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Creative Thinking for Teams

If people are a company’s most important asset, the most successful firms will be those that are able to generate the largest possible returns from those resources. Increasing productivity is one way to do that but an even more valuable method is to mine team members for ideas. Tap into your team’s thoughts and you might well find that your firm, however small, already has what it takes to zoom ahead of the competition. The trick though is to extract that creativity. Here are five ways to squeeze big ideas out of your team members.

1. Understand the Value of the Team in Fostering Creativity

Great ideas rarely come out of one person fully-formed and waiting for the rest of the team to pick up and start building. As leadership theorist John Eric Adair points out in his book Leadership for Innovation: How to Organize Creativity and Harvest Ideas, new ideas are more likely to be half-formed, full of mistakes and problems, and need plenty of tweaking before they’re ready to roll.

An individual might have the germ of an idea but it’s the team’s job to find the positive aspects of that idea and to build on its framework with creative contributions of their own. It’s that participation that turns a creative concept into an innovative team  — and a successful company.

The first step to fostering team creativity then is to make sure that the attitude is right: to reward creative individuals but encourage the rest of the team to co-operate with that creativity and not just compete with it.

2. Brainstorm Effectively with Pattern-Breaking

The usual way to generate ideas in teams is to gather everyone in one place, have them throw out their thoughts and write them down for everyone else to see and judge. It’s rarely effective, usually resulting in a full whiteboard, a list of unworkable ideas and a lot of confusion. Brainstorming doesn’t usually work, and it doesn’t work for a couple of reasons.

The first is that when ideas are being shot down as soon as they’re born, team members learn to keep quiet to avoid criticism. Brainstorming sessions tend to be negative rather than productive. The second reason though is that brainstorming keeps people thinking within their usual patterns. As Dr. Charles Prather, author of The Manager’s Guide to Fostering Innovation writes:

“Brainstorming as usually practiced just empties our mental box of all the usual ideas. It is not engineered to break our patterns of thought.”

The solution, he argues, is to create a standard brainstorming session that uses a structure first proposed by Alex Osborn, founder of advertising form BBDO, in Applied Imagination: generate lots of ideas; avoid judgment; build on ideas that others have contributed: and stack the deck with wild cards who know little about the project or what’s usually considered possible. (IBM’s Smarter Planet Initiative is said to have been proposed at one of the company’s “jams,” brainstorming sessions at which even employees’ relatives can take part.)

Once the brainstorming session has ended though, and the expected ideas presented, the team members can start looking for the truly innovative, out-of-the-box concepts. One way to do that, Dr. Prather argues, is to reverse assumptions. A taxi firm, for example, assumes that passengers know where they want to go. If the reverse were true and only the driver knew the destination, the cab firm would have created the idea of adding a tour service to its range.

3. Create Five Building Blocks for Virtual Teams

Generating creativity from a team in one location is hard enough. Squeezing out ideas from virtual teams is a challenge on a whole different scale. Jill Nemiro, a researcher at California State Polytechnic University, has identified five building blocks which she says are necessary for creative virtual teams: design; climate; resources; norms; and continual assessment.

Some of those blocks are more obvious than others. While ideas always seem to require resources to become real, and continual assessment is necessary to ensure the team is on the right track, “design” refers to the process by which a creative idea is developed. That might be modular, in which each team member is given a specific task; or it could be iterative in which team members are in regular contact and report constantly on progress and problems. To successfully encourage creativity in virtual teams, Nemiro argues, team members have to choose the right creative process design for them and their task.

4. Be a Creative Leader

Kimberly Douglas’s book The Firefly Effect: Build Teams that Capture Creativity and Catapult Results compares hunting down an idea to chasing fireflies. Although the book emphasizes the team aspect of a firefly hunt — a group of children working together for a specific goal, inspired and yet still in competition — many of the chapters are really about leadership. Creative firms, she says, need a new kind of leader, one who will:

“create a fertile environment that will allow creativity to be unleashed.”

That mostly comes down to building an atmosphere in which ideas can be shared instead of stored, and knowing what to do with a good idea when you see one.

5. Reward Creative Thinkers

Perhaps the best way to encourage creative thinking though is to make clear that people who have good ideas are rewarded for sharing them. That doesn’t have to take the form of cash compensation. Glory can be a good reward too. Make the person who had the idea responsible for seeing it through, and they’ll get all the kudos when it all comes together.

Except that sometimes it doesn’t work. The idea for Twitter came from employee Jack Dorsey during a brainstorming session at Odeo. Dorsey was given the position of Twitter CEO but soon made way in a reportedly acrimonious move in favor of former Odeo CEO Evan Williams. Part of smart creative team leadership is knowing how to give out the prizes for a good idea — and who is the best person to build the concept.

One Comment

  1. Aaron Eden Says:

    I've just read a blog where it says that 'your brand is your people' and fostering that sense of creativity can be a tough challenge for people like us who are completely running virtual teams. First, there's the issue of distance and time zones. Second, cultural barriers. And third, cultural gap. I think that giving your team freedom... and a sense of accountability for that freedom makes them more creative. When you give someone a task, it's like saying 'I respect your skills' --but when you make someone find a solution for a task, it's like saying 'I have trust in what you can do' and there's a huge difference between the two. Thanks for sharing these awesome tips, by the way!

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