4 Steps to Foster Creativity

How to Bring Out the Best in Your Team

Creativity is not some remote and solitary island. Each day, from the studios of legendary visual effects outfit Industrial Light & Magic to the conference rooms of ad agencies to the mission control rooms of NASA, teams of people come together to conceptualize, develop, and realize innovations in everything from movies to public policy.

Yet fostering creativity among teams takes more than just tossing some people into a room and writing vague ideas down on whiteboards. Creativity is a result of decisions that foster cultures of innovative thinking and inspirational problem-solving. People must feel safe to fail in their ambitious problem-solving. Diversity in ideas and approaches must be embraced and cultivated. Trusting relationships between team members must be promoted. Colleagues must be free to stretch beyond their silos and take on new challenges.

By taking four key steps, you can build teamwork cultures that make innovation and creativity possible.

1. Make it safe to fail

Ad agency executives know this scenario well—as does anyone who avidly watched Mad Men and the travails of the ad agency’s commercial director Sal Romano: A client asks you to, say, produce a commercial based on say, a popular film. You deliver exactly what they want (down to the well-placed lens flare at the conclusion of it), only for the pitch to be rejected by the client. Yet there is good news: Your team now has a new creative resource from which it can develop a campaign that another client loves.

This happens in every field and the lesson remains the same: Good things can often come out of failure. Sometimes, as seen in the case of Apple’s Newton handheld computer, failure can lead to new innovations that can transform companies and even open up new opportunities. In other cases, as tech guru Seth Godin points out, failure offers lessons on how to approach future projects strategically and practically that lead to success down the road.

The key to making failure work lies with you making it safe to not always succeed. This starts by viewing failure not as the end, but as the beginning to the next innovation. Every team should take time to review a past effort and see what can be gleaned from past missteps. Another key is to realize that a failure may be situational in nature. As in the case of the busted ad campaign, the problem may lie more with a client or customer not knowing what they want than the work product itself.

2. Accept creative diversity

Corporate cultures often prefer homogeneity over heterogeneous staffs. But as seen on Hollywood sound stages, on baseball diamonds and especially construction sites, teams succeed in creative activity—and in solving problems—when they bring together and embrace people with different backgrounds, skills, personalities and experiences. As David Rock and Heidi Grant of the Neuroleadership Institute have pointed out, diverse teams produce more products and are “simply smarter” than those who are not.

Embracing team diversity begins by looking closely at the strengths each of your team members bring to the table, then rallying the team together to build on them. Taking this step achieves a balance in problem-solving that doesn’t otherwise exist if people are too similar. The other key step lies in fostering a set of shared values around the work the team is doing in order to create common ground and mutual respect.

Then encourage your team to lean on each other for problem-solving. This includes requiring a colleague to first take a critical puzzle or question to their teammates for brainstorming. Such a move helps cultivate respect for each other’s ideas and specialized skills that lead to innovation.

3 Build—and keep—trust

It is hard to work creatively as a team if you don’t trust each other. If teammates think that they won’t receive constructive criticism from one another for a simple idea, then they won’t want to work with each other on bigger projects. Others may not trust each other if important deadlines aren’t met. Let’s not even get into the matter of rumor-mongering and backbiting.

This is where leadership comes in. As a leader, you must set ground rules for creative teamwork. This starts by your example, allowing open, honest, yet constructive discussions that focus on improvement, as well as reminding people to not miss deadlines that can make it harder for other teammates to complete their parts of a project. Dave Mattson, the CEO of Sandler Training, also recommends that you engage in active listening, paying attention to what others say instead of simply waiting to react. Your action teaches the rest of the team how to work with you and with each other.

An important step lies in telling team members to essentially follow what is called the Vegas rule: What is discussed among the team stays with it. This includes encouraging colleagues to first discuss their issues with each other, then taking it to the team if they cannot be resolved on their own, then leave the dispute behind them once it is resolved.

4. Let people stretch beyond their comfort level

Job titles and descriptions never offer much insight into the wide array of talents on your team. More often than not, the best person for a particular team task may be the person with the best idea, even if they have no experience in achieving it.

This means that you must become what leadership trainer Liz Wiseman calls a multiplier, constantly looking out for hidden talent among your teammates that even they may not recognize. One way to do this: Sit down with each colleague to discuss what would they want to do as a project if they had uninterrupted time to do so. Through that exercise, you can see what your teammates can do beyond their already-established roles.

Another step lies in assigning a different team member to lead a major project after one is completed. By giving someone who hasn’t led a chance to take charge, you may uncover all kinds of hidden potential.