PART 1: Tools to Enhance
Written by G. Eric Allenbaugh, Ph.D.
To what extent does your organizational culture bring out the creative best of others in addressing issues and challenges? Are creative ideas quickly opposed – or perhaps ignored? Do some of the best ideas seem to surface in “parking lot discussions” after the problem-solving meeting is over? All too often, the corporate culture stifles rather than encourages innovative, resourceful thinking.
“Most of what we call management
consists of making it difficult
for people to get their work done.”
People tend to support that which they help to create, and this simple, yet profound, leadership principle provides the foundation for developing and reinforcing corporate creativity. I liken a corporate leader to the conductor of an orchestra. The conductor’s job is to draw the music out of the musicians – not to play the instruments. Likewise, the leader’s role, more often than not, is to create a culture that safely draws creative ideas from associates in support of the organization’s mission, vision, and values. That collective experience, wisdom, insight, and talent can make a significant contribution to customer service, job fulfillment, and the bottom line.
“I believe the real difference between
success and failure in a corporation
can very often be traced to the question
of how well the organization brings out
the great energies and talents of its people.”
Thomas J. Watson, Jr.
Former IBM Chief Executive
Learning how to effectively engage management and staff in creative thinking and solution finding is a leadership skill that requires careful attention and development. In addition to mining the many creative ideas that your associates possess, one can foster understanding of and support for ideas that build teamwork, enhance productivity, delight customers, introduce new products, and contribute to a more fulfilling work environment. In my more than three decades of consulting with leaders of various industries, I have discovered or developed several pragmatic tools to enhance creative thinking. Sharing those ideas for your benefit is the purpose of this article. So, let’s dig in.
Clarify Outcomes & Expectations
In a safe, open environment, first clarify what outcomes and desirable results are expected without setting undue restrictions on how this is to be accomplished. As the late Stephen Covey used to say, “Begin with the end in mind.” In so doing, appropriate focus can be provided without limiting the creative exploration. We are seeking unity of direction, not uniformity in thinking. We want the “wild geese to fly in formation” rather than to “get the ducks in a row.” Getting the ducks in a row restricts the creative flow and ends up with “group think” where everybody thinks the same way. Getting the wild geese to fly in formation provides sufficient direction while expanding creative breadth and innovative options. To assure that the creative process supports the desired strategic direction of your organization, consider reinforcing these four principles at the onset of your team’s creative exploration. Later test emerging ideas against these key principles:
To assure that the creative process supports the desired strategic direction of your organization, consider reinforcing these four principles at the onset of your team’s creative exploration. Later test emerging ideas against these key principles:
Is what we are doing right now or about to do achieving results that are:
- Consistent with our mission?
- Bringing us closer to our vision?
- Honoring our values?
- Delighting our customers?
If you can answer these questions affirmatively, then you are likely on the right track.
Postpone Critical Thinking
“Others have seen what is and asked why.
I have seen what could be and asked why not.”
Both creative and critical thinking are essential in the development of fruitful ideas. A common creativity killer in most organizations occurs, however, when critical thinking occurs too early. Oftentimes, someone will share a creative idea only to have others pounce on its potential flaws. While working with an executive team client of mine, for example, a particularly bright senior vice president prided himself in his unique ability to find the flaws and shoot down the ideas of others. As soon as someone suggested an idea, he would launch his “Patriot missiles” to thoroughly discredit the proposal, then gloat in his superior intellect. He was clearly a smart and dysfunctional executive. To deal with this counterproductive environment, I facilitated the creation of a new ground rule: “Before criticizing the idea of another, you must first find two valid reasons to support it.” This ratio of two supportive to one critical observation greatly enhanced safety and the creative flow.
As soon as critical thinking emerges, creativity declines. Given that, it is wise to consciously withhold critical thinking until after a number of creative ideas have emerged and the imaginative energy subsides. At that point, critical thinking can then be introduced to assess the efficacy and quality of ideas – and to potentially improve the proposals.
This man had harbored negative feelings for years, and the situation had likely drained significant emotional energy from him over that period. Unresolved conflict will typically arise again and again if people do not have the courage or skill to effectively address it. In this case, the individual certainly had difficulty of letting go of old baggage, found it hard to forgive, and likely had neither the skill nor the courage to address the issue.
Shift From a “Problem”
to a “Success” Focus
- What is the worst that could happen if
“You can never solve a problem
on the level on which it was created.”
Here are a few pragmatic examples of shifting from a “problem” to “success” focus. One organization sought to deal with poor morale by conducting a survey to discover why things were going so poorly. By focusing on poor morale, interestingly enough, morale continued to decline. (What you focus on tends to expand.) Another organization suffering from similar issues, in contrast, applied the success focus by identifying high morale sections of the company, learning from those experiences, and applying those principles elsewhere. By converting the positive exception into a company norm, they made significant and sustainable progress in enhancing morale while simultaneously building camaraderie and teamwork. An airline experiencing significant issues with luggage handling focused on “identifying and fixing the root causes of lost and damage luggage.” While some progress was made in addressing this issue, luggage handlers felt intimidated and defensive. In contrast, British Airways adopted a success model to deal with luggage handling issues by focusing on “creating an exceptional arrival experience.” By first visualizing a positive strategic outcome and safely engaging stakeholders, this success focus inspired creative and effective methods to enhance luggage handling as a means of engendering an exceptional arrival experience. Working toward a positive outcome rather than away from current problems tends to achieve desired results while simultaneously building teamwork.
