5 tips for fostering creative thinking, starting tomorrow

Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash

Like many others, I’ve used some time during this lock-down to learn something new. Unlike everyone on Instagram, sourdough and I couldn’t meet halfway, so I’ve decided to give it a shot on something else — Creativity.

I’ve been exploring the Creativity topic for some time now — how to stretch and feed my imagination, and how to find space (and time) for new things to come up. Some authors tell us it’s a skill that flourishes when practiced. And further studies show that even (and especially) procrastinators can be true originals (check Adam Grant’s TED talk for more).

But more recently, I’ve been interested in how to foster that creativity on others. Is there a secret formula for bringing creativity into the problem-solving process within teams? What is the right way to lead your team to more creative outcomes?

During the last few weeks, I’ve been attending the Leading for Creativity course from IDEO U looking for answers and thought about sharing some of the tips that I’ve found useful when approaching new challenges. It’s not rocket science — it never is, is it? But it is actionable, and we have seen it working at MAZE. And the best thing is you can start doing it tomorrow.

(Disclaimer: I’m sparing you the details about my love story for IDEO. You may think it is, but this is not a sponsored post. And if tips had a trademark, this text should be covered in it.)

First things first.

1. Are you sure your teams are working on a relevant problem?

I don’t know about you, but for me, there is nothing more frustrating than working on something that is not relevant. Time and energy are wasted. Motivation drops. Ideas are parked forever.

When this happens — and more often than we would want to, it is more likely that the next time you call creativity, it will be harder to have your teams engaged.

Make sure that whatever challenge your team is working on, it is aligned with your company’s purpose and vision and why it exists in the first place. When deciding which challenges to attack first, here is a quick check-list that you may want to use:

  1. What is the purpose (aspirational and why your company exists besides making money) and the vision (the plan of how you get to your ambitions) of your company
  2. Check on what is stopping you from getting to your vision
  3. Chose one of the topics to address

Now that you have a challenge that is strategic and will help your company to go further, it’s time to frame a question.

2. Help your team get to the right question it needs to answer

We know that there are people more creative than others. Natural talents that can gracefully think of 100 different ways to sell ice-creams in winter.

What we also know is that there are questions that are easier to generate more creative ideas than others. This is one of my biggest challenges — how to get to the best How might we…? question. And at the same time, it’s so rewarding when you get it right.

Here are some simple rules to follow and examples of how to use them:

  • Don’t put a solution into the question
    Not great:
     How might we launch a campaign and app that makes having healthy habits cool for teens?
    Better: How might we inspire teens around the topic of healthy eating?
  • Your question should be inspiring
    Not great: 
    How might we reach new audiences?
    Better: How might we communicate our offer in a way that is easy to tweet and repeat?
  • Include who are you designing for
    Not great:
     How might we design the ultimate long-haul air travel experience?
    Better: How might we make airline travel more convenient for single parents traveling alone with their children?
  • Draw insights from inside your organization. What is your unfair advantage?
    Not great:
     How might we make a new premium soup product?
    Better: How might we develop new products that highlight the well-being aspects of soup?

3. Practice a curious mindset

Now that your team is working on solving the right challenge, it is time to challenge them. Bringing your curiosity to the process will make them go further.

Think about what questions may help unlock their creative potential or think from a different perspective.

Small yet generative questions are a good bet, like What’s in it for the consumer? What if it is not good enough? Why does it matter? What does this make possible? What else?

It isn’t enough merely to be open to ideas from others. Engaging the collective brainpower of the people you work with is an active, ongoing process. — Ed Catmul, President of Pixar Animation (Creativity Inc.)

4. Be bold when setting-up a team

These techniques can be applied to any type of organization. But an excellent way to bring more creative thinking is by shaking things up. A visionary leader may try to bring someone to the team with a different perspective and disrupt conventions.

Chris Flink (partner from IDEO) shares that every year they bring a wild card intern. Some years ago they hired a magician — the Magintern. He brought the theatrical, the surprise, and delight touch sometimes missed when designing a new service.

At MAZE we have Gonçalo, remembering us everyday of how it is to live outside the box.

What about you? What is the profile that you probably need to disrupt your status-quo thinking?

5. Create rituals that feed a Culture of Creativity

Lastly, the rituals — something that you can do in parallel with your approach to new challenges. Rituals help nudge the culture of your team and your organization towards beliefs and behaviors that support creative work.

Have a look at these examples of beliefs and behaviors that are mostly seen in creative teams:

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To create a ritual that is adapted to your reality:

  1. Identify gaps between these beliefs and behaviors and your culture
  2. Put it into a question — how might we design a ritual that…?
  3. Brainstorm ideas chose one and give it a try

Last week we did a quick experiment with a new ritual at MAZE:

  1. Our gap: “Permission to fail”. Although we are pushed to do it, individually, we are still very risk-averse
  2. Question: How might we design a ritual that encourages a culture of acceptance towards failure?
  3. From 10 different ideas, we chose one to test — a F*-up lunch where people shared one of their biggest failures and why was that important for them (the great lessons from this would give another post). We did it during our weekly virtual lunch. Bonus: we are now using that time to bring other topics to the table and feel closer to each other.

Rituals are unique to your tribe. Find where you should be working on — and don’t let this pandemic fool you. Virtual connection is better than no connection at all.

Creative thinking has never been more critical. Take COVID Innovations for example, and check the great innovations that have been coming out every day in response to the current situation.

Whatever challenge you may have in hands — being it building a new product, increasing the efficiency of your company, improving an internal process, or finding new answers for today’s challenges — don’t forget to ask yourself: What else could creativity get us to do?

Some extra good reads on Framing a good challengeAsking the right questionsRituals, and Creative cultures.

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