How to Build a Creative Team

Executives of Fortune 1000 and start-up companies alike are asking, “How do we build a more creative company?”  Here I hope to share some insights I’ve gained doing just that.

I’ve previously written about how to be more personally creative and how to encourage creativity in one’s children.  Here I explore what team leaders and executives can do to encourage creativity, inventiveness, and innovation in one’s organization.

Obviously, it starts with hiring.  The organization that makes a commitment to hiring creative people will have creative teams.  But how do you recruit and select for creativity?

There is a problem in recruitment in that the best way to attract creative talent is to already have creative teams.  Creative people love being around other creative people.  If you are working to change an organization that is not already recognized as creative, it is time to change the organization’s ‘brand image’ for creative thinking.  Getting professional advice on brand messaging is essential.  The start-up company has the advantage here because they don’t have to undo a previous message.  But even a staid Fortune 500 company can change the way that potential talent views their opportunities inside of the firm.  A bit of warning though, saying it isn’t the same as doing it.

One of the ways to become a creative team is to start with a seed of creative types with which to encourage others to join.  Get the ball roling, and change will come.  Thus, it may be a very good idea to recruit senior executives known to be inventive and innovative.  In such a senior role, the qualities one is searching for are similar to those of other executives, but with the added requirement that they be skilled and diplomatic “change agents”, able to earn and hold the respect of both old guard and newly hired creative talent.

How does one recognize creative talent?

An easy answer is that prior demonstrated creativity is a good predictor of future creativity.  Candidates that have previously been granted patents is an obvious indicator, but not the only one available.  Asking candidates interview questions that are open ended regarding their prior experiences solving problems creatively should be a part of the hiring process.  Research has found that the psychological trait of “openess” is highly correlated with creativity, while “conscientiousness” is mildly correlated.  A good sense of humor, especially using puns demonstrates creativity.  Interestingly, a keen interest in music, especially music performance, is also correlated with creativity, or at the very least, the ability to become creative in the right enviroment and encouragement.  As I pointed out in my previous essays, creativity is a learned skill.  Employees who are open to learning to be more creative can do so.

The key is creating the right environment and providing encouragement.

The first thing I did when I founded Clairvoyante in 2000 was to order Patent Notebooks and issue them to each new hire, not just the technologists, engineers, and technicians, but the sales, marketing, finance, and yes… even the administrative staff, including the receptionist.  I made it very clear that EVERYONE was capable of being creative, in both their own spheres, and any other sphere.  I made it clear that they should document any ideas that they have, good or bad, and that I personally would be available to review and discuss them.  Now, admittedly, the CEO of a far flung multinational corp could never personally review every idea, but it should be made policy that someone in the managerial chain responsible for creative review will do so.  I know that this would be a radical move in a large traditional organization, but consider the message it would send when even the night guard and janitorial staff know that their ideas have value and will be heard.  Consider the message to middle management when they know that they are entrusted to encourage creativity, not dismiss it.

Training is essential.

Even the best and brightest from our leading universities have rarely been instructed on how to be creative.  Our engineering schools teach convergent thinking skills, but rarely teach, or even acknowledge the value of, divergent thinking.  Consider that each and every class assignment that they have likely ever work on had a single “right” answer and no other.  But novel problems require novel solutions.

A good training series for all employees would include the three basics, divergent thinking skills, convergent thinking skills, and continuing self-education skills.

Brainstorming kills creativity.

Really?  Yes, really.  Brainstorming only works in environments where already proven, self-confident, and often extroverted staff are involved.  But even then, the divergent ideas will tend to be self-censored because they will likely be judged too soon.  True creativity is not performed under pressure, but within relaxation and thoughtful… OK, I’ll say it out loud, day dreaming.

But if brainstorming is bad, what does work?

Have you ever heard the oft repeated phrase, “Think outside of the box?”  Phooie!  That’s also a very bad notion.  The right way to go about finding novel, useful, and economically successful ideas is to find the right box and think inside of it.  While brainstorming new ideas doesn’t work, collectively finding the right box does.

The right box is formed by finding and defining the desired boundaries to the solution space.  The more and better defined this solution space becomes, the easier it is for the human mind to couple divergent and convergent thinking skills to finding an optimal solution.  In mathematics, an ill posed problem is like a multi-equation problem with more variables than equations.  To find a solution, one must constrain the problem.  So, don’t brainstorm solutions, brainstorm the box.  Then tell everyone to go home, take a long walk or bath, watch a sunset, relax  Day dream.

Day Dream.

Further External Reading:

https://hbr.org/2019/11/why-constraints-are-good-for-innovation?ab=hero-subleft-2

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