For managers accustomed to the structured world of big projects, in fields like construction, engineering and IT, the word “creativity” may not even enter the lexicon. What does that have to do with the rigorous processes inherent in planning web deployments or constructing drilling rigs or deploying rivets on a Boeing 747?
Creativity leads to fuzzy thinking. Right?
Not so fast. You know the times are a-changing when tech talent incubators like Stanford University have a special school explicitly committed to the teaching of creative processes for the technically inclined. In fact, Stanford’s school, which is borne of the Design Thinking movement, created in partnership with IDEO, is firmly committed to the idea that business innovation requires creativity.
But creativity is not just relegated to innovation practices. Kim Corfman, a professor of marketing at NYU, said in a recent interview: “In organizations you need creativity in every part of the organization to take full advantage of the organization’s knowledge and be as responsible as possible to the demands that the market has been placing on you.”
In fact, not only is creativity a good practice for leveraging organizational and market strategies, according to recent study by Adobe and Forrester, it’s good for the bottom line, too: “It’s Official: Creativity Drives Business Results.” According the their research, if your organization encourages a creative perspective, creative practices and a creative culture, it is more likely to outperform in both growing revenue and market share. Of the creative software decision-makers respondents who foster creativity, 58 percent said their revenues had strong growth. Also, 50 percent of companies who foster creative methodologies are more likely to report a large market leadership over their competition.
The problem with creativity in today’s marketplace, though, is it’s a pretty difficult thing to quantify. How are managers supposed foster creativity within the highly structured world of managing a project, and how on earth are they supposed to measure it?
What We Mean When We Speak About “Creativity”
There’s a lot of romanticism surrounding the topic of creativity. One of the biggest myths of the creative individual is just that—that they’re an individual working alone and just being brilliant without help of any kind.
While often most thought of in the context of art, the creative mind is in no way the provenance of artists only, and even more so the lone artist. Creativity is the process of coming up with new ideas or solutions to problems, individually or in groups, and that is an essential skill on any team!
We often look at finished products and only see the one name or title behind it, like CEO or Author or Director, when in reality it took a team to produce that. Even this blog post wasn’t written alone, but was the work of a team brainstorming the idea. The writing of it was a back-and-forth between myself and my editor, who is just as responsible for the content and its success or failure.
This is true for all projects. Successful projects require looking at all levels of opportunity, risk, challenge and competitive analysis in order to deliver the best outcome. Making an assumption that “someone else” has done the heavy brainwork of thinking through all the pros and cons scenarios, could turn out to be disastrous.
What you want is embedded creativity throughout your team… You want your engineers having the time to think through potential roadblocks before they happen. You want the manufacturing timelines to be well analyzed in concert with other mitigating factors before the start of assembly. You certainly don’t want all those team members assuming you’ve done all that thinking for them!
So once we lose our assumptions about the creative process, as well as its perceived roles (or lack thereof) on technical or business teams, we can begin to see how fostering innovation, problem-solving and teamwork are inherent to the success of your project and your organization.
Fostering Creativity on Teams
In order to foster creativity, it’s crucial that you have all members of your team working together in a climate where they feel safe to share ideas. A more open approach brings in a wider variety of concepts, some of which may never have occurred to a team leader. This is what is meant by thinking outside the box, which certainly doesn’t happen in a silo.
However, while collaboration is certainly a function of creativity, they are not the same thing. Don’t confuse the implementation of collaboration practices, like new tools or occasional brainstorming sessions, as sufficient for fostering creativity. It takes more than one meeting with a wall of sticky notes to get truly creative ideas flowing. Not every person functions creatively in a group, and it may take some time to build the confidence and trust with your team that you are truly open to new solutions.
Of course, you actually must be open to receiving new creative ideas. Culture change takes time. Good communication and opportunities for ongoing feedback are essential to make your team feels safe bringing new ideas forward.
Don’t Neglect Un-Structured Time
While you want to foster creativity, you can’t force it, as research from Harvard Business Review found. “When creativity is under the gun, it usually ends up getting killed. Although time pressure may drive people to work more and get more done, and may even make them feel more creative, it actually causes them, in general, to think less creatively.”
It may seem counter-intuitive to bolster your business by slowing down the pace. That goes against the whole competitive edge that successful business have. But when a workday is filled with deadlines and meetings (and yes deadlines and meetings are necessary) employees can feel over-scheduled and stressed out; and that’s a recipe for stagnation.
It’s not only burn-out that can sap the creative output of your team, if they’re not given unstructured time in which to get productive and creative thinking done. By forcing a team to adhere to overly prescriptive task timelines, you’re neglecting the opportunity to discover key issues and possibilities with your project outcome.
Model Constructive Criticism
Creative teams know that in order to get the best product, they have to provide critique, but when teams are unaccustomed to a regular exchange of ideas, it can be uncomfortable to dialog this way.
In a lot of project-based work, there’s a process called a “post-mortem.” That’s when the team sits around with the finished product and takes it apart. What worked? What didn’t work? Even though one project has wrapped, the lessons learned can then be applied to the production of the next one.
Consider extending the post-mortem discussion into every day discourse. While certainly a postmortem can be a contained space for critical feedback, it’s not likely to be that effective unless there’s already a healthy culture of constructive dialog.
Now, criticism can be brutal or constructive. It all depends on how it is delivered. You set the tone for your team. Model the constructive feedback you want to foster, and you’ll see your team opening up to sharing ideas is a productive way.
One suggestion is to appoint one person to be the “Devil’s Advocate” each week. Their task is to say black when the project is white in order to set in motion a discourse in which people must explore ideas and processes that they may have either dismissed out of hand or not even acknowledged. You don’t have to implement the Devil’s Advocate’s suggestions, but you must listen and understand them to better know your project.
Samuel Beckett once wrote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” His quote nicely sums up the creative process. If you only work within your comfort zone, and don’t push yourself, then you know exactly where you’re going to end up and you’ll never make progress.
All successes are built on failure. You can’t be afraid of taking chances or you’ll end up stagnating.
One way to allow yourself and your team the luxury of failure is to plan for it. When scheduling a project, be sure to provide a window of time between tasks or key deliverables to allow a bit of experimentation that doesn’t impact on your deadline or budget.
Providing your team with these cushions in which they can play with ideas they’ve come up with, is a way to give your team creative autonomy with the project. That in turn builds trust and loyalty, and may end up providing you with the competitive edge over other organizations that move more conservatively.
Again, don’t confuse creativity with innovation. Not every company or organization needs an innovation agenda. But creativity can be the core tactic to enable cost savings, or ideas for more efficient processes, when the team members are invited to foster and contribute their ideas.
Get creative with your project tools, too. Don’t keep your team stagnating with outmoded, manual project processes. Upgrade them to collaborative online project management software with a suite of features that offer opportunities for dialog, sharing and team visibility into the project. See for yourself by trying our free 30-day trial.