In part one of this series, we explored the elements of individuals and teams that limit creativity and innovation. In the second part of the series, we will explore what organisations can do about it. By creating a culture of innovation, designing your thinking and taking true innovative leadership in your organisation, you can move beyond the things which impede creativity, and really create something special.
Create the culture for innovation
For innovation and design to be a reality in an organisation, it has to move from being a peripheral activity to a culturally accepted process, central to the business. This means the culture has to be accepting of the time and effort that creativity can take, and reward ‘exploration’ rather than outcomes.
Peter Murphy, design instructor in Melbourne suggests that creativity is a difficult process, and to be truly innovative, they must “roll their sleeves up, say goodbye to colleagues, friends and family for a while and get ready for no support, scepticism, strange looks, ridicule and at the end of it all – possible failure”. In many organisations, this time, space, energy and uncertainty of success is simply not tolerated within the culture. People are rewarded for outcome rather than for the efforts that they put in.
If organisations want creativity, then they simply have to develop a culture which endorses the processes and practices which may make innovation, invention and creativity possible. To do this, and organisation can manipulate the four clusters of culture which exist in any organisation.
Cluster 1: Structural. How is the physical space, the reporting lines, the processes people have to follow reflective of creativity, exploration and design? It is not just putting bean bags in a room, but really being thoughtful about the design of space, relationships, processes and functions which can allow creativity to flourish – or conversely, make it unlikely. Doing an audit of the creativity already occurring is a useful starting point, and think about what would need to change to encourage a culture of creativity and innovation.
Cluster 2: Stories, Rituals and Heroes. How are the stories of the organisation reflective of innovation, exploration, joyous failure, learning and effort? How are innovators rewarded in rituals, and how are they held up as heroes? When being creative is recognised, rewarded and well regarded, then it becomes more attractive within the business. This has to happen through formal as well as informal processes.
Cluster 3: Language. How is the language reflective of innovation and creativity, rather than ‘getting stuff done’? The language used in relation to creativity (is it ‘awesome’ or is it a ‘burden’) will dramatically shape the culture. Using language to describe innovation and creativity as a core part of the organisation, valued and respected, is critical to embedding creativity into the culture.
Cluster 4: Relationships. How does the organisation bring the right people together? How does it build trust between key players so that innovation and creative practice can be nurtured? It takes effort and focus – and in fact a big group effort – to create an innovation based culture. Being considered in how people relate, creating the opportunity for the right people to come together and consciously building trust has a significant impact on what can be achieved.
Finally, as always, leaders need to walk the talk. As they strive to be innovative, and encourage innovation, this will have the greatest impact on creative culture. Leaders who send clear signals about innovation, learning and creativity (acceptance of efforts, rather than perfectionism and results) help encourage a creative culture.
Most innovation is spontaneous. Have you ever noticed that, when you are not even trying, you come up with the answer to a problem that has been plaguing you? In the shower, on a walk, even waking up in the middle of the night with a ‘lightbulb’ moment are common descriptions of when people have their best ideas.
Creativity does not respond well to being ‘forced’. It appreciates time, space and the opportunity to be pollinated by a broad range of ideas. However, in organisations we often gather a group of executives in a room and demand “be spontaneous”, or “be creative”. (do you see the paradox in that?). This means that in most corporate scenarios where we want (and need) creativity, we actively work against it.
It is therefore useful to consider what stops people being innovative, and what encourages creativity, when we demand it from an individual or group. One of the ways to structure innovation is to use a process of designing our thinking, to ensure we structure our process to support our outcomes.
Designing our thinking
As a formal concept, ‘Design Thinking’ was proposed by a group working at Stanford University, drawn from work by Simon (1969) McKim (1973) and Rowe (1987). It became prominent in a Ted talk by David Kelley, who then founded IDEO as an organisation to teach this approach. This was focused on taking the way designers and architects approached creating solutions, and teaching this to business or in education, where it was uncommon.
In essence, it aims to provide a design (synthesis) approach to thinking to change what is often reduced to only analytical methods.
In more of a general sense, I prefer to think of ‘designing thinking’ – that is, taking the principles of both the scientific method and the architectural method, and designing the most appropriate approach of thinking for getting to the solution we seek. This involves thinking about how thinking should be conducted, and setting up the circumstances and processes to allow for creativity to get the best outcome.
How can we be more creative?
There are many ways to invoke greater creativity. If we design the environment and circumstances (outside of the norm to break the status quo), design the process to reduce the human and social issues blocking creativity, and build a program with appropriate time and space for people to create, then innovation and invention are possible. If we work to foster a sense of inclusiveness and to limit defensiveness, we set the people up to have the headspace for creativity (rather than self-preservation!).
However, we can often find circumstances where there are a million ideas but nothing concrete happens. It is important as part of your ‘designing thinking’ process that you build in processes to bring decision, conclusion and concretization of ideas so that they become real.
