Five evidence-based steps to creativity and innovation

Creative meeting
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This five-step process is based on the thoughts of Mark Batey, Senior Lecturer In Organisational Psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School. HRZone interviewed Mark in January 2017. His thoughts are based on a decade worth of research and practice with senior teams, helping them be creative and develop new strategies. Mark's approach is to draw together the best of the research and combine it with what actually works in the real world. We interviewed Mark in January 2017.

1. Distinguish between creativity and innovation

Creativity is about ideas and inspiration in an open and free environment. Leaders should encourage the suspension of disbelief, discourage evaluation and of being sensible too early.

More is more - you want to get out as many possibilities as possible. This means initially developing a trusting environment where anyone can contribute and people understand that judgement is totally suspended, so that quantity of ideas is the main driving force.

Titles, hierarchies, egos and expertise must be left at the door - creative sessions are purely about idea generation.

Innovation is the practical, hard-edged, performance-oriented work where you look at how ideas can be shaped to meet strategic goals.

This is where criticality must come back in, where the environment isn't as free-flowing and chaotic but has more structure and rules (although a degree of flexibility is retained).

The leader must make clear which status the group is in - and this can be achieved through signposting - "Guys, let's keep it light, all we care about now is the number of ideas."

The leader must eliminate amiguity about which zone - creativity or innovation - the team is in.

2. Get the right people in the room

There is one key rule here. And that's maximising the level of diversity in the should.

This doesn't only mean surface-level diversity such as skin colour, whether you look like a man or woman, hair colour, but looking at deeper level such as values, interests, approaches and worldviews.

Often the best ideas come out when you put unusual people together. For example, if you partner people up, put a big picture thinker with a details-oriented person. The clash - as long as you manage it well - is where the good ideas will come out.

This is difficult for most managers because most managers recruit people and bring people in who are like them, who aren’t disruptive, who share the same mental models and qualifications and backgrounds and who are easier to get on with.

Of course, involving different people does not always involve permanent changes to the team, but people inside the organisation, such as from other departments.

It's important to go back and repeat that diversity and inclusion are fundamental for creativity to take place.

If you don't encourage diversity and get different people round the table with different expertises, if all you've got is a bunch of experts who only know how it’s always been done, you’ll just get suggestions that fit in with that paradigm.

If you have a problem to deal with and all the people who interact with that problem come in all shapes and sizes, how can you empathise with the people who actually deal with that problem and break out of your paradigm? And break out of your

People often say something like: “It’s an engineering problem, it must be dealt with by engineers!”

This is a very poor decision, because if you're in the creative zone, you need to avoid being entrenched in your thinking.

Expertise makes you very good at relying on your intuition, but if you do it too much, everything just resembles a previous problem and you become straitjacketed by your expertise.

The highly experienced, highly expert mind has a tendency to oversee patterns because these patterns suit us, so we can use our knowledge. Fresh-eyed people do not have residual baggage and that’s really useful.

3. Get the right space

  • You need to move around and get plenty of light and variation.
  • Don’t get stuck in a rut.
  • If you’re a knowledge worker, why insist on having all your meetings in the same space? With everyone sat in the same chair? Get out and about.
  • In some organisations, walking meetings can work, when you're moving around and using your senses.
  • Don’t abstract yourself - is there a particular place you can do your meeting that is relevant to the problem you’re solving? If you're trying to solve a retail problem, how about walking round a shopping centre?
  • But remember that you do need plenty of space for people to be able to record and capture their ideas!

4. Follow the creative process

Step 1: Accumulation (gathering)

Framing the question

You must frame the question correctly and avoid accidentally putting solutions in the question. Now this is quite hard.

What really is the challenge or problem? Why are we talking about this now? What's the urgency? What is the strategic rationale? Techniques can help here, such as empathy mapping, "a day in the life" run-throughs, or the Kipling method.

You need to get to the real motivations at play, the human side of the problem and why creativity is actually needed to solve it.

Follow a creative process - try to get to the motivation, needs, human side (usually) of why creativity is needed.  

Many groups go wrong because they include the solution in the question at the beginning e.g. “How to delight customers through the use of Twitter.”

Well, you've included the answer - you've given people the solution in the question, and everything they think will be focused through that lens.

Managers often fall foul of this because they want to be efficient. Keep it broad, keep it open, focus on the overall challenge, focus on what you want, not necessary how you’re going to get there.

The role of interesting data

Leaders can share interesting trends, facts and data around the area you’re talking about, so for example statistics on what customers actually care about. Or what the markets are doing. What competitors are doing. What are markets doing

Leaders must place the emphasis on data diversity but also use judgement - show content from multiple sources but push the content you feel is most relevant because you are a domain expert. Ask team members to contribute by showing their own data sources to the group.

Step 2: Generation (and making)

Get all the ideas out - more is always better - and avoid any evaluation at this time.

