#533  Innovative Leader Volume 10, Number 7          July 2001

Six Steps for Encouraging Employee Creativity
by Jeffrey A. Govendo

Mr. Govendo is president of the Innovative Edge, Inc.  He is a project consultant, group facilitator, trainer and conference designer.  www.innov-edge.com

Business leaders want to promote a more idea-receptive environment; but most don’t know how to do it.  More than ever, the need for continuous innovation – in developing new products and services, re-designing work processes, communicating with external and internal customers, and more – is seen as a key to survival.

Though the stereotypic image of creativity is the lone inventor or artist dreaming up a new technology or masterpiece on canvas, most creative thinking is done in groups, where each individual can tap into both his/her own imagination, and that of others.  It’s what the term synergy really represents.  But, as surely as the group dynamic can exponentially increase the creative energy and output, it also has the power to quash it.  Those who roll their eyes when asked to participate in a brainstorming session have undoubtedly experienced this.  Engaging in a true creative session can be exhilarating; however, when the session is filled with value judgments, selective acceptance of ideas and lack of open-mindedness to new thinking, it can be downright depressing. 

Here are six ways in which executives and managers can actively support and encourage creative thinking and innovation:

1.  Create a safe haven for new thinking. 

Use a safe haven to encourage a broad range of ideas, including those not immediately seen as feasible, or even “sensible,” for they are where the seeds of innovation can be found. 

Above all, people must feel safe in pushing the envelope.  New or unfamiliar ideas are almost surely “wrong” in their first iteration.  They should be considered starting points on which to build and encourage further thinking.  An immediate negative evaluation of the idea (however warranted) will kill it, along with any desire on the employee’s part to offer another.  Therefore, leaders should convey an openness to ideas that are imprecise, untested or even fanciful. 

Some organizations have “creative-thinking spaces,” filled with items such as paintings, photographs, non-work related magazines, building materials and other stimuli, where employees can engage in idea generation in an environment separate from their everyday routine.  Other organizations have ideation rooms, with sofas, comfortable chairs and wall-to-wall flipcharts for capturing ideas.  In addition, it is possible to incorporate mechanisms for stimulating, capturing and building upon ideas on an ongoing basis.  An excellent tool for this is a software program, Thoughtpath (www.thoughtpath.com), which combines creative-thinking techniques and a problem-solving approach in an easy-to-follow format that can be networked among employees.

The key factor, of course, is neither the physical nor virtual environment; rather, it is an attitude by management that values the inherent creativity of employees and envisions the long-term strategic benefits of empowering them to exercise their imaginations.

2.  Employ a process for developing new ideas that have been offered.

This is every bit as important as stimulating creative thinking in the first place.  It is, in effect, what moves an intriguing new idea into the realm of innovative concept.  Such a process is the Open-minded Evaluation and Development procedure (Innovative Leader Volume 8, Issue 9, #422) outlining five steps to encourage receptivity to a new idea, while systematically re-working those parts that require change to make the concept feasible.  Without a vehicle such as this, along with an awareness by employees that it will be used to explore some of their ideas, there is little point in encouraging “out of the box” thinking.  Creative ideation can be fun, but it gets old quickly if the ideas never go anywhere.

3.  Cross-pollinate ideation groups. 

Idea generation works best when there are differences in perspective, knowledge and background.  Ideally, a team attempting to come up with a fresh, new solution to a tough challenge should consist of both experts in the area being discussed, as well as so-called “naïve” idea-contributors who may see the problem in ways the experts cannot.  Also, because they’re not experts, they don’t know what doesn’t work!

While bringing such outsiders into your sessions may pose problems of a practical or proprietary nature, there are still plenty of internal resources to draw upon.  What does an account executive have to say about a technical subject?  An engineer about marketing approaches?  A line worker about company strategy?  Creativity is a product of organizational diversity, and even the smallest companies have that.  Use it to your advantage.

4.  Have a neutral facilitator conduct ideation sessions. 

There are a thousand different ways for people to put down each other’s ideas.  Some are blatant (“It’ll never work,”  “Been there, done that…”).  Others are more subtle (a roll of the eyes, refusal to acknowledge an idea), often committed without awareness or intent.  Either way, the effects are the same: potentially groundbreaking ideas are lost, and so too are those offering the ideas.  Creative thinking, in the context of a “get it right” corporate environment, is risky business.  A good facilitator will not only keep the process moving along, but will also protect ideas and the people who offer them, two of your company’s greatest assets.

5.  Support employees for engaging in the process.

It is important to recognize the efforts of those who contribute to the process of generating and developing ideas, even if no applicable concept or solution is produced.  Properly encouraged, these individuals are more likely to engage in the creative process again, perhaps coming up with the next big breakthrough! 

Supporting such involvement needn’t be difficult nor complicated.  It may only entail giving people the time (company time, not their own) to periodically take part in a two- to three-hour ideation session. Given a conducive climate (see nos. 1 & 4), most employees enjoy the opportunity to exercise their creative muscles.  It is a side of them they may not often get to express, so it tends to be rewarding.  What’s more, there is a definite practice effect; the more people do it, the more comfortable they become, and as a result, the greater the potential for coming up with innovative solutions.

6.  Assure follow-through. 

This is not to suggest that every concept developed will necessarily be implemented – far from it.  It does mean, however, that whatever steps are needed to take it to the next level of possible implementation be specifically stated along with assignments and timetables.

If a group has come up with a potential innovation, you could “lose” it through failure to take immediate action.  Another reason for rapid action is that it will overcome the common scenario in which somebody wonders, weeks or months later, “Whatever happened to that idea we were working on …?”  Again, the entertainment value of pure creative thinking is short-lived; task groups want something to show for their efforts, even if the concept they were envisioning cannot be fully realized at the present time.

It is easy in our digital age, where each new day seems to bring with it an eye-popping new technology, to lose sight of the organizational conditions that engender high levels of innovation.  At times it seems as if technology, itself, is responsible for such progress, but this is not the case.  Rather, it is people – working together in high-performing collaboration – who reach beyond current boundaries to come up with new ideas.  Start putting these recommendations in place, and you too will begin to experience the power of employees’ imaginations!

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