IT leadership: 4 ways to assess your team's creativity

As IT teams tackle ever-tougher business problems, creativity is a  must-have skill. But how can you gauge your team's creativity? Look for these four signs.
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What books have you read recently? What are your favorite hobbies? What’s the last thing that really sparked your curiosity?

These may seem like unusual questions from a CIO during a job interview, but I’m likely to ask them. That’s because a candidate’s technical chops, as important as they are, aren’t the only thing that interests me. I also want to get a sense of their creative drive and instincts.

And I’m not alone. Increasingly, IT leaders are recognizing that creative thinking has become a critical skill. As companies digitally transform, they are looking to technology to solve business challenges. That mission demands IT teams with an unprecedented mix of technical and creative abilities to help serve customers better and get new products out the door while still fostering internal efficiency.

Once thought of exclusively as technical specialists, IT teams are now expected to display a level of inventiveness in helping move the business forward that’s on par with that of any other department. The pandemic, which is dramatically accelerating the adoption of digital business models, has only raised the stakes.

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

And as if the challenge to adapt and evolve wasn’t already big enough, IT must do so while facing constant pressure to reduce costs.

How to spot creativity: 4 signs for leaders

Creativity can be a nebulous concept, so how do you know if your IT organization has it? Look for these four signs.

1. People see their jobs as both science and art

When the business comes to IT with a problem, people feel challenged and excited to find innovative courses of action. Regardless of their specific technical skill sets, everyone understands that composing solutions to problems is an inherently creative process.

“Composing” is the key word. With so many diverse technologies and approaches available for tackling any single project, the best IT pros approach the job like a painter choosing materials and colors. They know their work has a qualitative element; it’s not just about hammering digital nails. They tap into their creative brain to see what will fit together best in the big picture. And they let nothing stand in the way of making it happen.

2. Curiosity abounds

A creative IT organization is filled with naturally curious people. They exhibit curiosity throughout their lives, not just in their technology role, and that makes for a creative mindset that’s eager to push the boundaries of innovation.

A creative IT organization is filled with naturally curious people. They exhibit curiosity throughout their lives, not just in their technology role.

What are their passions outside work? The arts? Astronomy? Carpentry? A strong interest in anything that is, well, interesting is a sign that you’re talking to a person who possesses wonder and curiosity.

Without curiosity, there is no creativity. This explains why I ask job candidates about their outside interests.

[ Read also: Curiosity: Why leaders should make this the new word in hiring. ]

3. Empathy is a true north

Scientific research has shown a positive link between creativity and empathy. To creatively solve a problem, after all, you first need the emotional intelligence to recognize the problem, and that requires an “experience-first” mentality.

This sort of empathy has become all the more essential at a time when enterprise technology consumerization – the reorientation of products and services to focus on qualities like simplicity and personalization in the user experience – has become a hot trend. Thus, it’s never been more important for IT specialists to put themselves in the user’s shoes and consider how they can make their life easier.

A truly empathetic team is exemplified when every member is all-in on delivering the kind of experience they themselves would want with technology, and they settle for nothing less.

[ Read also: Digital transformation: 4 ways to build empathy into your processes. ]

4. People embrace creativity as a survival skill

Artificial intelligence (AI) and other forms of automation are radically altering the IT landscape. Rote, manual tasks such as configuring devices and diagnosing and resolving common repetitive incidents are being taken over by machines. In the future, they’ll continue to replace humans in writing code.

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ]

This is setting up an inescapable reality: IT jobs in the future will increasingly go to those who are best at attacking business problems. That means creativity isn’t merely a nice to have; it’s a must – and people need to work at it. That urgency can be a good thing, motivating IT teams to new heights of imaginativeness.

People who value creativity embrace training and seek out professional opportunities and experiences in emerging areas like AI. They run toward the new, not away from it.

It’s vital for IT leaders to cultivate a creative culture by hiring the right people – diverse thinkers who take inspiration from the wider world and whose technical aptitude is matched by an inquisitive spirit. That’s what I – and many others – are looking for.

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

Sharon Mandell is the Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer leading Juniper’s global information technology team. In this role, she leads the ongoing enhancement of the company’s IT infrastructure and applications architectures to support the growth objectives of the company. She and her team are also responsible for showcasing Juniper’s use of its technologies to the world.

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