Leadership Question #4: How Do You Encourage Creative Thinking?

Continuing in my series of “20 Leadership Questions,” we come to the fourth question that Michael Smith asked when he interviewed me. This one is especially important in a world that seems like it is changing daily.Five Light Bulb Tulips - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/NREY, Image #8845773

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/NREY

Michael asked,

How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization?”

As a publishing company in a fast-changing environment, creativity is not only necessary for our success but for our survival.

Earlier in my career, I felt enormous pressure to be creative. In 1981, I was hired at Word, Inc. to be the marketing director of the book division. The very first day on the job, my advertising director barged into my office before lunch and said, “The deadline for the Swindoll advertising copy is due by the end of the day. Our agency can’t get to it. You have to write it.” She laid the manuscript on my desk and walked out.

I only two problems: I hadn’t read the book nor had I ever written advertising copy—of any kind. [Gulp]

Nothing gets your creative juices flowing faster than a deadline and the threat of your career coming to a premature end! I’d hate to go back and read it now, but some how, I got the copy written and submitted by the end of the day.

Today, I am not usually the one in the creative hot seat. However, I am responsible for fostering creative thinking in my company. Over the years, I have found four ways to facilitate this:

  1. Hold my own counsel. When meeting with the team I lead, it is usually best if I don’t go first. I might see the solution more quickly or be tempted to cut to the chase. The problem is that this inhibits everyone else’s creativity. The discussion then quickly become political. People start measuring their words. They are hesitant to disagree with me. As a result, I don’t get the best thinking of the group.
  2. Enlist outside resources. If you aren’t constantly refilling the creative pool, it will eventually run dry. This is why I routinely buy books and give them to my colleagues to read. I also encourage them to attend conferences. (I try to attend as many as I can myself.) Consultants can also be helpful. They can offer a fresh, outside-in perspective that broadens the creative pallet.
  3. Affirm creative thinking. I believe that you get more of what you notice and affirm. If I want more innovative thinking, I have to notice it and publicly affirm it. When introducing people, I like to brag on their creativity: “This is Jane Smith. She’s incredibly creative. She was the one who first started using social media in our company for customer service.” I also like to send email affirmations and copy the person’s boss. Recognition is a huge motivator for most of us.
  4. Create a safe environment. By safe, I mean safe for dissent. Make it okay for people to disagree with you. If people don’t feel safe, they will only parrot your ideas. This means you will never be any more creative as a team than you could be on your own. However, I believe that my team can be much more creative than I can be on my own—so long as I give them the freedom to express themselves without fear of me embarrassing them.

The bigger and more successful you become, the easier it is to rest on your creative laurels. This is one of the things I have really admired about Apple. They keep pushing the envelope. I don’t think this happens by accident. Someone there is doing a lot of thinking about how to encourage and reward creative thinking.

Question: What are you doing inside your organization to encourage creative thinking?

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