Six Ways to Rev Your Team’s Creative Engine in 2021
If ever there’s been a time for creative performance from the masses, 2021 will be that time.
Creativity has always been an important part of my life — whether I called it that or not. I’m that guy who needs to doodle on a notepad, draw on a whiteboard, or take an energetic walk to clear my head and focus my thinking.
As a leader of teams — my own or those of my clients — I’ve also learned how to create environments that help everyone’s creativity thrive. We all have creative potential. And smart leaders need to unlock this potential from their entire team. That’s how we build high-performing teams that consistently develop innovative, ground-breaking solutions.
Whatever your profession or your role within a business, being creative is a necessary component of your work. And if you’re a leader, then cultivating creativity in your team is a vital responsibility.
Are you feeling challenged to have your team’s innovation be worthy of what’s needed in a post-crisis environment? Here are six effective ways to cultivate the disruptive thinking you’ll need to succeed in 2021.
1. Stimulate Abstract Thinking
While creative people naturally share certain characteristics, creativity isn’t something you’re born with or die without. But we do need strategies for bringing visionary thinking to the front of our mental activity.
Today’s business world celebrates rational, real-world solutions. But if we really want to get to disruptive solutions, we need practice expressing non-conforming ideas. We can help our team bust out of box by exercising their abstract thinking.
I had a public speaking teacher once who asked the class to share – on the spot – how we were each similar to our favorite beverages. It wasn’t just about putting each of us on the hot seat. He wanted us to be comfortable expressing abstract ideas in front of a group of near-strangers.
This type of exercise creates containers in which we feel safe to express abstract thinking and to recognize that thinking as a productive part of working together.
“All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.”
— Pablo Picasso
2. Provide the Safety of a Flat Team Structure
Hierarchies, by nature, are competitive. Competitive environments reduce our willingness to take risks.
No, you don’t have to throw away your company’s org chart. But you DO want to invite people into an environment where they won’t be judged for unconventional thinking or for not having all the answers.
Dana Cho was executive creative director at the global design and innovation company IDEO, and is now a senior director working on voice-driven artificial intelligence at Google.
Cho says, “Top-down hierarchy suggests that people at the top have more information than the people they’re managing. Design thinking, by definition, is about being exploratory enough so that you can get to a non-obvious solution. And in order to do that you have to assume that really amazing ideas can come from anywhere.”
“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
— Sir Ken Robinson
I’m sorry to report that we lost Sir Ken Robinson in 2020 to cancer. I recommend watching his enormously popular TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity.
3. Honor the Design Thinking Process
Design Thinking is a five-step process that engages creativity across a diverse team and invites more team members into the creative process. This includes product designers, business executives, engineers, human resources professionals, accounting staff or maintenance crews.
This broader group of participants collectively contributes greater innovation while responding to the product users’ real interests.
The Design Thinking Process
Now be honest… Did you skip studying the diagram above? Just make sure you capture these vital takeaways:
- The process begins with Empathising with the customer (or user). In this customer-experience-centric, post-pandemic world, EMPATHY IS CRUCIAL. We’re not being creative to improve profitability unless the stockholders are the primary customer. Profits follow an outstanding customer experience!
- We need to Empathise and Define before we start having ideas. We’re not choosing our favorite flavor of ice cream. We’re solving a vital business problem.
- We need to move quickly to Prototyping and Testing… so we have more time for additional Empathizing, Defining, and Ideating.
Design thinking helps teams think creatively without stalling out on perfectionism.
When we honor the Design Thinking process, we recognize the right time for the right kinds of thinking. We work together to expand ideation once we understand the problem from the end-user’s perspective. We encourage participants to be open to putting ideas on the table and help them see and modify the results of their innovation.
The Design Thinking process gets more innovation out of the design team and delivers a better solution to the end user. And a better solution delivers better return on investment. Win/Win/Win.
“Design thinking relies on the natural - and coachable - human ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, and to construct ideas that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional.”
— David and Tom Kelley, IDEO
David and Tom are also co-authors of
“Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All.”
4. Consider Your Thinking Styles
We don’t all THINK the same way. Some of us think in analytical terms. Some of us more effectively recognize spacial or emotional experiences. Different challenges require different thinking languages. Each of the people on your team and the people you need to influence also process concepts in different thinking languages.
