Without creative thought, your team can become stagnant — and a company that isn't growing is dying. Over time, even the best people can lose their enthusiasm for finding new approaches. The status quo can feel like quicksand that pulls everyone in and holds them in stasis. With effort and planning, however, you can shape an environment that encourages your team to think outside the box, bringing fresh ideas, growth, and enthusiasm.
Make Brainstorming an Agenda Item
Experiment to see what approach works best for your group. You might present an issue and ask each team member to bring ideas to discuss, and then see what grows from that discussion. Or try bringing them in cold and asking them to generate ideas on the spot as a team. Put someone in charge of drawing a mind map on the whiteboard one day, and have everyone take his or her own notes another day. Try setting a short time to generate a minimum number of ideas, so the energy level stays high, and the team isn't bogged down by yet another lengthy meeting to attend.
Consider Your Space
Does your team have access to a common area where they can relax together? If not, your first brainstorming session might be about creating an environment that fosters creativity. Most teams do best in an open, uncluttered space with plenty of light and comfortable seating, where members can move freely around the room or even pace — the opposite of many meeting rooms. The space should be free of clutter but offer all the tools staffers might need to develop and communicate ideas (e.g., whiteboards, markers, modeling materials).
Democracy and Diversity Are Vital
Your job is to bring diversity and equality to the creative process. This assures that you will include the broadest possible range of voices. Take the dominant participants aside before the meeting and let them know you appreciate their leadership, but need them to give space to other voices. If a reminder during the meeting doesn't work, remove them. Young staffers and women are often interrupted or discounted in groups — make sure their voices are heard. Bring in front-line staff and others whose perspectives are different, and treat their input with respect.
Support Your Creative Team
If ideas are judged harshly or mistakes aren't tolerated, people will start keeping their creative thoughts to themselves. Model for your team how to receive all ideas enthusiastically and respectfully. Tossing out half-baked ideas is part of the brainstorming process, so never mock or show disdain for a "bad" idea. Support your staff when mistakes occur as well. By definition, if they are taking risks, some of their new ideas will fail, and that's when your enthusiasm and acceptance are most needed. If you don't stand behind your staff when their ideas fail, they will stop trying new ideas.
Invite and Celebrate Staff Input
Publicly acknowledge team members who bring you new ideas, so your staff will get the message that you value their input. Nothing dries up the flow of suggestions faster than a staff who believes their boss will take credit for their ideas, so give credit publicly and often. Another factor that shuts people down is feeling like their ideas aren't welcome. Counter that by openly inviting input. Don't just have a suggestion box — publish and respond to suggestions in the company newsletter. Run a contest, awarding time off or a pizza party for the person or team who offers the best solution to a problem.
Are you fostering the right environment for your creative team?
If your people aren't excited about solving problems any more, that's a problem. It's normal for team members to get into a rut, focus on daily tasks, and stop looking creatively at the big picture. But if everyone is rowing the boat, no one is steering. Energize your team and bring their enthusiasm back by tweaking the environment to foster, invite, and reward creative thinking.
Top image via Flikr by Office Now
Guest Author JT Ripton is a business consultant and freelance business, marketing, and technology writer out of Tampa. You can follow him on Twitter @JTRipton.