Creativity and innovation in the workplace are getting lots of attention these days, and rightly so given the pressures to be competitive in all aspects of product design, service delivery and customer engagement. And every generation I know wants to contribute in some manner to the way their workplace develops its ideas, even if they aren’t in an inherently creative role.
Unfortunately, many companies don’t invest specific time and effort in developing the foundational skills for innovation and creativity that are needed to fuel these processes. Although creative industries might bring together populations of people who have trained in these methods, the skills involved are ones that are equally vital for traditional bricks-and-mortar businesses, big and small alike.
As a leader, I know from personal experience that leading the creative and innovation process can be daunting, starting with the self-imposed view that the leader should have some good ideas of his or her own. Hopefully they do, but they’re not likely to be the best ideas, or at least not all the time.
Instead, the leader in the creative and innovation cycle is as much a cheerleader and process coach as they are a potential star player. Being able to cultivate an environment where anyone, regardless of position or responsibility, can generate ideas is one that is hard for some leaders to achieve, but it’s critical to do so if you want a level playing field and the free flow of ideas.
Equally important is for people at all levels of the organization to not assume that their leaders are infallible, or to hold them to an unreasonable standard of brilliance. Having credibility is important to be an effective leader, but developing a culture of openly sharing ideas rests on the trust that others have with one another.
Make it safe to play with ideas
The term “psychological safety” is not yet a common one in many organizations, but it is a massively important part of allowing employees to engage their intellect fully, trusting that mistakes they make while thinking outside the box will not be unfairly punished. And, when people are making themselves vulnerable by thinking deeply and trying to generate creative ideas, this includes their not being ridiculed by having their ideas called out as “harebrained” by superiors, peers or subordinates alike.
Old ideas may be new again
How often have we offered an idea, only to be told by someone that “We tried that a few years ago, and it didn’t work”? The reality is that ideas may need a particular context to be successful. What didn’t work a few years ago could well be the right solution now, so everyone in the process needs to be careful about judging ideas too quickly based on past experience. This equally applies to comments based on experience with other companies. Again, what didn’t work at one company for any number of internal reasons may be a game-changing approach for another.
Cast a wide net
At the early stages of innovating creatively, thinking outside the box may generate seemingly outlandish ideas. That’s actually the fun part and should be embraced as a way to open up new lines of thinking. Some may well prove to be such, but it’s important not to constrain the flow of ideas early on by insisting that everything be completely serious, practical, logical or within the bounds of current thinking. Challenging long-held assumptions is a key part of being creative and innovative, but it’s not something we’ve learned to do after years of being taught that there is a “right answer” to most things.
Explore more than one option
One of the challenges that comes with the creative innovation process is that you can generate what seems like an endless list of options, many of which seem good. While you can’t pursue them all equally and need to filter things down to a practical number, don’t assume that only one (or two or three) are all that you need. Instead, the next part of the task is to investigate the various options more rigorously, while not closing out any of the front runners just yet. Check online and you’ll see any number of approaches that can help you to critically analyze options on an equally factual basis.
Lest the visual image of fussball-playing creative types lounging on bean-bag chairs in the innovation lab be holding you back, realize that this stuff is hard work – but it can be immensely rewarding when you make a breakthrough that transforms your organization.
Eileen Dooley is a principal and executive coach in the leadership practice of Odgers Berndtson, global executive search and leadership advisory firm.
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