How Do You Encourage Creativity in the Office?

McChrystal Group
Oct 23, 2017 · 4 min read

By: Allison Spies, Partner at McChrystal Group

As managers and leaders, we are constantly pressed for creativity. To this end, I’ve seen a fascinating march of workplace tools and experiences designed to spur new ideas and fuel innovation. I’ll freely admit, the idea of my team working from the in-house office pirate ship is intriguing and my shoulders ache for lunchtime massages, but I’m not sure either of these things would truly prepare my teams to solve the challenging situations faced on client sites. The reality for many managers is a far cry from poetry walls and mood-themed thought pods.

But, you don’t need a pirate ship to engage creativity, and indeed less, rather than more is key to overcoming the innovation deficit plaguing organizations.

Let’s take a short trip to Berlin to explore this idea further. For three months each year in select child-care centers, the children pack away all their toys. The legos, dolls, teddy bears, arts and crafts, dress up boxes, books, balls, and board games all disappear. Only blankets, pillows, chairs, and tables remain, accompanied by stunned little faces.

While alarm bells and scenes of Lord of Flies may be flashing past you, rest easy. According to studies of documented in Der Spielzeugfreie Kindergarten (The Toy Free Kindergarten) by Elke Schubert and Rainer Strick, the children soon invent their own activities and games and decide how to spend their time in a world free from over-engineered and prescribed methods of engagement. Elisabeth Seifert, the managing director of Aktion Jugendschutz comments, “Without any toys, children have the time to develop their own ideas.”

So what do a bunch of German three-year-olds have to teach us about creativity in the office? From my experience in managing creative processes, there is much to be said for pairing back the distractions, channeled thinking, and functional fixedness. The most creative results I have seen in my teams have been when we’ve struck the right balance of guidance and free space for activity.

Give the Right Guidance: Describe the Problem, Not the Solution

Albert Einstein stated that the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. If you really want your teams to be creative, don’t dictate the outcome you want to see, but instead communicate the problem you are trying to solve. I had often paid lip-service to this idea until circumstance forced it into action. Stricken with the onset of a vicious flu, I offloaded the week’s work plan. Rather than describing the ideal end state, I left the team with the ugly problem, warts and all.

The solution the team provided in my absence was brilliant. Although raw and a little unrefined, it cleverly engaged risk and opportunity in ways I had not considered. By focusing on providing guidance without dictating process, I had given the team freedom to creatively solve in ways that likely would have been unexplored otherwise. As leaders, if we describe the problem, not the solution we prevent the early onset of group think and functional fixedness. As in the case of the kindergarteners, without toys which focused their attention in forced ways, a prescribed solution for their problem of ‘boredom- the children expressed great creativity. Trains made out of chairs, new languages and songs, and make-believe traveling adventures emerged from the kids’ imaginations.

Unclutter the Thought Space: Encourage Team Members to Put Down Tools

Allocate time in the week for team members to engage in blue sky thinking. Turn off phone and laptops and pare back the distractions. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you leave your team alone in a conference room to build a pillow fort and play chair trains for an afternoon. But removing the limitations of known tools, techniques, standard operating procedures, and the constant pinging of devices is a great way to create space for new ideas.

Protecting this time for your team members is not easy, but it will yield dividends. According to Sara Zaske, who documented her experience with the toy-free kindergarten, amongst the most ardent critics of the approach were the parents, who worried the toy-free project would bore their children so much that they wouldn’t want to go to school. Watching a staff member doodle away on a whiteboard while listening to music takes self-control, particularly when deadlines beckon and you know they could be advancing the team agenda when seated back at their desk. In the words of Saint Augustine of Hippo, remember patience is the companion of wisdom (and truly creative solutions often take time to incubate).

The Last Word

Finally, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, a trailblazer who regularly pushed the establishment out of its comfort zone, it’s not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself. Make sure you pack your own toys away and engage blue sky time to stimulate creativity as a leader, too.

(Sara Zaske’s article)

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