Sparking creativity in teams

25 Apr 2011 Sandeep Mehta

McKinsey Quarterly has a useful guide in Sparking creativity in teams:

In fact, our experience with hundreds of corporate teams, ranging from experienced C-level executives to entry-level customer service reps, suggests that companies can use relatively simple techniques to boost the creative output of employees at any level.

The article has four simple suggestions to increase creativity.  Lets dig in:
1. Immerse yourself: As we discussed in Steve Jobs Methodology, an engaged R&D manager is crucial to motivating R&D teams.  Many senior R&D managers I have met seem to have a hands-off approach to their teams.  As the McKinsey article points out, there is no alternative to clear engagement from the leadership:

The antidote is personal experience:p in ways that abstract discussions around conference room tables can’t. It’s therefore extremely valuable to start creativity-building exercises or idea generation efforts outside the office, by engineering personal experiences that directly confront the participants’ implicit or explicit assumptions. 

2. Overcome Orthodoxies: Personal engagement from leaders in required for the success of any organizational change.  However, the leaders also need to question conventional thinking and challenge teams to do better:

All organizations have conventional wisdom about “the way we do things,” unchallenged assumptions about what customers want, or supposedly essential elements of strategy that are rarely if ever questioned.
By identifying and then systematically challenging such core beliefs, companies can not only improve their ability to embrace new ideas but also get a jump on the competition.

3. Use Analogies: This is a new and interesting point. As the article points out, leaders need to frame the problem with analogies to actually help the teams do better.  The examples include: “How would Google manage this Data?” or “How would Southwest Airline cut these costs?”

Our own experience confirms the power of associations. We’ve found a straightforward, accessible way to begin harnessing it: using analogies. As we’ve seen, by forcing comparisons between one company and a second, seemingly unrelated one, teams make considerable creative progress, particularly in situations requiring greenfield ideas. We’re not suggesting that you emulate other organizations—a recipe for disappointment. Rather, this approach is about using other companies to stir your imagination.

4. Create Constraints: As we have discussed many times, managers are key to driving innovation.  Only managers have the cross-enterprise visibility to help frame the challenge for the R&D teams.

Imposing constraints to spark innovation may seem counterintuitive—isn’t the idea to explore “white spaces” and “blue oceans”? Yet without some old-fashioned forcing mechanisms, many would-be creative thinkers spin their wheels aimlessly or never leave their intellectual comfort zones.

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