How Great Leaders Build Creativity and Innovative Thinking

“Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.”  Former NBA legend and U.S. Senator from New York, Bill Bradley


I’ve always believed that being an organization’s chief executive carries two main responsibilities. The most important is to set the vision for your company and the culture you want to create. The second, like Bill Bradley says above, is making everyone up and down the corporate ladder, better. I’ve always thought that being more creative in our thinking was the best way to make people better.

Here’s the thing … you and all the people who work for you have the potential to be creative. Unleashing your team’s collective creativity can lead to better solutions and new ideas—helping keep your organization agile, poised for the future and innovative.

However, managing for creativity is not as easy as it sounds. Every business needs certain processes and procedures in place in order to function. But sometimes procedure overwhelms a company and the result is a loss of creativity and innovation. As businesses evolve at a faster pace today, innovation and agility are in the spotlight and are rapidly becoming keys to success and survival.

Ironically, it’s that ever-increasing pace that keeps some managers and leaders from venturing out of the tried-and-true rut. It takes less energy and there’s less uncertainty when you focus on efficiency. And, up until about 15 years ago, that rut was the right place to be. “Creativity was considered unmanageable—too elusive and intangible to pin down,” writes Teresa Amabile and Mukti Khaire for “The payoff was less immediate than improving execution.”

When I write about creativity in business, of course I’m talking about understanding the components of creativity, setting up an environment where creativity flourishes, getting the right people to collaborate and share information and maintaining that momentum once it’s in place. It takes energy … planning … and communication. Often, it means peeling away layers of bureaucracy, eliminating petty internal politics and breaking down departmental silos. But those price tags are well worth the alternative: Watching as your competition speeds past you.

Be a catalyst for innovation. Manage for creativity

Here are 9 ways you can foster a creative and innovative work environment:

  1. Encourage ideas from any level: Creativity exists in every person and great ideas don’t necessarily start at the top. Allow workers enough autonomy to try new approaches. Where possible, allow them the freedom to test their own ideas. Robert Sutton, Stanford University professor, suggests that the hierarchical structures of most organizations may stifle ideas. He believes a lower-ranking employee might be hesitant to speak up in a meeting because his or her idea is radically different from a superior’s. Sutton explains that getting those higher-ranking employees to learn to be quiet and listen at times will encourage the sharing of ideas.
  2. Creativity is cumulative: Encourage people to work together and actively seek input, regardless of their rank within the organization. The brainpower of 10 is usually better than the power of one.
  3. Seek diversity and encourage its expression: People of different backgrounds, ages, sexes, nationalities and experiences bring a bigger variety of insight to a problem or situation. Look across departmental lines (or even outside the organization) for collaboration. If you’re putting a team together, don’t make the mistake of looking for like-minded individuals. Also recognize that within your diverse team there will be strengths and weaknesses. Consider how to use these to the team’s advantage in generating ideas or implementing the solution.
  4. Allow for conflict. Respectful debate allows diverse teams to see others’ perspectives. It also helps troubleshoot.
  5. Don’t make efficiency the only goal. Sometimes duplication of effort allows people to see a problem or process from different angles.
  6. Trust. Resist the urge to micromanage. Communicate the desired outcome and any other constraints, then step back.
  7. Recognize the effort. Check in as work progresses. Ask the right kind of questions to show your interest in what’s being accomplished. Publicly acknowledge the work and the people involved.
  8. Welcome failure. Ease employees’ fear of failure by encouraging them to try new things often. When something doesn’t work, discuss what happened and the information gained by the mistakes. Share this information with others and recognize the effort.
  9. Champion the ideas. You may not always agree with the ideas generated, but your team needs to know you’re behind them. It’s also more likely that with your leadership weight behind the chosen course, it is more likely to succeed.

Don’t leave the creativity of your team to chance. Imagine new possibilities. Learn more about creativity. Encourage the individuals working for you to be original, to make connections between existing knowledge and new situations, to work together, to make a few mistakes in the name of building knowledge and cut through the bureaucracy. You’ll be poised for change, so when faced with new or complex problems, you’re ready.

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