Leadership Question #4: How Do You Encourage Creative Thinking?

Continuing in my series of “20 Leadership Questions,” we come to the fourth question that Michael Smith asked when he interviewed me. This one is especially important in a world that seems like it is changing daily.Five Light Bulb Tulips - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/NREY, Image #8845773

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/NREY

Michael asked,

How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization?”

As a publishing company in a fast-changing environment, creativity is not only necessary for our success but for our survival.

Earlier in my career, I felt enormous pressure to be creative. In 1981, I was hired at Word, Inc. to be the marketing director of the book division. The very first day on the job, my advertising director barged into my office before lunch and said, “The deadline for the Swindoll advertising copy is due by the end of the day. Our agency can’t get to it. You have to write it.” She laid the manuscript on my desk and walked out.

I only two problems: I hadn’t read the book nor had I ever written advertising copy—of any kind. [Gulp]

Nothing gets your creative juices flowing faster than a deadline and the threat of your career coming to a premature end! I’d hate to go back and read it now, but some how, I got the copy written and submitted by the end of the day.

Today, I am not usually the one in the creative hot seat. However, I am responsible for fostering creative thinking in my company. Over the years, I have found four ways to facilitate this:

  1. Hold my own counsel. When meeting with the team I lead, it is usually best if I don’t go first. I might see the solution more quickly or be tempted to cut to the chase. The problem is that this inhibits everyone else’s creativity. The discussion then quickly become political. People start measuring their words. They are hesitant to disagree with me. As a result, I don’t get the best thinking of the group.
  2. Enlist outside resources. If you aren’t constantly refilling the creative pool, it will eventually run dry. This is why I routinely buy books and give them to my colleagues to read. I also encourage them to attend conferences. (I try to attend as many as I can myself.) Consultants can also be helpful. They can offer a fresh, outside-in perspective that broadens the creative pallet.
  3. Affirm creative thinking. I believe that you get more of what you notice and affirm. If I want more innovative thinking, I have to notice it and publicly affirm it. When introducing people, I like to brag on their creativity: “This is Jane Smith. She’s incredibly creative. She was the one who first started using social media in our company for customer service.” I also like to send email affirmations and copy the person’s boss. Recognition is a huge motivator for most of us.
  4. Create a safe environment. By safe, I mean safe for dissent. Make it okay for people to disagree with you. If people don’t feel safe, they will only parrot your ideas. This means you will never be any more creative as a team than you could be on your own. However, I believe that my team can be much more creative than I can be on my own—so long as I give them the freedom to express themselves without fear of me embarrassing them.

The bigger and more successful you become, the easier it is to rest on your creative laurels. This is one of the things I have really admired about Apple. They keep pushing the envelope. I don’t think this happens by accident. Someone there is doing a lot of thinking about how to encourage and reward creative thinking.

Question: What are you doing inside your organization to encourage creative thinking?
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  • http://twitter.com/jalc6927 @jalc6927

    I give our people boundaries to work within instead of set guidelines. This gives them room to maneuver and come up with creative solutions. When a stressful situation arises, I encourage them to focus on something else for a few minutes. When they come back to the previous issue they'll see it differently, and usually find the solution.

  • http://www.greggfraley.com/blog Gregg Fraley

    If I could add a few thoughts to this great post…

    1.) Leaders who make it known that they expect ideas related to organizational challenges tend to get those ideas, so, ask. Former Motorola chair Bob Galvin used to announce a meeting and assign an idea quota, that is, please come to the meeting about marketing with 20 ideas to share. Asking people to think works.

    2.) Leaders should invest in Idea Management Systems. The ROI for tracking and managing ideas is well-known and yet it's amazing how many organizations leave ideas in people's heads, and leave this to chance. Ideas get lost, leave with people, drop between the cracks, etc. Arguably, ideas are an organizations most precious asset; they should be treated that way. Idea Management Systems can be as simple as a spreadsheet, or as sophisticated as products like Imaginatik or BrightIdea.com. You are not doing formal innovation unless you do some form of idea management.

    3.) Leaders should acknowledge ideas, and let people know what actions will be taken on them. People often feel that brainstorms are a waste of time because they never hear what happens to the ideas afterwards. Let them know that ideas #5, #221, and #302 are being put into action this quarter. Another set of ideas will be re-evaluated come budget time, and, the other ideas are appreciated but can't be used. Sometimes it's helpful to ask for help in refining an idea — say things like "we liked idea #6, but ruled it out because it costs too much to implement? Does anyone have any ideas on how to reduce cost and make it work?"

