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How leaders can teach their teams to become more creative

Leaders know that creativity and idea generation drive success, yet many are unsure how to unlock innovation in their teams. Learn more about the strategy behind creativity and idea generation.

8 min read


A square shape with a variety of colors suggesting creativty and idea creation


In group settings, when I ask senior leaders whether they’ve ever attended or sponsored their team members to attend programs focused on creativity and idea generation, the silence is palpable.

Alternatively, it’s hard to regain control of the discussion when I ask them whether they and their teams do creative work. They wax eloquently on how critical creativity is to daily problem-solving and responding to our ever-changing external environment.

There’s little doubt creativity is vital in the workplace, and that idea generation is the enabler of creative problem-solving and innovation. The better our teams and colleagues are at generating ideas, the better the odds of surviving and thriving in our topsy-turvy world. Yet, in too many organizations, the practices around idea generation and problem-solving are stale and decidedly lacking in creativity.

In this article, I share an example of one leader’s creative approach to a complex situation and offer ideas leaders can use to turbocharge creativity on their teams.

Case in point: What would you do?

Consider how you might handle this situation:

Victoria, the new general manager of a systems unit, had been on the job for a month when her board chair asked her to describe the environment in the business. “It’s where ideas and collaboration go to die,” she offered.

The situation

The firm’s market share declined almost 10% during the past two years, and the hefty R&D budget had yielded nothing but new-product duds. Innovation was at a standstill.

The team had been navigating severe quality problems with their latest software release, leading to several key customer defections and a good deal of internal finger-pointing.

Stress in the organization was on display daily, and the recent poor results from an employee-engagement survey underscored how bad things were.

The case reflects a complex situation demanding creative problem-solving. However, when I use this case as a kickoff activity in senior manager workshops or MBA classes, most initial suggestions are predictable and uncreative. Frequent suggestions include:

  • Surveying clients and employees
  • Conducting more roundtable and town hall meetings
  • Investing in team development training
  • Running third-party strength and personality assessments

Victoria might use these ideas as tactics at some point, yet a more creative and comprehensive approach is necessary to respond to this complex situation.

How one leader solved a complex set of problems creatively

Victoria framed the situation as a “broken culture in need of a confidence boost” and decided on a untraditional approach. She identified several cross-functional pairings combining senior managers and key contributors and charged them with studying firms outside their own industry that had successfully reinvented themselves.

In particular, she wanted the groups to identify firms that now showed great competence in the areas of customer service and new-product development. She also encouraged them to focus initially on just observing and learning, not problem-solving.

As the teams explored and compiled observations, Victoria challenged them to take the next step and go into the market and visit retail and customer locations for the firms they were studying. Again, she encouraged them to just ask, listen and observe.

Following the field trips, the groups reported and discussed what they had learned. The ideas were captured and posted for everyone in the firm to see. Eventually, Victoria asked them two questions:

  1. “How would the organization(s) you studied solve our challenges?”
  2. “What insights should we apply in our unique way to improve our business?”

Fueled by the newfound sense of discovery and creativity plus a mountain of new ideas, the groups started to climb out of their organizational rut and get to work fixing the business. Eighteen months later, the firm’s market share was rising, fueled by new products and services, and employee engagement was trending positively.

3 big takeaways in creativity and creative problem-solving

While I’ve shared an abbreviated version of the case actions, the lessons from Victoria’s approach to that messy situation are powerful.

These include:

1. Sometimes, you have to shock the system to get out of the rut

No number of off-sites, external assessments or roundtables would have moved the group outside their cultural malaise and into action. Victoria’s approach — assigning a unique task and creating diversity within the groups — helped derail the negative train and ultimately served to get people focused on working and learning together.

This approach distracted them from the daily finger-pointing and griping, and helped focus their gray matter on a novel learning opportunity.

2. Challenge groups to resist the urge to converge on early solutions

Our nature is to see a problem and propose a fix, yet many of our organizational challenges are complex where no single solution is sufficient. Instead of converging around tactical or superficial ideas, invest the time to go anthropologist and observe in other situations.

The goal isn’t to mimic or emulate what you observe but instead to reframe it for your firm: Try this question: “How might we leverage our observations to solve challenges in our environment?” This approach reflects analogical thinking, and it opens the door to a variety of fresh ideas.

3. Don’t attack the culture—empower them to fix it

There was a huge culture problem in Victoria’s business unit. I can imagine legions of consultants offering guidance on all manner of culture change initiatives. Many executives would emphasize restructuring and reflexively replacing top managers, ultimately generating more cultural stress than they were eliminating. They would also focus on tactics that emphasize moral suasion or superficial attempts to repair trust.

Victoria resisted those short-sighted and decidedly uncreative approaches and let the people in the organization heal and evolve the culture — a great lesson!

How might you apply Victoria’s approach to your situation?

More ideas for getting great at generating ideas

Ideas are the raw material of problem-solving, yet we don’t teach our team members to maximize idea-generating approaches. Here are some suggestions to help infuse your teams with creativity to identify novel ideas and unique solutions.

1. Rethink brainstorming processes

Leigh Thompson of the Kellogg School of Management’s fabulous research-based book “Creative Conspiracy” implores us to leverage experts’ insights and refine our brainstorming processes with some simple tweaks.

  • Blend solo and group brainstorming.
  • Use timed sprints in brainstorming sessions and push for higher performance each time

While we think groups are better at idea generation, research shows the overhead from socialization pressures often gets in the way. However, you can enhance group performance by providing the topic to individuals ahead of the group session and encouraging them to develop their ideas. The moderator should collect and post these items without attribution as thought-starters in the group session.

Also, the primary focus in your brainstorming sessions should be on quantity, not quality. Try multiple short sprints (seven to 10 minutes) and challenge your groups to exceed the prior sprint’s quantity total each time. This twist on the brainstorming process requires the moderator to keep people on task with idea generation and not idea discussion.

2. Create environments where ideas reproduce

Ideas are best aged in public view where people can stare at them and jump and build. One of my favorite approaches is to create a “Green Room” (named because the first place I did this was painted green), where ideas are made visible. Individuals are encouraged to visit, study, add or build on prior ideas.

You can do this in physical or digital space, although for the latter, resist the urge just to place a folder on a shared drive. The ideas must be visible in their entirety — imagine walking around a room filled with ideas scribbled on flipcharts or whiteboards. It’s this visibility plus accessibility that improves the odds of generating valuable new ideas.

3. Spend time identifying the real problem, and use framing creatively

“We all have the same view of the problem or situation,” said no manager ever. It’s essential to teach our teams to slow down to go faster and clarify the problem statement. Framing is a powerful tool here.

Many have encountered the classic framing example in the form of The Slow Elevator Problem (Harvard Business Review). You’re a building manager, and your tenants have complained that the elevator is too slow. The logical ideas are to contact maintenance and see whether there’s a way to speed things up safely. Or maybe a new elevator is the only solution.

Yet, a simple reframe of “the wait seems too long” generates a host of creative options without demanding the expense of replacing the elevator.

Use this example and find new ways to articulate the problem you are striving to solve. Be aware that your influence as the boss is powerful when framing. “We have a problem” generates one list of ideas; “we have an opportunity” generates another.

The bottom line

I can’t think of anything more important in our organizations and our work as leaders than tapping into the gray matter, creativity and idea generation of the people around us. For some reason, we’ve cultivated environments where linear and reactive thinking is the norm, but divergent and analogical thinking are much more potent in complex situations.

You control the weather on your team — take the time to start teaching them how to make it rain ideas.

Art Petty is an executive and emerging-leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

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