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Seven ways to lead your team to creativity

man and woman sitting by computer in office

“I want to encourage my team’s creativity, but there’s no time. The next deadline is always bearing down.”

“We’re good at finding ways to make our product faster and better through our current process, but the market is shifting, and we’re losing relevance.”

“Every week, my sales lead tells me, ‘Our customers want something more like Uber, more like Airbnb.’ How do we deal with changing expectations, even in the enterprise space?”

Does any of the above ring true? Keep reading…

Creativity is a key ingredient in the recipe for innovation that has triggered meaningful transformation for our client companies:

  1. Take the clarified understanding of a problem that comes out of design research.
  2. Think creatively of potential solutions for this problem.
  3. Test and refine these ideas until a winner emerges.

At the organizational level, creativity is a set of norms for working together. When a team is collaborating creatively, team members build on each other’s ideas, challenge the status quo, and question each other’s assumptions. Most importantly, members of creative teams have the courage to share new ideas and the compassion to evaluate each other’s ideas without making them feel judged. Organizations that foster creativity have communication patterns that transcend hierarchy and reward what might be considered aberrant behavior in more traditional workplaces. Cultivating new ways of thinking and questioning drives the curiosity that’s vital to creativity and innovation. 

Organizations that foster creativity have communication patterns that transcend hierarchy.

At Pixar (one of our corporate training clients) people working on a particular film share work-in-progress ideas and clips at the Dailies, standup meetings held every day. The whole company is invited to attend these meetings, and anyone can give feedback. Engineers, HR managers, janitors, and chefs all have valuable input, and Pixar learns from these diverse perspectives. Because Pixar hears from everyone in the company, Pixar films benefit from the great ideas of thousands of people, not just the story or animation teams. The Pixar Dailies are a great example of inviting communication and feedback that transcends hierarchy. Here are some other ways you can lead your team to be more creative:

Budget additional time for creativity…

Creativity takes time, whether you’re pulling outside research, searching for inspiration, allowing ideas to marinate and connect in new ways, or iterating to evolve those ideas. If you’re planning initiatives, budget an extra 25-50% of time for the work to be completed. With that extra time, you’ll be rewarded with fresh thinking, engaged employees, and likely happier customers — well worth the investment.

…but do provide constraints

Creativity doesn’t mean open-ended, totally blue-sky exploration. A few constraints, such as meeting a particular need of the user base or a deadline, spark new thinking and help teams prioritize the problems to be solved. Marissa Mayer, who served as vice president for search products and user experience at Google (another client of Cooper Professional Education), once wrote in a Bloomberg publication that “Constraints shape and focus problems and provide clear challenges to overcome. Creativity thrives best when constrained.” Your team is no exception, and you’ll be doing them a favor by providing limits.

Plan your team’s workflow to allow for the rhythms of creativity

Anyone who’s managed creatives knows creative works happens in bursts, with slower periods in between. As a leader, you need to plan and allow for these bursts and recharging times.

People often think of the recharging periods as unproductive — a necessary evil to get the valuable work from creative bursts. Yet research shows everyone can benefit from doing mundane activities that allow attention to drift, a state psychologists call “soft fascination.” Soft fascination lays the groundwork for flashes of insight, and it’s a crucial part of attention restoration. This is the time in which people can connect ideas in new ways, allowing concepts to form and dissolve in their minds and cultivating new ideas before they’ve fully taken shape. It’s why Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos still do the dishes every night. If you push your team from sprint to sprint, they will quickly burn out and leave. Plan for and encourage this recharge time, or plan to hire a replacement.

Encourage teams to seek outside inspiration

The best way to do this is to get out of your own head and into your customer’s through design research. We teach the fundamental skills of this craft in our Design Research Techniques course and often coach client teams on how to effectively leverage research. Inevitably, research shifts their perspective on how to solve problems for their customers, and they end up with better results.

Create that protected space for innovation. The constraints will still come, after all.

In addition to design research, your team members can find inspiration in unexpected places, from a National Geographic article to a tour of a museum or a factory. Give them time to read things and research new concepts, even if they seem off-topic. Recently, a major financial institution asked Cooper Professional Education to lead an ideation workshop to help their team redesign a partnership. For inspiration, we started by asking each participant to bring examples of a mutually beneficial partnership, like the way clownfish co-evolved to live in sea anemones. You can also invite your team on a field trip to meet customers.

Protect ideas from limitations — at first

Create that protected space for innovation. The constraints will still come, after all. As Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation is a delicate flower. It needs to be protected.” When a team member shares a new idea, don’t start by asking tough questions about how it will work and whether it will be profitable. Instead, ask questions to understand the seed of the idea and what they are trying to get at. Then, offer suggestions for how to push the idea even further. If you fixate on profitability at the onset, you risk stifling a strong emergent idea that just needs more molding.

Model risk

As a leader, you need to take a risk and set the tone. After you do, your team will follow.

In a project kickoff workshop with an education platform, the Designit team led an energizer activity borrowed from improvisational theater called “I am a tree” in which people use their bodies to create pictures. When the participants saw the CEO jump in and act like an animal, they really opened up. Afterward, they had an open and honest conversation about a topic that previously felt risky: their concerns for the project.

Facilitate embodied thinking

It can be easy to think that creativity lies only in your brain. What Cooper Professional Education coaches have seen in our 18 years of helping teams work more creatively together is that the best ideas come when you think with your whole body.

We incorporate physical warmups and energizers into our client workshops and courses (such as in the example above). We encourage people to work in a tactile way, distributing fidget toys at our client workshops. We also intentionally work with analog tools like pen, paper, and Legos during the initial stage. If you want your team to learn how to incorporate more embodied thinking and follow the flows of creativity, sign your team up for Facilitating Design Thinking.

See failure as the work of innovation

In “Creativity, Inc.,” Ed Catmull writes, “Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.” There will be failure. New ideas are not perfect the first time. Your job as a leader is to protect those ideas and encourage the teams to iterate on them to find what’s right. And that path will be littered with ideas that don’t work yet. Expect and embrace this, and show your team that you’re okay with it.

DoSomething.org even encourages it with “FailFests,” quarterly gatherings in which employees get up on stage, don the requisite pink boa, and tell their failure story and the lesson they learned using a silly metaphor (and the audience explodes with applause). CEO Nancy Lublin presented during the first FailFest to demonstrate the value of learning through failure.

If you want support fostering creativity across your organization, reach out to Cooper Professional Education! Our team and Designit at large have worked with many organizations to make their teams more innovative through a combination of trainings, coaching, pilot projects, organizational storytelling, and strategic design.


This article is part of Cooper Professional Education’s “Five Essential Principles of Design-Driven Organizations” series. Read the previous pieces in the series, on collaboration and empathy.

Holly Thorsen
Holly Thorsen

Holly Thorsen is a Director at Cooper Professional Education.

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