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Great comment, Gregg. This in itself could be a post! Thanks for adding so much value!

      • http://www.greggfraley.com/blog Gregg Fraley

        My pleasure. I could write a book about creative leadership!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/chownage Kyle Chowning

      This is really good stuff. I'm going to look into the Idea Management System today! Thanks Gregg.

      • http://www.greggfraley.com/blog Gregg Fraley

        I didn't mention that they not only manage, but collect ideas. IMS's are great tools for virtual ideation, which could be company wide. Pfiser, for example, collects ideas from over 1000 employees.

        • http://intensedebate.com/people/chownage Kyle Chowning

          You might be my new systems hero.

    • http://www.danieldecker.net Daniel Decker

      This is really helpful as well. Gregg, I hope you don't mind but I am going to copy your response here and work it into a blog post on ideas (quoting you with this response and linking back to your blog and Michael's).

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/BLichtenwalner Ben Lichtenwalner

      Great additions Gregg. We've used idea management systems at most of the companies I worked for and I can account for their value – provided they are supported from the executive level. In one instance, the idea tracker did not have executive support and wound up countering the intent of promoting ideas, by displaying how executives lacked any interest in new ideas. Therefore, please ensure you have executive level support before implementing an idea management system.

      • http://www.greggfraley.com/blog Gregg Fraley

        Absolutely, they must have executive support, and, be part of a holistic effort.

        Also, there needs to be a dedicated team of idea review people, or else, the ideas just gather dust, and are worse than useless. I've run across organizations that with best intentions have failed on this part of it, they were surprised at how many ideas they got, and, surprised how long it takes to really sift through them. At the end of the day, this is hard work!

    • http://www.leanideamanagement.com George Rathbun

      Gregg, you are right how often organizations fail to manage their ideas effectively. The tools on the market are impressive, and easy to use… and in the whole scheme of things, Idea Management software systems are relatively innexpensive considering that ideas are the lifeline of any company that wants to remain competitive.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/ronedmondson ronedmondson

    I am loving this series Michael! I've written a few times about this on my blog. I'm loving the creativity coming from the church world today.

    I recently wrote 5 ways to lead creatives without stifling:http://www.ronedmondson.com/2010/05/5-ways-to-lea

    Thanks for letting me share.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Ron. I have had second thoughts about it. It doesn’t seem to be generating as many comments, but the page views are holding pretty constant. Not quite sure I understand why. However, I am planning to continue.

      Thanks for dropping by!

      • http://Www.kylechowning.com Kyle Chowning

        Mike, for what it’s worth, these posts are why I read and follow your blog. The others are nice, but thus is the meat I’m looking for!

      • http://www.danieldecker.net Daniel Decker

        I was wondering that same question when you (Michael) said you were likely to move towards a more leadership driven content. I think people want that direction – content but I don't think they engage with it as much as they do some other topics (just an observation I've developed from reading your blog and others + watching what is getting ENGAGEMENT). Don't get me wrong, I personally love and want the leadership content but I just don't see people engage it in the same way from a comment perspective. Not sure why either but interested to continue observing and finding out.

      • Linda

        Just because we don't make comments doesn't mean we don't find value in the content. I appreciate this series – Thank-you for continuing.

        • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

          I’m sure that is true. Thanks for the reminder.

  • http://www.danieldecker.net Daniel Decker

    Very helpful advice but what I think I am learning most is between then lines in your answers to these leadership questions. A subtle echo I see ringing true. Each response you give is rooted in an obvious sense of humilty, self-awarness and admiration for others (your team) that I think is what attracts me most to your leadership style and example as a man of character. A good leader brings out the best in others I think you appear to do a good job of beng intentional about that. #1 above is a great example.

  • http://www.blissassociates.com Bill Bliss

    Great post and comments so far! I would add two things to try, and both are somewhat related:
    1. Have people think from the customer's perspective instead of the insider's perspective. Sometimes the inside perspective limits us to the predetermined obstacles, rules and practices we have established. Thinking about things from the customers viewpoint eliminate all that.
    2. Think through the situation, issue or problem from another functional point of view. In other words, if you are the head of manufacturing, think the situation through as if you were the head of sales or marketing. If you are the head of marketing, think the problem through as if you were the CFO or the head of manufacturing.
    Asking the question "Why not?" is key in both suggestions.


