5 Ways to boost your team’s creativity

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Creativity is the cornerstone of innovation. Thinking creatively is what takes your work from average to outstanding. Creativity fixes problems. It looks out for risks. It delivers better products and services, supporting the creation of better solutions for customers and businesses.

And it makes work more fun.

So how can you put more creativity into your work day? This article has 5 simple ideas to improve your team’s creativity.

Let’s face it, sometimes you just don’t feel that creative.

And yet you need to continue to think creatively and tap into diverse ideas to get better results.

That often means thinking of ways to help your team think more creatively. And that starts with the team feeling appreciated and that their ideas will be taken seriously.

If they think their ideas will be laughed at, you won’t get any creativity from them. They have to have a place where they feel comfortable talking about slightly off-the-wall things where they know their suggestions will be accepted as meaningful.

So how exactly do you create that kind of safe space for a team to be creative? Here are 5 ideas to quickly boost creative thinking in teams.

1. Improve brainstorming sessions

Brainstorming is a great way to unlock your team’s creativity — in theory.

Brainstorming should be a creative activity, but it doesn’t always turn out like that. The problems start if you don’t go into a brainstorming session with the objective of being deliberately creative.

That’s a mindset issue and as such it’s quite easy to overcome if you are determined enough!

Don’t simply launch into handing out the sticky notes. Instead, start with some team exercises to warm up people’s brains and help them realize that they are in a safe space where it’s OK to make suggestions.

For example, start with a game like word association. It’s simple, takes no tools and starts the session off helping people feel that they aren’t going to be judged for what they say.

Start the brainstorm

Begin the brainstorming session when you are ready. Define the problem clearly. Give people clear instructions.

Your goal doesn’t have to be to solve the problem — and arguably that shouldn’t be your goal. The point of the session is to come up with a few ideas that might fly. Then the team can look at those in more detail and come up with suggestions for the way forward.

Remember the golden rule of brainstorming: don’t judge ideas. Write everything up. Don’t be critical. You want to encourage ideas to flow, and telling someone that their idea won’t work simply shuts down the conversation.

You never know, a wacky idea might spark something in another colleague’s mind, and you do get a result you can run with.

2. Mentor individual team members

Sometimes it isn’t appropriate to be creative as a team. Instead, you can work with individuals and help them unlock their own creativity.

Get to know your colleagues. It’s much easier to inspire and lead once you have a better understanding of what they are passionate about and what they love about their job.

Talk to them as a friend, a mentor, a coach. As a manager, you’re in a good place to support their goals, even if they don’t directly report to you. Even in a matrix structure there is quite a lot of latitude to support and develop individuals.

Generally speaking, people who enjoy coming to work and feel supported by their team and management will be more creative.

3. Communicate regularly

Scientists at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory discovered that the best predictors of a team’s success are the energy and level of engagement between team members outside of formal meetings.

Another Gallup study found that quality relationships at work are a predictor of a healthy, productive workplace.

Both of those studies have conclusions which will likely improve the creativity of your team.

So how do you put that into practice? Think about how you can improve the workplace, create a work/life balance and support colleagues in their professional goals.

And build in lots of informal communication. Call people. Chat on your Slack channel. Stop by their desk. Have coffee.

These kinds of small interactions help build trust and will have a noticeable impact on the willingness of people to tap into their creative powers at work.

4. Celebrate small wins

It’s easier to be creative when you see that you are winning.

Look for and celebrate the small wins in the team. Circulate nice emails of praise from management or customers. Say thank you.

Check out these ways to celebrate success, many of which don’t need any formal budget.

Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile argues in her book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (co-authored with Steven Kramer) that a sense of progress at work makes for more creative team members.

As Amabile points out:

on the days when people are feeling happiest, proudest, and most motivated, the single most prominent event in those days is making progress in meaningful work.

5. Let people work autonomously

Creativity doesn’t come with a map. When you try to constrain your team’s behavior, you end up dictating how they are supposed to act. That’s stifling for creativity.

Let them make the decisions and use their own creative steam to power themselves forward.

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Really Motivates Us, Daniel Pink talks about a study conducted at Cornell University. It shows that businesses that gave employees autonomy grew four times faster than businesses that used command and control management. They also experienced significantly lower turnover rates and higher levels of discretionary effort from their team members.

Pretty cool.

Reward creativity

Finally, think up ways to reward people who have worked creatively.

That doesn’t always mean something large and showy: perhaps they thought outside the box and did something different and it worked. That’s enough. That’s still creativity.

Celebrate their achievements with the team. Let everyone know that good ideas are worth sharing and that you notice.

However, a pat on the back for a creative idea isn’t going to foster creativity in your team longer term. It should be the natural outcome of what we talked about a the beginning of this article — an environment where creativity is expected, supported and encouraged to flourish.

When the setting is right, the trust is there and the people want to contribute, creativity will happen.

A different version of this article first appeared on this blog in 2014.