You don’t just want ideas—you want GOOD ideas. There’s no time for half-baked solutions to trivial problems. But if you stop listening, they’ll stop sharing, and you’ll miss the good ones.
How you respond to incomplete, off-base, or inelegant ideas makes all the difference in whether or not you’ll get the contributions you do need the next time. Several executives, when they heard about our research on Courageous Cultures and FOSU (fear of speaking up), told us “Oh, that’s not our issue. Our problem is these damn millennials can’t stop speaking up. They complain about everything.”
“And do you listen?” we ask.
“Some of the time, but after a while, you can only take so much.”
Which begs the question: What happens next after you’re tired and they’re ignored? It’s only a matter of time before they stop trying or find someplace else to work that will listen.
It’s worth the time investment to help your team know a good idea when they see one and to learn how to vet it for viability.
This simple tool works wonders.
4 Questions to Help Your Team Vet Their Ideas
In our research, 40% of the participants said they don’t feel confident to share their ideas and 45% say they haven’t been trained to think critically or solve problems.
If you want better ideas, help your employees know what differentiates a good idea by giving them a few criteria. Tell your team you’re looking for interesting, doable, engaging actions.
Why is this idea interesting? What strategic problem does it solve? How will results improve from this idea (e.g. customer experience, employee retention, efficiency)?
Is this idea something we could actually do? How would we make it happen? What would make it easier or more difficult?
Who would we need to engage to make this happen? Why should they support it? Where are we most likely to meet resistance?
What are the most important actions needed to try this? How would we start?
The rocky mountain air was crisp with fall chill–a perfect time for a fire in the wood-burning stove. We placed the logs on top of the kindling, held the flame beneath the wood, and … nothing happened. Our fire-to-be had the same problem that plagues many leaders who want a more resilient and creative team.
The logs were too close together.
Fire needs oxygen to ignite and spread, but the tightly packed wood didn’t allow the air to move freely through them. We removed two logs, rearranged the others into a more open stack, and within seconds had a warm and inviting fire.
He observed that leaders who are frustrated when people don’t creatively solve problems should pay attention to workload.
Creative problem solving, he said, “requires time to think, consider, and marinate. In most companies, there’s no time for that. Calendars are chock full and leaders don’t understand that they’ve spread people too thin.”
For teams working remotely or under heavy pandemic-induced workloads, this tendency to pack the day with wall-to-wall appointments increased.
Like the logs packed too tightly to catch flame, calendars packed too tightly don’t permit creative problem-solving. It also erodes resiliency by taking away the recovery time people need to process their emotions and catch their breath.
Creativity and resiliency require margin—space in the calendar to think, reflect, solve problems, and build relationships.
How to Create Margin for a More Resilient and Creative Team
1) Start with Self-Reflection: How do you view margin?
There are no easy answers to how you can build in a margin for reflection, but to start making this shift, consider how you would react if you encountered a productive team member standing at the window, staring into space.
You ask, “Hey, what are you up to?” and they reply, “Thinking.”
Consider how your words and actions reinforce that making time for white space to think is not just okay, but a valuable part of many of your employee’s jobs.
2) Take Action
We’ve worked with leaders and teams around the globe who have found different ways to create more margin and, ultimately, more creativity and resiliency. Here are a few strategies they’ve used and that you can use:
Meeting-free days or half-days
90-minute interruption-free blocks of time each morning and/or afternoon
For teams across time-zones: no meetings scheduled before or after specific hours.
Scheduling all meetings in 10- or 15-minute increments (eg: a 40-minute meeting rather than 60) to create automatic buffer time between appointments at the top or bottom of the hour
Schedule white space – make appointments on your calendar for the thinking time needed to solve problems and perform work on projects
Limit single-issue interruptions
Celebrate and highlight different ways people use their margin. Eg “I found Gale staring out the window yesterday and she was thinking about how we might improve the information we give our suppliers so they can respond more quickly. It was a great idea and …”
Flexible schedules that allow people to work when they can be their most productive. The time spent between work on other life-tasks provides time to reflect and think about work-related challenges.
Workload reviews during one-on-ones. Pay attention to deadlines, expected workloads, margin needed to allow for interruptions and emerging issues.
You may even want to bring your team together and use the U.G.L.Y. technique to address this strategic issue. Begin by asking these four questions: “With regard to creating more margin in our schedules …”
3) Follow Through
As with any intention, schedule the finish. Create a specific time you will meet with your team to evaluate how your new intentions are working – perhaps one week after you implement them.
