Stimulating Creativity

One of the most widely researched topics in the field of creativity is how to stimulate creative ideas. That research has demonstrated the value of diverse techniques that are used in ideation and brainstorming sessions as well as sophisticated idea management systems. The possible options range from pictures to word lists to toys scattered on tables to consumer research to various creativity exercises and on and on. It works and it can produce great value.

It’s also not enough anymore. Companies and consultants have long since figured out how to orchestrate events that generate and collect creative ideas. Unfortunately, all those proven techniques are too often limited to such events. When the event is over, everyone goes back to the same routine. Hopefully, they take with them an action plan and implement those ideas but that doesn’t fundamentally change the way everyone works.

Yet it’s exactly that kind of fundamental change that’s often needed to create a vibrant culture of innovation. So the question is, “How can you scale up creative stimulation to a level that will impact the whole organization on an ongoing basis?” Hint: It involves much more than encouraging everyone to keep toys on their desks and putting wild pictures on the walls.

Such approaches have a place but there are more meaningful ways to create a climate for creative thinking. One of the most important ways is having a compelling vision and communicating that to everyone. Pursuing a shared outcome stimulates ideas for how to get there, motivates people to want to find those ideas, and provides criteria for what’s relevant and useful.

Another important piece is building trust, trust that new ideas will be respected, trust that experimentation (and therefore some failure) is acceptable, trust that credit will go to those who deserve it, and trust that candid feedback is welcome. Trust doesn’t always appear on lists of creativity stimulators but its opposite, fear, has long been recognized as one of the most effective ways to kill creativity.

Recognition is another form of stimulation and the research shows that it’s often more important than monetary rewards. Those who are most creative tend to be intrinsically motivated. They expect to be treated fairly but their primary incentive is the joy of creation and getting appropriate credit for their ideas.

Vision, trust, recognition; that’s certainly not the whole list but it’s a start. It sounds a lot like old-fashioned leadership values, doesn’t it? Effective leadership is another essential piece, but not the kind of leadership that asserts control and gives orders. Rather it’s the kind of leadership that welcomes input, maintains flexibility and sees the value in everyone’s creative contributions.

To be sure, allowing people to be more creative on even an occasional basis has benefits. Unfortunately even a series of creative events, no matter how well executed, is not likely to change the underlying habits and relationships inside an organization. On the contrary, it may reinforce the impression that creativity is to be used occasionally, as just some tool that you pick up when you happen to need it and then put down again.

In a true innovation culture, creativity is “always on”.

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