated designers to come up with novel materials and construction methods, but also forced a rethink of the social and political principles involved in providing housing for the poor.

Asking bold, unconventional questions sparks new ideas and helps us break away from incremental thinking. <— Click to Tweet

2) Ask for a prototype

Whether you’re in a service business, an online business, or are a manufacturer, asking employees to create a prototype of a new product or a new way of doing business works wonders for getting the creative juices flowing.

Even a simple mockup helps others to visualize our thinking, and allows them to build on our ideas. In fact, simpler, half-baked prototypes can be more helpful to the creative process than thoroughly developed prototypes. Because less effort is spent creating them, other team members are more comfortable giving challenging feedback.

3) Ask employees to observe the business from a different vantage point, and to tap into their network

Encourage your team to observe your business from a different vantage point—doing a different job than their own for a few days, or talking with a customer group they haven’t previously been exposed to. And, ask them to tap into their network to help generate new ideas. Talking to customers, suppliers, family members, friends, and colleagues will give employees new perspectives on the problem at hand.

One company I know tried this approach when revenue growth had stalled. A team member’s sixteen-year-old daughter had a number of ideas for product improvements that had never been suggested before. These enhancements were implemented over the course of the next few months, and resulted in renewed revenue growth.

4) Suggest they “play competitor”

I worked with a team recently whose mission was to introduce a new offering that directly competed with their company’s oldest and highest-revenue product. The team was very tentative at first, always asking permission from their colleagues who were responsible for selling the existing product before calling on accounts to learn what customers thought of the new offering.

Things changed when the division leader said, “Pretend you’re our competitor. I guarantee they’re not asking permission to call on these accounts.” This comment freed the team to act—and think—just as a competitor would. The nature of the dialog with customers changed, as well. New ideas began to flow in both directions.

5) Give your team a metaphorical “magic wand” to recreate reality.

Employees may keep ideas to themselves, or simply disregard their own thinking, because they believe their ideas to be too unconventional. As a result, what could otherwise be a breakthrough concept for you and your organization is suppressed, and does not get brought to the surface. When you encourage your team to bring up new ideas and thinking regardless of current organizational constraints, you may discover just how full of ideas your employees really are. 

Ask questions that remove barriers. “What would we do if we were unconstrained by our current assets and employee base? What if we had unlimited capital, or marketing budget? What would we do if we knew that our current business would dwindle to zero within the next two years?”

6) Provide time for individual thinking

Some people think better while speaking out loud and sharing their ideas, and others are more creative when they have quiet time to contemplate an issue independently. Leaders may interpret silence as a lack of engagement. However, even your most silent employees may be harboring breakthrough thoughts and ideas.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos requires each member of his senior leadership team who wants to share an idea with the group to write a six-page memo clarifying their recommendations and rationale. The first twenty to twenty-five minutes of his weekly, two-hour senior leadership meetings are dedicated to quiet time for each attendee to read the memos.  This structured, independent thinking increases decision-making rigor, and prevents groupthink.

Let me know in the comments below – what’s one way you promote creative thinking in your organization?

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