    • http://intensedebate.com/people/BLichtenwalner Ben Lichtenwalner

      Great suggestions Bill.

      On point 1: I agree and see insider thinking all too often. In my opinion, thinking like the customer is something the Consumer Packaged Goods industry does very well (a marketing intensive industry), while more typical, manufacturing companies have a greater tendency to stick with insider views. So, if you're seeking to think more like a customer or end consumer, look at how how the CPG greats, like P&G do it.

      On Point 2: One phrase I often use is, "think like the owner". Act as though you own the company. Would you invest $X in this idea? Great point as well.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    Part of my job as a teacher is to encourage creative thinking in my students. It's amazing to see how few ideas some of my kids have. One of the best ways to help creative thinking is to ask the right questions and keep asking them. When I give my students a writing assignment, I insist that they brainstorm which they resist (sometimes passionately) because they just want to get done. I think that everyone benefits when provocative questions become part of the creative process.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I agree. Asking question is so key. I wrote a blog post on this a few years ago called, “The Power of Questions.”

  • Israel Tapia

    Prayer always generates creative thinking.Create an atmosphere of creativity. An atmosphere of creativity is an environment of prayer(Dt.29:29) Let God be in charge of your organization ( He is the innovator for excellence) for apart from Me you can do nothing-Jesus (John 15.5b).Notice that the root of the word Creativity is Creat(e)-or- All starts with God: Gen 1:1 kjv In the beginning God created (Hebrew bara) the heaven and the earth.
    Put your organization in the hands of wise creative men(men of prayer). They will understand God’s timing. Of the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do1 Chronicles 12:32 New American Standard Bible (© 1995)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/BLichtenwalner Ben Lichtenwalner

    More great ideas, with strong suggestions in the comments, especially by Gregg and Bill – thank you both as well.

    Regarding enlisting outside resources, I like to encourage small, local networking groups. In previous positions, I've had to counter the challenge of "group think". Longer tenure in companies is an often overlooked value that is trending down in today's business. However, it has the negative of limiting the breadth of experience and exposure to new ideas, ultimately constraining creativity. In these scenarios, I found local networking groups to be a cost effective form of inspiring creativity. It stirs people to see how others are tackling similar problems. If a local networking group does not exist, I encourage the team to create one.

    • http://www.blissassociates.com Bill Bliss

      Ben, great addition regarding local networking groups. I like peer advisory groups, such as Vistage for secular companies or FCCI (www.fcci.org) for leaders who want to run their companies and lives using Biblical principles. Having a trusted group of peers will add tremendous value to any situation – just don't exclude the internal people from the process, or you risk loosing their engagement, loyalty and enthusiasm .


  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/josephmcole josephmcole

    This is exactly what I need to begin doing in my elders meetings at our church! After reading your post, I copied the bulleted points into my agenda template to remind me of your advice when planning a meeting. I am my own worst enemy when it comes to getting the creative solutions I'm looking for in my leaders. In my impatience, I quickly spill out my ideas and shut down everyone else's voice.

    What a wake up for me this morning! Thanks.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I struggle with the same thing. That’s why it is easy for me to write about it. It’s also a good reminder to me!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Geoffreywebb Geoff Webb

    We use theater games and improvisation exercises before meetings to jump start creativity and collaboration. We call it the Right Brain Gym. We do this in our office and with all our clients (and, yes, this works with technical and "corporate" people!).

    I learned a lot about generating creativity from Cliff Selbert, He and his firm have created everything from logos to landmarks for organizations like Coca-Cola, LAX, and the Dallas Cowboys. I collected some of his ideas (like learning to juggle & one-minute drills) in a blog post:http://geoffreywebb.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/crea

    Hope this helps. Thanks for the great ideas everyone!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I love the idea of a Right Brain Gym.

  • ThatGuyKC

    Great wisdom, Michael. If you're ever in Seattle would love to meet you for coffee.

    I think it's so important for leaders to grasp the value of encouraging their employees with genuine praise and appreciation. That is inspiring.

  • Guitarman123

    Very neat series! I am enjoying reading all that you have to say… But I do think your posts would be a lot more "effective" if you included more Scripture.

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  • http://withthekids.wordpress.com April Karli

    When I think of leaders who have inspired creativity in myself and others vs. those who have stifled creativity, I can identify which ones followed these four points and which ones didn't.

    It certainly causes me to think about how I lead others in creative thinking as well.

