How Can a Manager Develop Creativity and Innovation?

One of the key challenges facing organizations is the need to create new value through creativity and innovation. Can the ability to create (“creativity”) and introduce new ideas and methods (“innovation”) be learned? The answer is definitely a yes for both. Managers and leaders are key in taking the initiative.

Where can a manager/leader start? One can get initial ideas by Googling for articles and reads on the internet. There are plenty and the trick is to pick out ideas that resonate with you and your team. Creativity and innovation at work is best developed as a team competency and not just an individual one.

Begin with a strong intention followed by action. One can begin with a strong desire to be more creative and innovative and learn as much as possible about the context and processes that enable and strengthen these in one’s self and team. That is, the motivation must be strong enough to move one to transform intention into taking action. Wanting to be more creative and innovative but not taking any action will not develop this magically. Write down what your specific goal/s is/are.

Identify the specific areas for creativity and innovation. One does not operate in a vacuum, so the question is where is new value possible, and a must, to level-up the products and services given to customers/stakeholders? Where and what are the pain points that can be addressed? What unmet, and maybe not so conscious needs and wants, exist in customers/stakeholders that have yet to be addressed? No product, service, or process is perfect, and sometimes one solution causes a new problem, so there will definitely always be opportunities to create and innovate. The point is that one must have specific areas of interest and focus to create new value.

Think outside-the-box, but what box? Often, one does think of the need to “think outside-the-box” but is not clear about what this “box” is, really. One box may be the familiar, the way things are, the status quo, with which one becomes very comfortable, making it difficult to think beyond the familiar. Another box might be one’s self-limiting beliefs and assumptions about what is, can be, cannot be, what is right, what is wrong, and so on. A useful activity to gain insight on the the boxes that constrain us is to have a brainstorming session about “What are the boxes we live in?” Then a discussion of where these boxes come from, how these limit our thinking/ideas, and how to break out of them may give fresh perspectives. Another activity might be to brainstorm “What have we not tried yet? What if?” You get the idea.

Read broadly, not just about one’s specialty. To percolate or catalyze new ideas, one needs to read about many things of interest outside one’s specialty. New ideas are waiting to be discovered or given birth to, facilitated by immersing one’s self in different fields. Different helps to nudge new ideas. The concept of parallel thinking or lateral thinking from Edward de Bono can help one master a more curious and exploratory mindset to think about “what can be” instead of just “what is.”

Make the journey a team challenge, not just a personal challenge. As the adage goes, more heads are better than one, Yes, alright, sometimes, and in developing creativity and innovation, diversity can be a catalyst. Appreciating and encouraging diverse perspectives can fertilize new ideas. Part of the process is to identify what success measures the team can hold itself to so as to ascertain how it is progressing towards its goal to become more creative and innovative. The team can get inputs from its key stakeholders about such measures. For example, a new or reengineered process that cuts down cost by 80% and reduces transaction time by 50%. Whatever the success measures that makes sense in one’s situation, it helps to apply SMART.

Sharpen analytical and critical thinking skills. One can read references on how to achieve these, or take short training, plus learn about and apply Systems Thinking. Systems Thinking is built on both analytical and critical thinking skills. Learning and applying Systems Thinking requires more commitment and discipline, and may take more effort to master. Nevertheless, it would be well worth it. Check this out The Systems Thinker. To make the learning process more fun and exciting, check what programs may be available, public or customized for in-house needs, are available in a graduate school of business near you.

Recognize and reward creativity and innovation. Finally, work with your senior management and HR folks to design and implement a recognition and reward program for creativity and innovation for teams that deliver the goods on: new ideas = new value for customers/stakeholders = measurable business value.

Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

One pitfall and self-defeating habit some managers have is that they want to do most, if not everything, themselves. What are the impacts of doing this? To such a manager, it can gobble up all their time and add to their stress. Often, there is not enough time to finish everything, and sometimes, the more important priorities are left undone while they struggle to complete urgent though less important work. Such a manager may stay stuck in this unexamined routine and find themselves irritable and angry at their teams/members.

To the team/members, they get used to passing the buck to their manager to get things done. Often, they may not even do any homework, e.g., initial data gathering, analysis and recommendations, to discuss with their manager. The manager may unwittingly reinforce this by fretting and then gathering the data, doing the analysis, and then instructing the team/members what to do. And so the cycle goes, the team learns to needlessly depend on and escalate work to the manager.

To break the cycle, the manager must make the first moves to enable them to focus on what must be their own priorities vs. those that can be delegated to empower and develop the team/members. In other words, separate the work only you can do because you have the requisite knowledge, skills and experience vs. the work that can be delegated to the team/members. Delegation is a tool to free the manager to focus on her priorities, as well as a tool to develop the team/members.

An experience that I had many years ago as a young management consultant was that one time I went to my boss to tell him about a problem I had on a project, he scowled and annoyingly said, “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.” I never forgot that bit of admonition. In other words, do not pass the buck to your boss and first work on resolving problems at your level. Consulting with the boss is fine, but first do your homework. Do not see him empty-handed. Escalating should be the last resort.

An important thing to remember is that maybe team members think they are doing the right thing by bringing up problems without solutions to the boss for her to solve. So, the manager must set very clear expectations about this, i.e., say something like, “I expect you to do your homework and resolve this problem at your level. If you need help, see me but be sure to have done your own thorough analysis and be ready to present your recommendations with well-thought out pros and cons.”

Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Some considerations:

STOP: Stop thinking that you must do everything yourself to get work done well. Stop doing all the work, especially those that can and should be delegated. Stop wasting your time on work that should not be a priority for you to do.

START: Start working with each team member to identify and agree on specific developmental goals, e.g., knowledge and skills to be acquired, mastery to be achieved, etc.. Reflect on work that can be assigned/delegated to support the achievement of these goals. It may be a waste of your time to do it yourself, however, it may be the developmental assignment/experience that your team member needs.

Remember that you may need to teach, mentor and/or coach your team member depending on their current level of competence and motivation. Have a sit down with the person and discuss the assignment, your expectations, what support they may need from you or others.

CONTINUE: Continue believing that you have a capable team/members who need your confidence in them and your support to bring out their best and their talents. Continue to identify work to delegate and do so, and discuss with the team member the specific knowledge, skills ad experience that they will develop or sharpen to increase their own competence.