A process for your next creative session:
Applying a design thinking process to your next innovation session, it could look something like this:
1. Define the solution that is needed. Do not solve a ‘problem’, define what you are doing in solution-oriented language, where a number of possibilities may provide a range of potential solutions.
2. Define how you will think, how you will evaluate, how you will decide. What are the processes you intend to use? How will you specifically avoid the pitfalls of individual and group thinking which limit creativity? How will you prioritise between options? How will you make inclusion/exclusion decisions? This transparency makes groups discuss process and communication, sets rules and expectations and aligns the right sort of processes to the solution that you are seeking. Deciding when to activate or stop ideation, identification, prioritisation and decision making processes is also really important in reaching great decisions. These steps also create buy-in, decrease defensiveness and enhance engagement.
3. Provide information. What is relevant for the people to know? What is irrelevant? What do we need to know about the solution that will help us create a valuable result? Often we are great at describing the problem, but the more we describe the solution (what it is needed for, who needs it, etc) the more freedom we create for developing valuable possibilities. We need to avoid overload, as well as space for integration and construction. Whilst we need to be aware of irrelevancies, often things which appear irrelevant can spark ‘isomorphic comparisons’ (X is like Y) which can unlock new creativity. Allowing some irrelevance is good, but getting off track too far can be problematic (stay solution focused).
4. Decide the processes to synthesise options. Depending on the group, this may be where they are strong, or where structured creation activities are needed. Some groups rapidly come up with a million crazy ideas, and others love to dive into analysis. Depending on the group, it can simply be a matter of ‘opening the floor’, or else using structured processes to elicit synthesis from the group. Brainstorming is a common process for ideation, however it is not without its drawbacks (including priming, confirmation bias and group think). Ensuring there is appropriate safety, time and space to create options is critical at this point.
5. Pause. Sometimes groups like to rush through a process. Sometimes sitting in silence allows people to process, connect ideas, test their own thoughts and feel relaxed enough to actually think. Often, in creative sessions, pausing and simply being silent will feel uncomfortable, but even this is often a useful step to encourage creative thinking or action taking. (Too much silence, however, makes for a meditation class rather than a creative session!)
6. Prioritise the ideas to reduce the number to a workable set to take forward. The ideas may range from ‘fantastic’ to just crazy. A process of refinement is important to reduce the number of options so that they can be worked up into practical solutions. Prioritisation needs to be specifically related to the solution set that you are addressing. Ideas that are liked but prioritised out can be revisited with questions like “What would need to happen to make this a viable (high priority) solution?” This can invite constructive challenge of ideas, and “how do we do so in a way which is solution focused”? keeps the idea being iterated in valuable directions. Have a parking lot for non-prioritised ideas – they may be valuable in a different context, and there is no ‘pass or fail’ in the process.
7. Prototype ideas – get the thinkers to explore (imagine) the application of the synthesised idea to the solution. What do they notice? What are the strengths or weaknesses? What further opportunities exist? What needs to be added or changed to make the idea even more valuable? Using this to adapt ideas allows fuzzy, first thoughts to be tested and fleshed out, even radically modified, to enhance their value.
8. Proposal. Have someone champion and formally propose a high value solution idea to the group and put it through your defined decision making process. This could be for selection either in/out of the pool of ideas, or final selection of one idea from a group of ideas. This formalises agreement and ensures a sense of fairness and buy-in, whilst concluding the discussion on this particular point.
9. Implementation preparation: The group now develops concrete action steps for the idea to become real. This can also be a series of ‘design thinking’ mini-processes, where the outcome or outcome steps become the solution sets you are solving for. An idea without the SMART steps to make it real is often just a waste of time.
10. Evaluate and Review: have the group, at the end of the session and at a later time point, evaluate and review both the outcome and the creative process. This feedback discussion ensures that the idea and group both positively evolve from the experience, and it reinforces structured creativity in the group. It is also an opportunity to reward participation, build heroes and enhance trust and a positive innovation culture in the group.
This framework is a powerful tool to help groups be more creative, be more inclusive, and create great outcomes. There are many other ways to approach creativity – this just provides a structure which is usually highly acceptable and functional even in the most cynical corporate environments.
Importantly, innovation and creativity does not deliver ‘defined’ outcomes. As a leader, being open to whatever emerges as the prioritised ‘solution’ is critical. In fact, a great result is often surprising to everyone.
Thoughts or Thinking?
Humans as individuals and in groups have several significant challenges to innovation, invention and disruption of the status quo. Setting a culture which embraces innovation and being conscious of the processes you apply to thinking can make a real difference in the quality of your outcomes. If you design your thinking process, many barriers to quality ideation are removed, and interesting solutions often emerge.
Do you need to innovate, invent or disrupt?
Is creativity critical to your success?
Do you need to change your approach to creativity?
Is it time to move out of your thoughts and start thinking?