Be prepared to offer both encouragement and accountability to help everyone internalize that “this is how people like us” do things. If you’ve had a no-margin culture, it will take time to get everyone used to breathing again. Stick with it—you’ll have a more resilient and creative team.
We’d love to hear from you: What is your favorite way to create more margin for your team to think, reflect, process, and recover?
It Takes Clarity and Curiosity to Encourage Creative Thinking
Businesses around the world face a changing normal, where it’s hard to say what things will look like in one year, much less six months from now. For some this means finding entirely fresh ways to bring value, for others it’s navigating a crush of demand, and many are trying to figure out how to maintain culture and productivity with a distributed, remote workforce. There are many challenges—and you need every solution to help you meet them. Finding ways to encourage creative thinking is vital to your success.
When we talk with leaders who wish their team were more creative, we often find that they unintentionally stifle creativity. With a few shifts in how you lead, you can cultivate a more creative environment and encourage creative thinking in your team.
7 Ways to Encourage Creative Thinking
1. Ask for what you want.
Creativity requires clarity. This type of direct approach may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s amazing what happens when you get everyone pointed in the right direction. It’s the difference between being given a blank sheet of paper and told to write a creative story vs asked to write a story about a shy rabbit who wants to meet the woodchuck on the other side of the fence. Even if you don’t think of yourself as creative, you could put together a story about that rabbit.
“Our number one goal right now is to differentiate ourselves from our competitors and demonstrate value for our customers. We can’t do it the way we used to. This is where we need ideas. How can we add distinct value that our competitors can’t or won’t?”
2. Appreciate new ideas.
When someone comes up with a new idea that’s not quite ready, thank them, add information, and invite them to keep thinking. In Courageous Cultures we call this “Respond with Regard.”
For example, rather than say “We tried that last year” or “That won’t work because …” you might try: “Thanks so much for thinking about new ways we could try that. You know, last year we tried something similar, and we ran into this obstacle. Would you be willing to think about how we can overcome this obstacle?”
Or “I appreciate you thinking about this. Here’s some additional information that makes your suggestion challenging. I would love to hear your thoughts about how we can overcome this challenge or look at it differently.”
3. Reward effort, not just success.
You get more of what you encourage, less of what you ignore. Creativity requires risk-taking, so don’t limit encouragement and rewards to the ideas that work. Some ideas won’t work out, but you need all of them to find the ones that will. A fun example of rewarding effort is an annual award for “the best idea that didn’t work.”
4. Combine ideas and constraints.
Creativity is often a result of limitations. Try asking questions like “How can we … do x and y ?” where x is the idea and y is the constraint. For instance, someone asked, “How can we have a transportation company – without any fleet?” The answers of course are Uber and Lyft.
5. Start small.
Invite people to test their ideas with the smallest viable trial. This encourages people to try, rather than abandon ideas that “just might work,” but need refining. What did they learn? What would they do differently next time?
6. Don’t brainstorm.
Staring at a blank whiteboard and trying to offer ideas in a room or video conference with people of different power levels is a horrible way to be creative. Start with the first step on this list: ask for what you want. What will a successful solution do for your team or the customer? (You need this to evaluate creative options later.)
Then, rather than brainstorming, try alternatives like having everyone write three solutions on notecards. Scramble the notecards and redistribute. Have everyone write two ideas that build on the ideas they see on their card. Repeat. Then shuffle and have everyone share the ideas on their cards. Assess the ideas based on how well they potentially achieve the previously defined successful outcomes.
7. Create space.
We heard it again just last week while working with a team of talented and dedicated leaders. Some of them said, “It’s very hard for me to be creative when I’m put on the spot or in the moment. I’m much better if you can give me the problem or concept and let me think about it for a little while.”
In an interview for Courageous Cultures, Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp, explained that creative problem-solving “requires time to think, consider, and marinade. In most companies, there’s no time for that. Calendars are chock-full and leaders don’t understand that they’ve spread people too thin.”
Maximize creativity by creating space for it. Resist the urge to fill every minute with “productive” work – and be sure to model this yourself as well. If you say it, but don’t do it, your team will follow your example, not your words.
These seven steps will help you encourage creative thinking in your team—and they’re just a start. We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a comment and share your favorite way to encourage creative thinking and problem-solving.
Joe has a new idea. The idea isn’t perfect, but with a tweak or two, it just might solve that big problem that’s driving everyone nuts.
What does Joe do next?