  • http://www.randomactsofleadership.com Susan Mazza

    The four points you make here are also essential to having any idea generation "system" actually result in generating worthwhile ideas. You provide some great things to consider in our own leadership and the leadership of our management team when this kind of process is put in place, but is not yielding results in quality, quantity, or participation.

    One of my favorite books on the subject of stimulating creative thinking is Think Better by Tim Hurson. He also holds what has become an annual event called Mind Camp as well that is all about how to stimulate creativity.

    Some additional thoughts on point #2 Enlist Outside Resources:

    Having been on the inside working with consultants as well as brought in from the outside as a consultant, I think how you bring in people from the outside is really important. If they are brought in to contribute to the thinking/idea generation process their ideas are far more likely to be heard and considered and built off of than if they just come in as the experts offering their ideas. As one client said a long time ago about why they had such a disdain for consultants "don't come in here and ask me for my watch and then tell me what time it is".

    Also, a great use of consultants can also be, not just to bring in fresh ideas and perspectives, but to facilitate the kind of conversations that help people get past the limits of their current thinking so they can generate truly new ideas. The added benefit is that people much more readily own the ideas they generate and/or are part of generating themselves.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I love the watch analogy. I have certainly experienced that with some consultants.

  • Janelle

    @Gregg Fraley, I agree with your comment on idea management and even though tools like Brightidea can be comprehensive and flexible, they aren’t as complicated as one might think to setup, deploy, and run successfully. The simplicity is what makes idea management tools powerful, and will increase adoption at companies over time.

    • http://www.greggfraley.com/blog Gregg Fraley

      Brightidea is intuitive enough for people to use immediately. And it is a little known fact that you don't always have to buy them outright, but can lease/rent them for specific projects.

  • http://www.initialcall.com/blog Catherine Brown

    I read a PowerPoint about how people hire at Netflix and about their company values and I was encouraged that they also seemed able to retain this kind of creativity, even as they get bigger. Thanks for your post.

  • http://www.stephenblandino.com Stephen Blandino

    Great thoughts Michael. I once heard Lynda Gratton say that leaders cultivate innovation in their companies when they ask their teams questions that they truly do not have answers to. This takes the lid off innovation because the leader's not coming to the meeting with assumptions. There's an immediate open mind to creativity. I thought this was fantastic advice. If more leaders came to meetings with questions, not answers or preconceived ideas, they just might infuse a dose of innovation beyond their wildest dreams.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

    What happens when you work for a boss or company that says… "It's my way or the highway?" I've been in situations like that in many organizations and the frustration level usually runs high. But one thing that can usually help break the ice is to find someone the leader trusts and bring in their outside ideas. Almost everyone I've ever met, has an advisor trust list. Some don't make any sense, but if you realize the leader will listen to them, you have a much better chance at instilling a creative change.

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/drthomreece Dr. Tom Cocklereece

    This is a great article as related to innovative cultures and creativity. I discussed some of the same ideas in a blog at the link below:

    I believe these are great questions but #4 is the most important. A culture that creates a safe environment will encourage the other three points. One problem is the prevalence of the 20th century leadership model of command and control, which usually stifles the safe environment and thus stops the creative thinking.

  • Chris

    " I have had second thoughts about it. It doesn’t seem to be generating as many comments, but the page views are holding pretty constant."

    I understand your concern here, but as a new reader of your blog, I have to beg you to continue! I am fairly young in a leadership role in my company and this kind of content is EXACTLY what I need. I learned about your blog at the Chick-Fil-A conference in Atlanta earlier this month and I have been reading it since. I have to say that this series is what I have been looking for – not only the new content, but the references to your earlier posts as well as related posts on other blogs.

    Thank you for your time and energy in completing this series! I promise you that I am at least one young leader who will be impacted by your efforts!

  • John Darwin

    Very good post, pointing to the really important factors for creative thinking.
    I would like to touch another aspect of a good idea management systems –
    to make the innovation process more efficient.
    Once you start dealing with large numbers of employees, you very quickly get to a large number of ideas – and you want to be able to handle them efficiently, finding the best ideas out of this process, and creating clusters of similar ideas.
    This is something you simply can't do without the proper tools, and this is what separates the ultra simple systems from the rest.
    We've looked at quite a few systems, and eventually went with Qmarkets idea management software , that really answered all of our needs.
    There are other good system out there (like Imaginatic), but you need to make sure you look at the important factors when choosing your system.

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