IT leadership: 5 ways to foster team creativity

The best ideas often come from employees on the front lines. But how can you  encourage them to share? Consider these approaches to spur creative problem-solving
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Organizations in every industry share a single powerful asset that can help drive progress and innovation: their employees.

A company’s employees experience every challenge the business faces up close and personal on a daily basis. What’s more, those working on the frontlines usually have a keen understanding of what customers are looking for. Properly harnessed, this knowledge could lead to exciting new business opportunities.

However, the vast majority of companies aren’t making the most out of that potential. The good news is that it isn’t that difficult to do.

[ For more tips on building a creative problem-solving culture, read 4 exercises to ignite creative problem solving on teams. ]

Here are five creative yet practical ways to encourage everyone on your team to share ideas that drive real, measurable progress for your organization.

1. Ask: What's the most important thing to fix?

If you’re having a hard time getting employees to offer ideas, or if the ideas you’re getting aren’t likely to make a real difference, here’s a simple fix: Ask everyone to share the one thing they think is most important for the organization to fix – and highlight the fact that you want everyone to participate.

Ask everyone to share the one thing they think is most important for the organization to fix – and highlight the fact that you want everyone to participate.

Asking for just one thing makes it easy for people to participate while also forcing them to prioritize and share the ideas that can make a real difference.

If people still aren’t participating, ask the question to each team member in a 1-to-1 discussion. You’re guaranteed to get great ideas. If you already have a clear goal or priority, use this method, and simply ask everyone to offer their ideas on how to achieve the goal.

For example, Elon Musk has made it clear that he wants Tesla to deliver 500,000 vehicles this year, so in a recent email to all employees, he asked everyone to pitch in to achieve that goal: “Please take whatever steps you can think of to improve output (while increasing quality).”

If you’re as confident in your employees’ ability to execute as Musk is, ask them to take the appropriate measures directly. If you’re not sure, asking for ideas on how to achieve the goal works well too.

2. Consider the Toyota onboarding approach

Toyota is famous for pioneering lean manufacturing and continuous improvement on a massive scale. One of the ways the car manufacturer institutes a culture that highlights the company’s priorities happens during onboarding for new employees. When new employees tour the assembly line, they aren’t allowed to leave until they criticize at least three things on the line or come up with as many ideas on what they could do better. This can be particularly difficult for many new hires in a culture where criticizing leadership is exceedingly rare, especially for junior-level employees.

This memorable experience highlights how serious the company is about continuous improvement, and about wanting everyone’s input, regardless of how new or inexperienced they may be.

While this specific method might not be directly applicable to your business, it’s a great way to challenge existing practices and to reinforce an ambitious culture of creative problem-solving and ideation. For example, perhaps you could schedule a briefing session with each new hire at the end of their first week and ask them to point out a few significant challenges in their role or to suggest ways the company might improve its operations in general.

If you choose to use this method, make sure you also act on the feedback, or it won’t be effective.

3. Set clear constraints to boost creativity

If you’re looking for new business ideas – for example, with an idea challenge – it’s important to set clear constraints that clarify the kind of ideas that you’re looking for.

Constraints offer a few key benefits:

  • They help people understand the problem better
  • They force you to be more creative instead of going with the most obvious choice
  • They can become a source of competitive advantage

Given constraints, your team members will provide better ideas that are more likely to solve the problem at hand.

For example, suppose you’re looking to increase revenue by $200 million in five years with new businesses. It probably wouldn’t make sense to work on an idea that could become at best a three- or four-million-dollar business.

On the other hand, if you ask for ideas that could impact the lives of at least a million customers, you’ll have a much better chance of reaching your goal.

4. Don't ask for business ideas; ask about problems customers are facing

When you ask people to come up with new ideas, they often focus too much on the solution and not enough on the problem. Keep in mind that the perfect solution for a minor problem isn’t worth much, but even a mediocre solution to a serious and painful problem can be tremendously valuable.

Instead of asking for ideas, ask your employees, especially those on the front lines, to share the one thing they hear customers ask about or struggle with most often.

So instead of asking for ideas, ask your employees, especially those on the front lines, to share the one thing they hear customers ask about or struggle with most often.

This is a great way to reveal untapped business opportunities. What’s more, you already have the relationships and channels in place to reach your target audience, which can help you accelerate growth.

5. Be honest and straightforward

Finally, one of the most powerful ways to build trust and foster team collaboration is to show that you “have their backs” – no matter what. So be open and transparent, even if your organization is struggling, and seek ways for the whole team to help solve the challenges.

If times are tough, start by simply admitting that you’re in a difficult position and assure your team that you are doing everything in your power to improve the situation. For example, perhaps you can commit to avoiding layoffs if you’re able to save X% on costs. If you ask everyone for ideas on how to achieve that goal, your team will almost certainly come up with plenty of creative suggestions.

Tapping the potential

Nearly every organization has tons of untapped potential in the form of valuable ideas and improvements from employees, and too few systematically solicit its employees for suggestions.

Not only can these suggestions lead to countless practical improvements, but the process of soliciting ideas will also help increase employee engagement. Together, these can be an incredibly powerful and easily accessible force.

All you need is a bit of creativity and enough humility to truly listen to what your team members have to say.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Jesse Nieminen is the Co-founder and Chairman at Viima, an innovation management software company. He’s passionate about helping leaders drive innovation in their organizations and frequently writes on the topic, usually in Viima’s blog.

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