Help your team be more creative: 10 things you can do right now

TL;DR — create psychological safety so that people can be present with their authentic selves and truly build on the ideas of others.

For me, creativity can be defined as the ability to make non-linear connections between different pieces of information.

In the world of work, we most often see this play out in terms of problem solving. An individual or team who can come up with ‘innovative’ solutions are most likely to have seen a pattern which wasn’t obvious to begin with.

As with many skills in the world, those that are really good at this make it look effortless and as if it happens without any process (public speaking, networking, resilience i’m looking at you). However, as with all those other skills there is a huge amount of work that goes into getting to that stage and continuing to operate at a high level.

This isn’t to say that you can’t come up with creative ideas without a process or focus on the culture that supports it, but it does make it less likely. In just the same way that you might deliver a great best man speech if you don’t practice it, you’ve probably got a better chance if you do focus on it beforehand.

1. The more perspectives you have, the better ideas you get.

Not everyone agrees with this point. Some genuinely think that a room full of people on the same page, with the same experience and a short-hand of language create the best solutions to problems.

That’s totally fine for them, but I think that a diversity of thought produces the best results — especially in situations where context is shifting all the time, such as those with a digital element.

For me, this is why the Diversity agenda is so important for businesses of all shapes and sizes. Whilst it might be harder at first to work with people that see the world in different ways, if you can work to create a shared understanding then you’ll find more interesting ways to solve problems.

In the world of business, this translates to doing things in ways that your competitors haven’t thought of driving more value for your customers, donors or users…

2. The best ideas come from building on each other’s thoughts

Even if you have diverse groups trying to solve problems, thinking can easily be channeled down a particular route rather than exploring options which build on the ideas of others.

One way to represent this is to think of ‘idea trees’ and ‘idea chains’.

An idea tree starts from a single thought and all the subsequent ideas are related back to that initial ‘seed’. Let’s use the example of planning a trip to Paris:

An idea tree about planning a trip to Paris

If we were using an ‘idea tree’ approach, we might think of lots of practical bits and pieces quite quickly, but you’re already down a certain set of thinking before you know it. This is because all the subsequent ideas are actually building off the initial idea of going to Paris, rather than building on the next statement.

However, if we re-orientate our perspective and truly listen to what the other person in the conversation is saying, then we can make sure our next suggestion is based on their development. This takes skill, practice and an ability to ‘be in the moment’ rather than always thinking about what you are going to say next.

An idea chain for a trip to Paris

In reality, both of these types of thinking have their role in any workplace — but if you’re looking for new ways of doing things, then idea chains will improve your chances of working through the obvious stuff quickly.

3. You need to create psychological safety to get past the obvious ideas.

When an idea is presented to someone that is not their own, there is a physiological reaction that is exactly the same as when we see a physical threat. That means if someone suggests you paint your white front door green, your brain acts in the same way as if someone walks up to you with a mallet and an intent look in their eye.

Our next reaction in this situation is to immediately consider whether we stay and fight or run and flight. Whilst this is an important reaction when faced with a tiger on the plains of Africa, it’s not so useful in a shared office space in Vauxhall. In order to truly build on ideas, we need to be present in the moment and experience them fully, before our brain then starts to make new connections.

This is only possible to do if you can make people feel safe with one another. A feeling of trust and respect around them, means that people will be able to bring their authentic self to a conversation. This means that they can let their mind flow most naturally without having to worry about putting on a mask, filter or shield on their thoughts.

Once you and your team are able to do this, each individual can pick up and put down ideas without risk of offence and work through to the truly creative ideas.

4. Everyone has to buy in to the process or they can’t engage with it

It’s 10x worse to have the organisation’s best brain in a room, not following the same rules as everyone else, than to not have them there at all. They will pull the gravity of thought towards their own perspective, negating the opportunity for collaboration and building of ideas. They will also suck the enthusiasm out of the rest of the group, as they will feel their ideas aren’t being respected and built on, so what is the point.

5. Try to say “yes and” rather than “yes but”

The first is a clear statement of intent to take what another person has said and build on it. The second is essentially saying no, this is what I think. It’s not to say that there aren’t times when you’ll need to make that point, but if you’re trying to explore new ideas then it probably isn’t quite so helpful.

Whilst being clear on what language is ok and what isn’t, won’t create a particular environment, it can help. If nothing else, it makes it much clearer to people what you’re trying to achieve, even if it can feel a bit dogmatic.

If you want to read more about this in particular, check out Alex MacLaren and the Spontaneity Shop — http://www.the-spontaneity-shop.com/

6. Combine individual exploration and group discussion

Different people work in different ways. Some will have their best ideas when they are talking something through with lots of people, others will come to a great starting point after hours of mulling it over. As a facilitator, your role is to create an environment where as many different styles as possible can contribute and succeed.

Whether you’re designing a workshop, away day or an ongoing way of working, make sure that you leave space for both approaches to come together.

7. Be comfortable with silence

If you are facilitating a workshop or group discussion, then you need to become comfortable with silence in the room. It most likely means that people are thinking, not that you aren’t doing your job.

Likewise, if you are having an individual conversation, then leave space for people to run through options, ideas or approaches before vocalising them. That’s just how some people work best.

8. Change your environment — go for a walk

There’s research from the University of Dartmouth that illustrates how strongly our memories are attached to physical locations, spaces and objects. As the Atlantic writes, it’s no coincidence that we always ask, ‘where were you when X event happened’. As such, there is lots of emotional baggage attached to the environments in which we work.

If you want sessions which have a higher chance of coming up with expansive ideas, then get out of places you know well. There is a reason that team days are usually run ‘off site’ — it really does work. This doesn’t have to mean expensive room hiring — a walk around the block can be a great catalyst for discussion back at the office.

9. Draw things and use throw away mediums

Drawing is a great, low risk technique that breaks barriers down between individuals. This is due to the fact that unless you happen to work in an animation studio, it is not seen as something that people ‘should’ be good at. As such, it’s about illustration rather than execution which naturally opens up an explorative environment.

Just the act of not working at your computer will increase the likelihood of new ideas forming. If you’re facilitating this process, make sure you get people away from Word / Excel / InDesign and use other mediums like painting, crayons or collage.

In addition, if you can combine this with mediums which people are happy to ‘burn’ then people are much more likely to put down an idea they’re unsure of. This is the reason that so many consultants, agencies and ‘hipsters’ continue to use post-it’s, despite the criticism of senior management. They really do increase your chances of discovering the half formed idea which would have otherwise gone unsaid.

10. Diverge, prioritise — REST — explore, decide

There are loads and loads of different creative frameworks to read up on (here’s a great starting point), but almost all of them are based on similar principles which are often referred to as ‘Double Diamond’ approaches. This refers to the shape that is made when plotting the process. In essence though, they all follow a similar set of steps:

  1. Start with broad thinking to get as many ideas as possible
  2. Use external insight or perspectives to prioritise and agree which are worth exploring
  3. REST: the big ideas often come about when you’ve switched off from thinking about them
  4. Explore and evaluate these ideas in further detail
  5. Test and learn to help you decide on what to take forward
From Dan Nessler’s How to apply a design thinking, HCD, UX or any creative process from scratch article

Much of the inspiration for this post came from the excellent Dare Conference that I was lucky to be a part of — i’d highly recommend it!