As any good leader will tell you, there’s nothing quite so awesome as working with a leadership team that’s highly skilled in creativity and innovative thinking. In teams like these, meetings are filled with the hopeful energy of possibility. All ideas and all questions are welcomed in a sort of playful reverence, because who knows which one may lead to the next brilliant discovery, or innovative approach to a challenge the team is facing.
Unfortunately, teams like these are as rare as they are amazing. Think for a moment of your own leadership team:
On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being “Overflowing!”), how full of creative ideas and innovative thinking are your typical team meetings?
Creativity and innovation are not qualities that are either “there” or “not there” on a team. They are present to the degree they are intentionally developed and nurtured. For qualities like these to thrive on your team, they must be regularly cultivated, and zealously protected. Here are a dozen ways to do just that on your team:
Bring in the Nerf® ~ At your next meeting, bring in a bag full of assorted foam rubber toys: balls, bats, dart guns, frisbees, you name it. For the first 15 minutes of the meeting, form two teams to see who can create the most hilarious game using the toys. Vote on a winner, then encourage the team to keep playing with the toys throughout the rest of the meeting. Then, in the future, bring these out anytime the team needs an extra dose of playful creativity to address some challenge facing them.
Change Position ~ Ever notice how team members tend to sit in the same chairs meeting after meeting? Next time the team feels stuck around some issue, shake up the conversation by having team members switch positions, stand on the table, lock arms in a circle, or shift their perspective in some other creative way. Changing your physical perspective also changes your mental point of view.
Change the Frame ~ One team I know habitually uses the term “wrestle” when engaging a challenge facing the team. But how might the conversation shift if instead of wrestling with the problem, the team played with it? or danced with it? or welcomed it as a gift? Changing the frame through which the team looks at an issue will open new avenues of thought and innovation.
Meet in Unexpected Places ~ Rather than always meeting in the same conference room or office, regularly (but unexpectedly) shake things up. Meet outdoors, at a nearby coffee shop, in a neighboring church’s office, in a home, even in the janitor’s closet! If your team is small enough, you might even try a rolling meeting in a van. Wherever you meet, leverage the location to inspire the team to engage its work in new and creative ways. For example, you might meet in a windowless room in the dark, give each person a headlamp, and explore how leading together is like (or unlike) being together in a dark room with nothing but headlamps.
Surprise with Play ~ From time to time, instead of meeting, take the team to an arcade and play together for an hour or so. Or visit an art gallery. Or go see a movie as a team. Engaging in creative play together in ways that have nothing directly to do with work will infuse the work with higher levels of innovative thinking.
Celebrate Failure ~ The #1 killer of creativity on teams is the fear of failure. (See my previous post for more about this.) Where there is no freedom to risk and fail, creativity starves. You simply can’t have one without the other. Yet, failure is fearfully avoided on many leadership teams as the great nemesis, the horror that must not be allowed. Leaders fail to realize that by disallowing failure, they also shut down creativity and innovation. To counter this, make it your practice to celebrate failure anytime it is the result of a person or a team applying their creativity to risk doing something innovative to solve a problem or reach a goal. Engage post-mortem discussions as celebratory learning conversations. In addition to the regular questions like “What went wrong? What will we do differently next time? etc., explore questions like: What did you discover? What was awesome about what you did? What are most proud of? What can we celebrate?
Trade Off Leadership ~ Toss the mantle of “meeting facilitator” to different team members on a regular basis, and encourage each leader to make the meeting his/her own. This simple shift can spotlight for the team different styles and ways of approaching challenges common to all.
Use Triads ~ Research shows that once a team grows larger than 5-7 people, its collective creativity and effectiveness as a group goes down. Even teams of 5-7 can benefit from regularly shaking up the mix of how issues are discussed. Instead of cumbersome whole-group discussions, form triads and have each triad engage a different aspect of an issue or topic, and come back to the whole team with its most creative recommendations. Or have triads all address the same topic, then share with the team their best ideas, and select from these the final solution.
Banish Mocking Humor ~ Funny is fun, but there is one form of funny that kills creativity: mocking humor. Even offered playfully, or in a lighthearted way, mocking humor erodes safety within the team, and makes team members less willing to expose themselves to possible jabbing by freely sharing their creative ideas and innovative thoughts. Laughter is great fuel for creativity, but never when it comes at the expense of a team member.
Yes, AND (not Yeah, But) ~ One simple (and challenging) way to raise the level of creativity on a team is to forbid anyone from using the word “but.” Sounds simple, but it’s not (see what I mean?). “But” shuts down and counters the last person’s thought. “And” includes and affirms the last person’s thought, and builds on it. This is the foundational rule of all good improv work, and is an invaluable skill for fostering creative innovation on a team.
Reward Risk Taking ~ Many organizations have rituals and structures for celebrating success. That’s good. And, what if you celebrated Risk as well? Who is the one who “swung for the fence” this past year? Which team took the greatest strategic risk? What if you honored courageous, strategic risk-taking behavior in your organization, regardless of whether or not it succeeded? Doing so will inspire more strategic risks and innovative thinking, leading overall to greater success.
Forge a Conflict Alliance ~ Finally, another key killer of creativity and innovation on a team is the lack of a clear Conflict Alliance. A Conflict Alliance is simply a set of agreements that we all make together about how we will handle any conflict that comes up between us. People will often refrain from stepping out on a limb by offering a creative or innovative idea if they’re afraid it might upset someone else on the team. A Conflict Alliance serves to counter this by accomplishing two things: First, it normalizes conflict as a healthy aspect of any functioning team. Second, it enlists the team to decide together, as a team, how exactly they want to handle it. The key here is that the team has to design the alliance together. They have to really talk about what exactly they’re each going to do, step by step, when someone on the team ticks them off. It’s no good tossing Matthew 18 on the table and saying, let’s just do this. They have to, as a group, decide: How do we want Matthew 18 to look on this team?