4-Step Process to Driving Team Creativity

People never think of themselves as “creative”. Having worked around creative people such as designers, developers and others with a creative bent, many of them never thought of themselves as creative either.

Is creativity learned? Can someone become creative? Learn to accept, or at least not fear, the creative process? As an accountant, I come from a profession not known for bracing creative change, and when it is discussed it typically is used in a negative tone such as, “creative accounting”, which implies something nefarious.

In school, what is considered being creative? Writing, drawing, telling stories? We are all creative to some extent. The ones with the greatest breadth and depth of creativity may seek careers in fields like architecture, entertainment or marketing and advertising, but that does not mean that they alone hold the monopoly on being creative. We all can benefit through tapping into our inn-selves and pulling out the creativity to tackle the mundane and complex of our organization and our world.

For example, today writing, drawing and telling stories are all communications skills that are highly sought after in the corporate finance and financial planning and analysis (FP&A) market. We need more people in this world that can tell stories with the numbers, draw graphs and charts to identify trends and point out anomalies in the data and write compelling copy that drives action among peers, senior leaders and market participants.

How To Get The Creative Juices Flowing Forward

Since everyone has the capacity to be creative, fostering a creative environment in which all employees feel welcome to participate is critical to the success of any problem-solving initiative. One can do this by publicly recognizing those who make suggestions for creative improvements, including staff in annual business planning sessions and proactively soliciting new ideas and then empowering employees to act on them.

Step 1 – Pick a problem

During a group meeting pick a topic, service offering, problem, opportunity or whatever you want to focus the creative energy of the group on, then ask the question: How would you make it better? Go to the whiteboard at the front of the room and start writing down whatever they say.

Using a service offering as an example, you can prompt them by asking:

  • Can we make it simpler?
  • Can the same thing be used by a different audience? If so, who?
  • Can the deliver/production process be more automated?
  • Can we reduce costs?
  • Can it be made easier to use?
  • Can it be made faster?
  • Does it need better packaging?
  • What new features could it use?
  • What other services/products could it integrate with?

Write everything down. Thank them for their time and end the meeting.

Step 2 – Pick a Team

If you choose to assign the project to a team, the team should consist of 3-5 highly skilled professionals. Their skill sets should overlap as little as possible. For example, if working on a new service offering having a marketing, finance, engineering and production professional all on the team may be a successful combination. In addition, following the research of Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith as set forth in their book, The Discipline of Teams (Harvard Business Review Classics) as to what makes up high-performing teams, they should have a common commitment and purpose, performance goals, and mutual accountability in regards to completion to the project.

Don’t get into a trap and think a group of 3-5 similarly skilled professionals will be able to produce similar results.  For example, 3 financial analysts all working on a problem may derive a solution to a problem but will act more as a workgroup than a high-performance team that will be unleash creative genius.

Step 3 – Set Time-Lines and Constraints

Call a meeting with the team and discuss the items in step 1, winnowing the list down to 3-5 core objectives and how they will know they will be achieved.  For example, what exactly does “easier” mean? How much cheaper, faster or simpler? How can this all be measured?

Many managers mistakenly think that by not giving their staff constraints they are helping them, and that could not be further from the truth. Leaders need to set forth clear expectations as to timing, deliverables and outcome expectations. For example, if during Step 1, no one came up with the idea of making the product faster, but you want it to be at least 20% faster, then you need to make sure that is stated.

Document your expectations to the team in writing. If you are not the leader and this is not done, then send the leader a summarized e-mail that details your understanding of the project and expectations to the project sponsor. It does not matter if they reply or not, as long as they receive it, then you are covered.

Step 4 – Give Them Space!

This is probably the hardest of the three steps to achieve but is the most critical if you want to achieve the best results. Research has shown that dopamine is a key ingredient in the creative process. Dopamine is a chemical created by the brain in response to us feeling happy and relaxed.

But just being relaxed does not make us creative. When we go on vacation, we are relaxed and probably don’t think of anything creative at all besides staring at water. Harvard researchers have found combining distraction, like taking a shower after a long day of focusing on a problem, allows our subconscious mind to continue to work on the problem while our conscious mind continuous on with daily activity. This is frequently called an “incubation period”.

How do you ensure that your team has a reasonable stress amount of stress but also enough relaxation that allows for incubation periods at the same time? That’s the art in the science. If you have set project timelines and constraints appropriately as well as staffed the team with the necessary skills and personalities, there should be an equal part tension, distraction and relaxation that will yield a creative outcome.

Checking-In and Wrapping-Up

Giving a team space does not mean not checking in. No manager likes surprises and if something is not going in the right direction I would want to know about it as early as possible, so plan on periodic updates as to project status.

At the end of the project, each team member will know more about each other and you will have a much better idea as to their skills, ambitions and abilities. In addition, the ideas and solutions set forth from a structured process of creative thinking and team management may provide a platform for even bigger projects that can be tackled in the future.

How do you foster creativity and focuses resources in your organization? Tell me in the comments below.