To unlock your team’s creativity and encourage innovation, you must first overcome the natural human aversion to new ideas, explains our talent doctor Rob Yeung
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This article was first published in the May 2018 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
Few managers would dispute that business creativity is important for long-term organisational success. Asking ‘what if?’ has allowed many businesses to launch breakthrough technologies and disruptive ideas. Otherwise, Apple would still just be selling desktop computers and Amazon would only be an online bookseller. If you don’t innovate and renew your products and services, there’s a good chance that competitors might just steal your customers or clients away.
However, there is a contradiction in business: even though people talk about the importance of creativity in the workplace, the reality is that they often reject truly creative ideas. Researchers led by Jennifer Mueller at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania have confirmed that most people unknowingly have deep-rooted biases against new ideas: many find them psychologically unsettling and may choose to stick with what they know and feel comfortable with. As a consequence, if you want your team to come up with more innovative ideas, you will need to not only set aside time to generate ideas but also to combat people’s innate aversion to genuinely fresh thinking.
The well-known brainstorming technique, in which people are instructed to come up with as many ideas as possible, is predicated on the principle that a higher quantity of ideas should ultimately result in a higher quality of ideas. However, there are other ways to boost your team’s creativity. Academics led by Eric Rietzschel at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands have tested the effectiveness of broad versus narrow instructions for generating ideas. For example, an invitation to generate ideas for ‘increasing shareholder value’ is a very broad instruction; asking colleagues for ways of ‘increasing customer satisfaction’ or ‘improving our cash position’ are narrower frames. The researchers found that narrower instructions led to significantly more creative ideas. In practical terms, then, help your team to be more creative by setting boundaries for a discussion and focusing their attention on specific opportunities or problems rather than all of the issues facing the team.
Consider other views
Another technique, discovered by New York University’s Evan Polman and Cornell University’s Kyle Emich, involves considering creative solutions for someone else’s situation. Rather than thinking about your organisation, your team or yourself as an individual, consider how you might help out some other organisation, team or person. Polman and Emich demonstrated that this subtle shift of focus led to ideas that were judged to be significantly more creative in every instance.
This intuitively makes sense. Often, when we try to come up with creative ideas, we end up censoring ourselves because we are constrained by our knowledge of all the organisational rules and restrictions that bind us. In contrast, we know much less about the rules within other organisations, which allows us to generate ideas that are genuinely freer.
Yet another method for unlocking a team’s business creativity was discovered by researchers led by Inga Hoever at Erasmus University Rotterdam. They found that teams were able to perform more creatively when first instructed to engage in a psychological technique called perspective taking. For example, they gave teams instructions to ‘ask yourself what is important to the other persons in your team’ and ‘when someone in your team says something you don’t understand, ask yourself why they are saying it.’
A critic might argue that it is obvious that team members should consider the perspectives of their colleagues. However, the reality is that people are often so busy and focused on their own needs that they forget to consider what their colleagues might be thinking. Indeed, Hoever’s research confirmed that a simple reminder to reflect on the perspective of others measurably improved team creativity.
Business creativity and the invention of new concepts and technologies require leaders to set aside proper time for it. But the good news is that use of subtly different instructions in framing brainstorming sessions is likely to result in a significantly better return on your investment.
Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace
CPD technical article
"People are often so busy and focused on their own needs that they forget to consider what their colleagues might be thinking"