People management: nine ways to unleash staff creativity and intelligence

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Co-creative working can yield impressive results for organisations, but it requires effort in order to unlock the untapped potential in your team.

Unleashing the creativity and problem solving abilities of your staff often needs a conscious decision on the part of the organisation – and a specific, positive approach. It’s not something that can be left to chance.

Co-creative approaches to change such as Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space, World Cafe and SimuReal are designed to tap into the full potential of the organization in order to solve problems or seize opportunities in creative and innovative ways.

Here are nine tips to help you encourage creativity and enable you to tap into the collective intelligence of your team:

1) Involve the right people

Those who need to be involved to ensure a creative solution that works include: those in power or with decision-making authority; those who control resources such as contacts, time or money; those who have expert, specialist or on the ground knowledge about the topic under consideration; those that have information pertinent to the topic under consideration; and those who are likely to be affected by the decisions made.

By bringing all these people together at the same time it becomes possible to develop creative ideas and for them to be agreed and implemented quickly.

Sharing stories acts as a spring-board to creativity. 

Everyone involved gets to test the ideas for robustness and feasibility as they are being developed. This reduces the likelihood of ‘ah yes but it won’t work here’ responses later on when ideas are implemented.

2) Learn from the past about when your organisation is at its most creative

By exploring past pinnacle experiences of innovation, creativity and inspiring change you can discover the group’s existing resources, skills and knowledge about when, and how, creative and innovative things happen.

This means you can re-create these creative contexts in the present.

Using Appreciative Inquiry discovery interviews, for example, you can learn about situations, contexts or questions that have been associated with particularly fruitful experiences in the past and actively work to re-create them in the present.

In addition people’s current creativity is stimulated by the discussions that follow on from the questions, and they are likely to feel their creative juices starting to flow.

3) Use stories to jump start imagination

Discovery interviews tend to generate a lot of interesting, and often previously untold, stories about the topic under discussion. Sharing these stories acts as a spring-board to creativity.

You can also bring in stories from other contexts that you find inspiring and think might add as a prompt to new thinking.

One way to use stories gathered during a round of discovery interviews is to share the story and then spend time brainstorming what ideas it has stimulated about the particular current context you are working in.

Just leave them, or record them, as possibilities and move on to the next story. It’s about the power of association, stimulation and imagination rather than logical deduction.

4) Ask new questions about different things

Questions can produce new conversation and insights or they can stimulate old patterns of conversation.

Questions that produce new thoughts, connections and ideas, in other words that are likely to generate innovative insights and creative ideas for action, tend to have certain characteristics.

The group as a whole should have a shared sense of where they want to be heading, and the kind of futures they want to be creating.

For instance they have an element of novelty and surprise; they are questions that people haven’t considered before and may well be surprised to be asked. Many positively framed questions are of this nature.

Imagination-based questions, or questions that ask people to combine two seemingly opposed ideas, can also have this effect of producing new original thought.

Good discovery questions connect to things that are deeply meaningful to the participants. These are questions about important things – my work, my values, my experience.

By asking about what matters to people such questions act to ensure that people are psychologically engaged with the process, and excited about the ideas under discussion. Such motivation is trigger to creativity.

Questions that stimulate creativity act to reframe reality for individuals and the group.

They do this by focussing on aspects of the context that are overlooked or ignored. In the simplest terms this means asking about positive things when ‘the reality’ is perceived to be wholly negative.

As the group’s ideas about their context shifts, so does the possibility of doing something different i.e. being creative.

5) Dream together

An important part of the creative process is day-dreaming’ or wondering ‘what if’. Such relaxed mental roaming allows our imagination to leap over the many current obvious problems and barriers and problems to a time in the future where we have achieved our aspirations and our goals.

A good dreaming process acts to fire up the imagination and creates motivation to do something now to make our dreams come true.

Of course they have to be connected to action, but in the same way that good science fiction creates impossible ideas that inspire later scientists to create what they saw on Star Trek as a child, so good appreciative inquiry dreaming sessions expand the group’s sense of the possible.

The creative horizon expands and the ideas of what is possible increase.

6) Improvise the future

By the end of discussion or inquiry the group as a whole should have a shared sense of where they want to be heading, and the kind of futures they want to be creating.

With this shared sense acting as the ‘roadmap’ people can be to be given permission to get on with making it happen, to be enabled to take voluntary and visible action, while the leader’s role becomes that of creating coherence and connection.

Creativity isn’t often a linear process, experimentation, hypotheses, prototypes and iteration are key features of the experience of emerging creative answers.

7) Encourage local problem-solving and decision-making

To ensure continuous organization-wide creativity it is important that people have good relationships with their colleagues around the organization so they know who to go to when they need to sort things out.

Initially we need to welcome with open arms any idea put forward to grow people’s willingness to contribute their ideas.

They need to be confident that their managers value the time invested in both the building of such relationships and the time invested in calling on them to solve problems or generate new ideas.

They need to feel empowered to act freely within their own sphere of influence.

8) Build good connections and relations across the organization

A good level of connection between functions and departments encourages the development of trusting relationships, and also facilitates the flow of information around the organization.

Consistently good relations between management and non-managerial staff means there are relational reserves that can be called upon when everyone is needed to help solve a problem or seize an opportunity.

In other words when people feel they have been well treated by the company over time, they are much more likely to respond very positively to an ‘all hands on deck’ call to suddenly come up with great ideas.

9) Encourage initiative and contributory behaviour

Encouraging people to risk using their initiative and to be innovative or creative requires that we recognize and reward very early and tentative attempts to offer something new.

Initially we need to welcome with open arms any idea put forward to grow people’s willingness to contribute their ideas.

Only when people truly believe that the act of putting forward ideas or being creative is genuinely welcomed and appreciated can we risk applying some critical evaluation.

By following the advice above you can embed the principles of co-creative working and problem solving in your organization, and in turn unleash the intelligence of your staff. 

Want to know more about unlocking your team's creative potential? Read Creating an environment that unleashes employee creativity.

About Sarah Lewis

Sarah Lewis, Appreciating Change

Sarah Lewis is the managing director and principal psychologist of Appreciating Change. She is an experienced organizational change consultant and facilitator who has been actively involved in helping people and organizations change their behaviour for 25 years.

Her clients include local government, central government, not-for-profit organizations and private sector clients, particularly in the manufacturing, financial and educational sectors.

A chartered psychologist, an associated fellow of the British Psychological Society, a founder and principal member of the Association of Business Psychologists, and a qualified social worker, Sarah also has a certificate in systemic consultation and is accredited to use psychometric instruments. She is specializes in strengths based, co-creative change process such as appreciative inquiry, open space, world cafe and simureal. She is an expert at facilitating large group events and at working with emergent, psychological, change processes.

Sarah has lectured at post-graduate level and is a regular conference presenter worldwide. She is lead author of ‘Appreciative inquiry for Change Management' (Kogan Page 2007), and author of Positive Psychology at Work (Wiley-Blackwell 2011). Her forthcoming publication will be about positive psychology and change (June 2016).

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