If you’re facilitating a creative workshop, you can support participants by presenting opportunities to engage diverse thinking languages (styles). Visualize your challenges, define them with words, offer spacial relationships among process forces, or help people experience the dynamics of a situation. You can also translate team members’ ways of thinking so every member of your team can contribute ideas.
When presenting ideas for feedback or approval, be sure to speak the thinking language(s) of your sponsor. Provide visual models, analytical proofs, or emotional similes that appeal to the way your approval audience thinks. It’s not about manipulating the outcome. You want realistic feedback and if a harsh critique is in order, be ready to handle it. But you can best convey the value of your team’s creativity by, at least, speaking your sponsors’ language.
“A different language is a different vision of life.”
— Federico Fellini
5. Tap into the Power of Movement
Physical activity — from walking, to rowing, to power poses — stimulates divergent thinking and helps us gain creative power and confidence.
Maybe you’ve had experiences similar to me. You’re struggling with a problem that has a time constraint. You go for a walk and you hit on a big idea. You didn’t have time for a walk, but the walk delivered your solution quickly.
Research findings from Stanford University have established that the benefits of walking are particularly powerful for the beginning stages of creating: idea generating, divergent thinking, and adapting. In one experiment, creative output increased by 60 percent when individuals moved from sitting to walking. In another, participants generated twice as many creative responses after going for a walk.
But wait, there’s more…
Dr. Amy Cuddy’s research findings tell us that posture and body language don’t just send signals to other people… they can change the way we feel about ourselves and our challenges. Remember… people’s willingness to express disruptive ideas has a lot to do with their confidence. Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk is 21 minutes well spent if you want to find ways to stimulate creative confidence in yourself or your team.
Maybe you’ve heard Cuddy talk about the value of “power posing” (standing like Wonder Woman or Superman). After two minutes in a power pose, you can’t help but feel more confident. She prescribes it for anyone who needs a boost of confidence before a big presentation or problem solving session.
The bottom line is to help your team to exploit the power of movement — aerobic exercise is not required. Break long sessions of seated conversation with three to five minutes of fun, heroic posing. At the beginning of a project, take a walking meeting. Set up physical activities that allow participants to achieve something they’re proud of. They’ll feel like a champion and they may score a powerful burst of creativity (a.k.a. endorphin rush).
“When our body language is confident and open, other people respond in kind, unconsciously reinforcing not only their perception of us but also our perception of ourselves.”
— Dr. Amy Cuddy
6. Take Timely Breaks for the Right Reasons
Breaks rejuvenate our energy and break us out of patterned thinking. When we find ourselves stalled out, our brains need to defocus and become more associative. This bolsters divergent thinking.
The best break of all is sleep. In his research at UC Berkeley, Matthew Walker and his team have shown that problems are solved more creatively and effectively after a break of 12 hours, when that 12 hours included a night’s sleep. In his book, Why We Sleep, Walker offers clear evidence that “the REM-sleep dreaming state fuels is creativity.”
“Sleep cycle by sleep cycle, REM sleep helps construct vast associative networks of information within the brain.”
— Matthew Walker, Ph.D., Sleep Scientist at UC Berkeley
Matthew Walker’s 2019 TED Talk, “Sleep is Your Superpower,” got more than one million views in its first 72 hours.
Unlocking the Creative Performance of Your Team
Creativity isn’t just for the graphic designers, musicians, and poets of the world. We each can develop our own potential to be creative forces. And as a leader, it’s your job to build an environment where individual team members are able to do the same. Integrate effective habits into your team culture, and learn how to activate creativity in moments when it’s most needed.
It may not be as simple as revving the engine but, with a little stretching, you’ll see a performance improvement pretty quickly.
What are your creative challenges for 2021?
An enduring devotee of communication design and strategy, I’ve dedicated my 40-year career to delivering outstanding brand value and client experiences. I created Verge Experience Strategies (VergeX) to help you do the same. VergeX works closely with business owners, CMOs, and entrepreneurs to identify and express their brand’s unique value. We then help them build credibility and engagement to win the loyalty of customers, employees, and communities.
Join me as I continue to explore and muse upon the evolution of human communication.