If Joe is like half of the people in our research, you’ll never hear about it because he assumes no one will do anything with it.
Good ideas breed more good ideas. When people see a clear path from idea sharing to implementation, they’ll be much more likely to speak up.
On your team, how easy is it for people to bring forward their best ideas?
A Quick “Make the Best Ideas Work” Process Check
How would Joe’s idea flow on your team?
Take a minute to think about this “idea path.”
How does Joe know it’s an idea with potential? Have you defined criteria for what a great idea will do for your customers or the team? If not, that’s worth some brainstorming at your next team meeting.
Once Joe determines that his idea is worth sharing, what would he do next? Would he:
Talk to someone
Fill out a card
Enter it in a database
Schedule a meeting
We invite you to write down each step Joe would take – including other people’s activity necessary to implement the idea. Who would need to authorize it? What levels of approval do different ideas require? How long would each step take?
Be honest with how things work in your organization (not how you’d like them to work).
As you review the process you just outlined, ask the following questions:
Do you have a coherent plan or are there gaps you can address?
How long would it take from the time Joe shared his idea to the time a pilot project happened?
What feedback loops are in place to help Joe improve the idea and make it viable?
As the revised idea rolls out, would Joe stay involved? If so, how?
How would you recognize Joe and thank him in a meaningful way?
As a leadership team (or by yourself if you’ve done this one alone), review your answers to the last four questions and ask yourself: If you were a front-line team member, would it be worth your time and energy to think of solutions and new ideas (much less to share them)?
If your answer is “No”, where can you make changes to improve the process, remove barriers, and increase recognition?
If your answer is “Yes,” but ideas aren’t moving to implementation, ask your team to do this exercise. It’s a great way to check for understanding to see if they’ve got the process and know what to do.
As you review their answers, look for these common barriers to action. Do they:
Know what successful ideas look like?
Know what to do with an idea that might work, but isn’t perfect?
Have a realistic understanding of the timeframe involved?
Understand why they need certain approvals?
Your Idea Path
Teams that consistently improve don’t leave the creativity to chance. They have an intentional plan to find good ideas, test, refine, share, and encourage problem-solving.
Welcome to the Let’s Grow Leaders Frontline Festival! This month, our contributors share their thoughts about inspiring creativity and innovation on your teams. We’ve expanded the Frontline Festival to include other formats such as podcasts and artwork and are always looking for new thought leaders to join the party. Thanks to Joy and Tom Guthrie of Vizwerx Group for the great pic and to all our contributors!
The April Frontline Festival will be about building high performing teams. Won’t you join us? Send us your submissions here!
Ken nourishes his own creativity by reading books on topics outside his normal area of interest. He finds this sometimes sparks new ideas and insights.
Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is the result of good work habits. ~ Twyla Tharp
Cultivating Creativity on Your Team
Chip Bell of Chip Bell Group provides Leading a “Mozart.” Every organization has a few “mad scientists”–those brilliant, quirky souls that break the norms. How leaders treat the “Mozarts” can telegraph how serious they are about innovation and creativity. Follow Chip.
Chip nourishes his own creativity by reading blogs and articles on topics outside his area of work, learning concepts, views, and opinions different from his own.
For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate. ~ Margaret Heffernan
Overcoming Obstacles to Innovation
Laura Schroeder of Working Girl gives us The Five Dysfunctions of Business Transformation. Only about a third of digital transformation projects succeed and given how so many transformation projects play out, it’s no surprise. The following ‘derailers’ of business transformation may surprise you because three of them are supposed to fast track transformation. Follow Laura.
The young leader came racing in my office, his “great idea” bursting from his heart. He had a plan and was ready to go. I listened to his enthusiastic outburst with mixed emotions. He had energy, passion, and commitment. Good start. But, it was a stupid idea.
My inside voice screamed…
This idea will never work
I’ve seen this movie before (it doesn’t end well)
He hasn’t thought this through
He’s such a rookie
Bless his heart
Then two more thoughts.
How do I challenge his thinking while sustaining his passion?
Acknowledge “wow” be impressed by the passion, committment and energy
Listen with an open mind
Ask lots of questions (tone matters here).
– Why this? (start with genuine curiosity)
– What’s the bigger issue?
– Why is this approach best?
– Who’s involved so far?
– Who should be?
– What resources are required?
– What are the potential side effects?
Be honest in your apprehension.. share your concerns from a loving place
Clarify the vision, and brainstorm additional ways to get there