There are many techniques you can use here, such as brainstorming, picturestorming, attribute listing and many others.

I always suggest working on the big ideas first, then getting into the detail.

Then you can identify themes and trends within your ideas, including promising areas. What can be combined, added, twisted or moved around? What is the big idea and can it be refined? Keep open-minded and try new approaches.

Don't forget - volume is essential.

The best way to do this is to signpost - to explain that the job is not evaluating or judging. The ideas don't need to be sensible at this time. Getting the open, transparent, trusting environment is absolutely key here.

Step 3: Evalution (and judgement)

Now it's time to get the red pen out and look at your ideas, starting to stress test them from a mental perspective.

Work up your ideas, test them, evaluate them and judge them. Can you produce a 'creotype' (a creative prototype)? A basic minimum viable product?

This does not mean an expensive prototype. Sketch it out. Wireframe it. Even act it out in roleplay.

This is all about rapid experimentation through cheap and cheerful, short and sharp ways of doing things. You want to avoid big, formal processes where it takes two years to test it and then no-one wants to admit it doesn't work.

An absolutely crucial running theme... incubation.

You must build in incubation and reflection time throughout each stage of the creative process. This is not something that can be done in one meeting or one day.

As a society and in organisations we need to recognise the importance of the human brain in incubating ideas and solutions.

It’s a word we borrow from farming - chickens incubating eggs - and it's the same thing with ideas.

In fact, you find every culture in the world has truism that recognises that the more time you give yourself to reflect and think through something, the better the quality of your thinking.

The Romans gave us the idea of "sleeping on it," while Confucius told us to "think twice, act once."

Incubation works as a parallel process to what we're also doing so it’s unbelievably efficient but hardly any of us use it or use it well. If you have a visual/mechnical problem to solve, work on something word-based e.g. email, to rest the visual part of your brain. Or vice versa.

What do we mean by incubation?

We’re talking about non-active, ‘getting on with the day job’ incubation - not ‘staring out the window incubation.’ We make connections and join the dots in unusual and interesting ways when you park an idea in the non-conscious part of your brain.

The worst thing a leader can do is give no time to accumulate insight, no time to incubate ideas or play around with knowledge and no time to come up with the obvious connected dots and move beyond them.

If there is time, good leaders separate out the creative journey into manageable chunks and give everyone time for creative reflection. If you don’t need the answer now, don’t force it now! Have a few mini get-togethers in the journey towards the idea. 

The key thing is to get to a point of trust - for the leader to say 'don't worry, go home, send me your thoughts later.'

Isn't incubation just multitasking?

No. Multitasking is doing two things in the conscious part of your brain at the same time. Incubation is compartmentalising tasks and allowing natural processes to take over. The worst thing you can do is bang your head against the screen willing ideas to come out of nowhere. Incubation helps solve this issue.

From creativity to innovation - how do you make the move?

It's harder to give advice on innovation rather than creativity - I’m often wary of people who give specific advice when it comes to innovation. People say, 'well Google do this' and there is no evidence that it will also work for your organisation. 

At the end of a creative session you have ideas and a key skill is moving from the abstract area of creativity to the more task-oriented zone of innovation. This involves fitting in with the real-world - with the systems and processes that exist within the organisation.

This is rarely a straight path - be prepared to backtrack and tweak. But keep learning, listening and improving - the goal is continuous rather than discrete innovation.

The creative process is always the same but the way you innovate or become an intrapreneur in an organisation requires you to be very mindfulness of where the political will and potential political sponsorship lies in the organisation.

At some point in every creative process you will go from the constraints of your team and your stuff to fit in with the rest of the organisation. That's when old processes and the status quo rear their heads.

5. Practice, practice, practice

The creative thinking skill is one we can learn and get better at - the more we do it, the easier it gets. But we must set the right kind of environment.

So start with presciptive advice first of all if you want, but when you feel confident, throw it away and follow what feels right for you.

A note on tools...

Tools and framworks are useful, especially in the early stages of practicing the creative process, but it's very important to recognise when your loyalty shifts to the tool, rather than the outcome you are seeking.

Try to be tool-agnostic - whatever works for you and the team is the right thing to use. If it doesn’t work, dump it.

But in the early stages they are useful. Mindtools is a good site that can help you identify suitable tools to use.

Good luck!

About Jamie Lawrence

Jamie Lawrence, HRZone

Jamie Lawrence is editor of global online HR publication and community HRZone.com. He is committed to driving forward the HR agenda and making sure that HR directors have the knowledge and insight necessary to make HR felt across the whole organisation. He regularly speaks to audiences of 250+ and has interviewed key HR industry names, including Daniel H. Pink. He has worked previously as a small business journalist and a copywriter and has published non-fiction that reached #2 on the NYT Children's Bestseller List. In his spare time Jamie likes writing fiction, films, fitness and eating out.

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