During this tumultuous time, organizations face a variety of perplexing problems and challenges. Some of these issues may seem intractable to the senior management teams at many firms. Executives will need to think creatively to develop solutions that meet the pressing needs of their customers and other constituents. The answers will not always come from the top. The best leaders will tap into the creativity of all employees, no matter their level in the hierarchy or level of formal authority. For far too long in far too many firms, executives have sent the implicit message that they desire compliance and control, rather than creativity. They talk a good talk about innovation, but don’t walk the walk. That must change during this time of crisis.
What can senior leaders do to unleash the creativity of their employees to solve a myriad of challenging problems? Here are five simple strategies that they can employ:
- Assemble several virtual “kitchen cabinets” of employees who are likely to bring fresh perspectives. Create a direct line of communication between the top team and these kitchen cabinets. For instance, bring together a group of highly talented young employees, many of whom will not be beholden to the conventional wisdom or past patterns of behavior. Ask them what assumptions need to be challenged and what processes need rethinking. Encourage the youngest to teach the oldest about new trends in technology, consumer behavior, and the like. Or, assemble a team of front-line employees who are interfacing with customers directly each day, and ask them what obstacles they are facing. Then, ask them how senior leadership can help and support them in addressing these challenges.
- Invite employees to reach outside their industry for creative ideas. Specifically, encourage them to reason by analogy. Are you facing a customer service problem? What situations are analogous to your own? Invite employees to consider what firms in other industries might be doing to address a similar issue. Or, ask them how people with different technical backgrounds and expertise might approach a similar problem. Then encourage them to adapt and apply those lessons to your organization.
- Champion experimentation. Offer to provide resources and other support to employees who design simple, low cost, rapid experiments to test out new ideas and solutions. Insure them that people will not be punished for failed experiments, provided that employees demonstrate that they are learning from mistakes and sharing those lessons with others throughout the organization. Create recognition and offer small awards for people who conduct the most interesting experiments.
- Invite employees to role play other key constituents. How might our customers react to a particular situation or proposed solution? What about our suppliers or other external partners? Research shows that we often are more creative when we imagine that we are someone else facing a similar predicament. Imagining ourselves in someone else’s shoes can stimulate fresh ideas.
- Create virtual brainstorming sessions where small teams can come together to generate many divergent ideas in a short period of time. Ask participants to withhold critique during this time, focusing instead on building on one another’s ideas. Encourage them to propose ideas that may not seem feasible, or that even may seem a bit quirky or unconventional. Tell your employees that a discussion of feasibility will come later, after a wide variety of options have been put on the table.
These strategies offer practical ways in which leaders can engage with a broad set of employees in critical problem-solving work. Most importantly, though, leaders need to send the signal that they genuinely believe that they have much to learn from their employees. They need to demonstrate some vulnerability and acknowledge what they do not know in these turbulent times. Stress that you don’t have all the answers and that you appreciate all the help you can get. Identify specific issues about which you believe others may have something valuable to contribute. Making people feel valued in this way can often stimulate them to come forward with terrific ideas. In sum, if you acknowledge you don’t have all the answers, and simply pose a few thoughtful questions to your people, you will be amazed at what you can learn from them.
Michael A. Roberto, is Trustee Professor of Management at Bryant University, Harvard DBA, and author of a number of books on leadership. In his latest book “Unlocking Creativity: How to Solve Any Problem and Make the Best Decisions by Shifting Creative Mindsets” (Wiley, 2019), Roberto describes six organizational mindsets that block creativity and how to shift mindsets to tap into the creative power of an organization. Roberto’s work has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Medium, Freakonomics Radio, Investors Business Daily.
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