Look for the 3rd Great Idea
When encouraging a team to generate creative ideas and solutions, one can typically count on several of the more vocal members to voice their proposals while some of the less assertive team members wait until after the meeting to share their thoughts – in the parking lot. Additionally, when a particularly influential person proposes a solution, other members of the team are likely to acquiesce rather than suggest additional options. These typical conditions can result in the team pursuing an “Edsel” while ignoring a “Mustang.”
“I never made one of my discoveries
through the process of rational thinking”
In the Disney culture, known for its creativity, associates practice “plussing” ideas. Rather than merely accepting the first generation idea, they consciously “plus” the idea in an effort to make it even better. Disney World, for example, is Disneyland that has been plussed. Consistent with this concept, I encourage teams to integrate into their own culture the process of continuing the creative exploration until at least the 3rd Great Idea has been generated. After completion of this creative process, then ideas can be compared and contrasted in a critical thinking mode. This process also shifts ownership from the individual to the team, which creates more advocates for the final solution.
Introduce the Nominal
Group Technique (NGT)
Team creativity and solution finding can be systematically expanded through what is often referred to as the Nominal Group Technique or NGT (Delbecq and VandeVen, 1971; Tague, 2004).Designed to facilitate full participation of the team and to minimize power differences, the NGT introduces a small degree of structure to maximize creative options. A simplified, yet effective, variation of NGT includes the following steps:
- Introduce to the team a topic, challenge, or issue that requires creative exploration, and provide several minutes for clarifying questions to assure appropriate focus.
- Have each individual team member then work alone in an atmosphere of silence for five minutes to generate and write down multiple ideas regarding the topic. The silence is important to not interrupt the creative flow. In addition, “creative stress” is introduced as team members notice others quickly writing ideas down; they are more likely to then generate even more ideas on their own.
- In capturing ideas from the group, either of the following two options can be effective.
a. For groups smaller than ten: A facilitator can record on a flip chart one idea from each person and continue this process until all the ideas are collected.
b. For larger groups: After the individual generation of ideas is complete, larger groups can be divided up into groups of five. Within each group, individuals share their ideas with one another. Each small group then captures their top three ideas on flip chart paper to share with the larger group and all ideas are posted on a wall. Similar ideas from individual groups are synthesized only with permission of the idea generator so as to not lose their original intent.
- Prioritize the ideas through collective list reduction or through a process of voting by individuals placing a red adhesive dot on the flip chart by their “red hot” choice and applying two blue dots next to their backup choices. Encourage the entire group to go forward simultaneously to place dots on the selections of their choice. This simultaneous and intentionally “chaotic” voting process provides an important element of safety in the selection of priorities. A large group can then quickly see the results as red and blue dots concentrate on specific ideas. For tabulation purposes, red dots are assigned double the value of blue dots. Once the priorities are established, identify who is going to do what by when, and build in appropriate follow-up mechanisms to assure timely progress.
“Effective change is not something
you do to people.
It’s something you do with them.”
Reinforce “This – or Something Better”
When the boss or other authoritative individual proposes an idea, members of the team often have a tendency to agree with and enthusiastically endorse that idea. In many organizations, it is not prudent to challenge the boss, even if the idea is not particularly good. To avoid this dilemma, enlightened leaders make it easy for associates to disagree with them and to offer other options. In fact, associates increase their contribution by providing their very best thinking – not merely agreeing simply because he or she is the boss. A simple, yet effective way to avoid this dilemma and engage associates in providing their creative best is for the boss to say: “My idea is to (fill in the blank.) We are going to do this or something better.” Once the boss has set the minimum standard, the team is encouraged to “plus” the idea through the following creative process:
- Divide the team up into small groups and have each team assess the idea on a scale of 0-10, with ten being high.
- Challenge each of the small groups to plus the idea. If not a 10, what could be done differently to make it a 10? Notice that this step neither criticizes nor finds fault with the original idea. Instead, this step encourages each of the small groups to explore creative options to enhance the original idea.
- Challenge each of the small groups to identify the merits of the original idea so that the benefits are not lost in the process.
- In a round-robin fashion, have each of the small groups:
a. First, share their 0-10 assessment;
b. Second, identify what they would do differently to elevate the idea to a 10;
c. Third, identify the merits of the original idea.
- During Step 4 above, one or two particularly good ideas often emerge. When that happens, repeat Steps 2-4 in the context of those new variations, thus plussing even the second or third generation ideas. Through this creative process, the minimum standard set by the boss is not only maintained but also typically enhanced by associates who now have greater understanding and ownership of the mutually developed solutions. Since people typically support that which they help to create, participants now become advocates rather than advisories of mutually developed, pragmatic solutions.
Implement an “After
Action Review” (AAR)
After conducting a mission, the US military typically engages participants in an After Action Review (AAR) to both evaluate the results and explore options to enhance future missions. To assure safe, open discussions, the AAR process looks for the learning rather than finding faults and culprits. A similar approach can be applied in other organizations to produce even better future results.
Many of my clients are now effectively using the following variation of the AAR to creatively enhance results. For increased safety and creative flow, divide the team up into small groups to address these three steps:
- Assess. On a scale of 0-10, how did we do?
- Redirect. What can we do differently next time to make it a 10? (Notice that this future orientation neither creates defensiveness nor finds fault.)
- Reinforce. What did we do particularly well? (Even if the team experienced a poor overall result, reinforcing the things that went well provides positive energy and helps to raise the bar.)