With all the doom and gloom associated with today's economic climate comes the risk that staff focus more on keeping their jobs than being innovative. Gareth Chick explains how employers can encourage their employees to get those creative juices flowing again.
With the economic situation worsening daily, it is easy for the office to become a gloomy place with employees keeping their heads down and noses clean and working feverishly to please their boss in order to hang on to their jobs.
The risk of such a high pressured working environment focused on targets is not only that it becomes a dull place, but that creativity and innovative thinking is squeezed out, and the very spark that made the company successful is lost, along with its competitive edge.
But, with all eyes on the bottom line, how do managers recapture that magic and get the new creative juices flowing again in their business?
One of the answers that has transfixed businesses for the past 20 years is the ritual of the brainstorm. In the 1980s Edward de Bono, widely regarded as the authority on lateral thinking, told us that brainstorm meetings were a great way of generating creativity from employees; they have since become the de facto way of capturing new ideas and creative thinking, but do they really deliver on their promise in today's business climate?
The ritual of the brainstorming meeting
We've all been to them; most of us have organised and led them, and we all know how it goes. Some slightly nervous manager assembles the employees, trying to look like their best mate rather than the guy who squashed them like ants yesterday, and then proceeds to introduce the creative topic, appealing to his reluctant audience for their cooperation in generating as many ideas as possible.
Deathly silence follows, and suddenly the floor becomes very interesting to people as they avert their gaze lest the manager picks on them. The embarrassment becomes almost palpable, until, some wag punctures the silence by cracking a joke. And the room erupts into fits of laughter, not because the joke was funny, but because the release of tension is so irresistible.
When the laughter dies down, someone then follows up the joke with a semi-serious suggestion, and suddenly ideas begin tumbling out of the assembled throng like barrels pushed off the edge of Niagara Falls.
Someone shouts that we should collect the ideas, and the quiet woman on the end who we know won't object is delegated the task of scribing (little do we all know that every now and again she deliberately ignores the stunning contribution from the bright young things around her, and writes up her own original thoughts).
The ideas pour out, stemmed only briefly by the collective sniffing of the marker pen when the cap is taken off, followed by people laughing the laugh of a thousand people who have come before and have yet to come, that what they are doing has simply never been done before in the history of slapstick office humour.
But no matter, because the ideas flow until, a heady two hours later, the team is breathless and energised - unrecognisable from the group that trouped in earlier that day.
The walls of the meeting room look like some decorator-on-speed has been at work, with barely an original surface still showing through the festoon of flipchart sheets covered in words and diagrams in three different colours of marker pen, sometimes crossed through and certainly mostly illegible.
The team proudly draw breath, gently nodding in community to acknowledge the great thing done here today. The manager, now proud and confident, announces that 4,278 ideas have been generated, and although he and his colleagues had of course already come up with the best ones before the meeting, there are some pretty good ones amongst the others. And in mutual admiration we agree that the last two hours have been fun, and that we should do this more often.
And then the days go by, and the weeks... and nothing happens. And nothing changes. And managers do not learn the lesson.
Creativity in the moment
A harsh analysis of brainstorming meetings maybe, but there will be enough truth in the narrative for us all to have found an involuntary knowing smile creeping across our lips. Now don't get me wrong, I think brainstorming meetings are incredibly valuable, if well organised, facilitated and followed up. But I am more interested in how we produce creativity when we most need it - in the moment, now - not at 10am next Tuesday.
And it's so simple. Managers can get people using the right-hand side of their brain in a heartbeat, and only need to keep people there for a few moments to achieve the magic of raised energy, higher motivation and increased creativity - just as we used to do by putting our coats down on the ground and kicking a ball around for a few minutes.
Here's a few tips as to how to do this:
1) Don't ask what the employee is going to do to solve the problem (since this pushes them to make a judgement and be correct - very left brain), ask them what they could do or what they might do, since this encourages them to think of possible ideas, and communicates to them that you do not expect them to come to the right answer straight away.
2) Ask the question 'what else could you do?' until the stream of ideas is exhausted, again encouraging real right-brain thinking.
3) Pose 'what if...' type questions, putting people in a pretend scenario, thus releasing them from the fear of having to get the 'right' answer straight away in order not to look foolish. 'What if you had a week to solve this problem, not a month?', 'What if you had a million pounds to solve the problem?', 'What if you were Richard Branson?'
4) Accept the answers in the spirit in which you have asked them – see that they are part of a process of uncovering the best solution, and as such any idea is progress.
5) Demonstrate through your coaching that you are more concerned with their success and development, than you are with the problem. After all, the problem is simply today's manifestation of that employee's situation, competence and attitude.
6) Don't leave the conversation without closing - asking for a commitment. If the solution has popped out you can simply ask when the employee is going to put it into action. If the solution is still unclear, you should at least ask what their next step will be, or how they will move things forward.
7) Use the internal brand of 'jumpers for goalposts' in meetings to signify a 'time out' - a ten-minute brainstorm. This will communicate that anything goes and that we can have a bit of fun.
Why not try some 'jumpers for goalposts' moments at work this week. God knows we could all do with some creative energy to cut through the doom and gloom.
Gareth Chick is director of Spring Partnerships.