Friday, 10 December 2010

How to help people to have good ideas

According to Albert Einstein, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them”.  So, it seems that we need to think about solving problems in different ways.  Most people would agree that one of the key factors in successful problem-solving is the ability to generate good ideas.  Without a supply of good ideas organisations will stagnate or worse still, cease to exist.  So how can managers help people to have good ideas?
I recently had the privilege of facilitating a workshop for a group of professionals who had taken time-out from their day to day work activities to think about ways their service offering could be improved.
The scene was set, everyone had been briefed and the day got off to an enterprising start.  Part of the day was given over to trying out some creative thinking exercises as a way of generating new ideas.  It soon became apparent that a number of factors were getting in the way.  These factors were similar to ones which I had discovered when conducting my doctoral research into creative problem-solving.  The outcomes from my research found among the main inhibitors to creative thinking were physical environment, personal attitude to creativity and organisational culture.
Physical environment plays a key role in helping the mood, comfort and creative spark.  This is why some more forward thinking organisations set up ‘play’ areas where relaxed discussions can take place without the pressures of everyday work activities impacting.  For those who don’t have this type of luxury, it may just mean organising these discussions to happen away from the workplace; a trip to a coffee shop, a picnic in a park, a walk around a gallery or museum or somewhere inspiring.  The focus here is to make people feel relaxed and enjoy the novelty of a different environment.  You don’t need to sit around in an office with a flip chart and pen to brainstorm ideas. 
Personal attitude towards creativity is a barrier that unless overcome will just mean people will perpetuate the same old ways of thinking about problems.  Mostly people’s first reaction is to say they are not creative and think it is the reserve of those who engage in artistic acts such as painting, writing poetry or composing music.  What people fail to acknowledge is that we are all capable of having good ideas which is a key component of the creative process.  Managers, however, first need to put their own house in order, that is believe in their own creative talents and then nurture the talents of others.   This can be achieved by delegating interesting and challenging tasks.  The outcome of any delegated task needs to be clearly agreed but how that outcome is achieved is where creative opportunities present themselves. 
Lastly, organisational culture is in my opinion the biggest blocker to creative thinking.  At the macro level, organisations will espouse the values of creativity and innovation but in practice they discourage their very existence.  Risk and learning go hand-in-hand with creativity but for some organisations, particularly in the current climate, these very words are considered acts of treason.  At the micro level, managers have some responsibility for developing and contributing to their team’s culture.  So, how can managers ensure creativity is at the heart of their team’s culture? The good news is they don’t have to do this alone.  They can start by talking to their team members.  Involve them in agreeing what needs to happen and how.  Make time and space for creative thinking to happen.  Manage the parameters of risk-taking and most importantly if things don’t go the way they were intended, don’t blame, discourage or crush peoples’ self-confidence just make sure you all learn from any mistakes.   And lastly, relax, don’t try too hard, the creative spark cannot be turned on or off like a tap, if you think of it within the analogy of a theatre, creativity is one of the actors in a play who at times could be waiting in the wings, dancing in the chorus line or could be performing centre stage.  The manager’s role is that of theatre director, to encourage, inspire, support and be prepared to be amazed at what emerges.

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