How Can You Manage Creativity?

Dr. Chris E. Stout
February 8, 2011 — 3,776 views  
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Managing creativity may seem an oxymoron, similar to an order to "be spontaneous!" Well, it doesn't have to be. Today's manager can use many methods and tools to set the stage or enhance the creativity that staff may bring to bear on daily problems or needs.

How can you stifle creativity?

             Intellectual capital is key to creative thinking and superior results. Many good managers may be surprised at how often they may unknowingly inhibit creative problem-solving in their staff. For example, a manager may think he knows what a certain employee is going to say and, as a means of attempting to demonstrate how well he is in sync with the staffer, may interrupt and complete the person's sentence-incorrectly.

             The employee may be inhibited then from correcting the boss, and thus not provide what may have been an unanticipated idea with merit, or may have led to a better solution ultimately. The erring manager probably wouldn't have realized that he had indeed done something wrong as no one said anything to the contrary about the interruption. The net result is not only inhibited communication, but also inhibited creative problem-solving, brainstorming and likely a ding in the morale of all the team members, as no one likes to have his or her thoughts interrupted or sentences completed.

 Beware of groupthink

             Other creativity killers may include the odd but powerful phenomenon called "groupthink." This is a common problem that social psychologist Irvin Janis named in the 1970s. It refers to the fact that many members in a group setting (like a business meeting) will look for the non-verbal cues that the understood leader (the boss) may be unconsciously providing as hints to her opinion on the direction the discussion is leading. These members then conform their opinions to comply to that of the leader in order to avoid risking trouble (such as exclusion from the group, being ostracized or fired, etc.).

             For example, if someone is noting his idea to a solution for a problem, the others in the meeting will be aware of their manager's body language, facial expression (non-verbal cues) and direct feedback (verbally noting acceptance or rejection). The other members may then alter their true thoughts and feelings about what has been said by their fellow staff member in order to comply with what they perceive (or misperceive) as their manager's impression. Since they are less likely to offer contradictory perspectives to what it is they believe the boss likes, the result is an inhibition of expressing creative ideas, and inventiveness is lost.

             Some people are so predictable that their responses become almost stereotypic and accurately predictable. Often this is in the negative. For example, there is the cliché of Peter "crying wolf" but sometimes Thomas is correct in doubting, and sometimes Peter is correct in that there really is a wolf.

             The smart manager must weigh the times when such a person is corrector better yet, create a work/team environment that supports differences in opinion with polite debate, and no discounting of anyone's opinion.

So, what's a manager to do?

             Here are a few simple tools that can yield very good results. The key with the following methods, as with any good habits, is to be consistent and to be genuine in their application.

  1. Check your assumption at the door. Assume nothing. Be a blank slate and thus open to any possibility. Do not assume you even know what the problem at hand really is. What appears to be a slump in profits may not be due to poor sales, but to distribution or production or quality or the weather.  Who knows?  The first step is to assume nothing and start asking for good questions first, then work to define what the problem really is and possibilities as to its cause.
  1. Suspend judgment. This is a corollary to No 1. No matter how left-field a person's perspective is, respect it, seek to understand it, ask for evidence and gently, respectfully debate it if you differ with it. This supports not only a healthy diversity of opinion, but also a healthy venue for all to express themselves without worry or fear of embarrassment.
  1. Put on your lab coat and help others on with theirs.  Be a scientist. Look for data, clues and information on all sides of the matter, problem or issue-those that support, contradict and appear neutral to your perspective or position on the matter. Scrutinize them with a microscope and have others do the same. Then provide an open, anxiety free opportunity for all to discuss what they see and think.
  1. Reframe the problem as a great opportunity, or a worse-than-reality threat. Distort reality for a bit in order to look upon the problem with a different perspective or freshness. There is another cliché that even your headache is appreciated by the pharmacist. So do look for a hidden opportunity in what at first may seem to hold little value. Pretend you are Thomas Edison and build from the knowledge of failures on your way to breakthroughs.
  1. Conduct true brain-storming. Many people think that brainstorming is the simple offering of possible solutions to a given problem. This is partially correct. However, in true brainstorming, there are no ideas that are too weird, dumb, improbable, etc. Of course, people shouldn't be cavalier in their offerings, but sometimes the cockamamie idea, while perhaps not the key solution, may lead to the key solution.  Use the brain power of your group, staff or team to generate lots of solutions, with judgments suspended (see No 2 above); sift through them later to separate the wheat from the chaff. You also may want to conclude a session of brainstorming without a resolution and ask people to think about all that has been generated in the session. Let it steep or sink in over the next few hours or days, and then later reconvene and openly discuss subsequent thoughts and ideas.
  1. Rotate the devil's advocate. While diversity of thought and opinion is good and while consensus also is good, there too is merit in debate and questioning (like that of assumptions; see No1). But this time, do not have the team's resident naysayer be the person to voice the pooh-poohs. Instead, have a different person each time do so to avoid the trap of discounting the (expectedly negative) words based on them being said by the resident Doubting Thomas. It's a good exercise and experience for the members of the team.
  1. Encourage others to read outside of their field or specialty and to consider how what they read could be applied to their work. Or perhaps visit a museum, or listen to a new piece of music, or ....? You never know how exposure to something new may provide a unique spark that can catch fire to a brilliant idea.

 Keep thinking and be creative!

Dr. Chris E. Stout


Dr. Stout is a licensed clinical psychologist and serves as ATI/PRO's Director of Research and Development. He also is a Clinical Professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois, Chicago, holds an academic appointment in the Northwestern University Feinberg Medical School, and was a Visiting Professor in the Department of Health Systems Management at Rush University. He was appointed by the Secretary of the US Department of Commerce to the Board of Examiners for the Baldrige National Quality Award. He holds the distinction of being one of only 100 world-wide leaders appointed to the World Economic Forum's Global Leaders of Tomorrow. Dr. Stout has published or presented over 300 papers and 30 books. He has lectured across the nation and internationally in 19 countries, and visited 6 continents and over 75 countries. He is frequently interviewed (e.g., CNBC, CNN, NBC, PBS, NPR, Oprah, Eye On Harvard, Time, Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, Associated Press, Child Magazine, Chicago Sun-Times...).