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  • Writer's pictureDan Manning

The easiest way to make your team more creative…and the ideal way to make sure it never happens agai

You can make your team more creative today, by simply asking for it. It is as simple as that, especially for teams not normally encouraged to be creative.

In a study published in the Creativity Research Journal, Yale psychologists divided 114 university students into groups and asked them to write an essay with solutions to a problem.

The students were instructed either to “be creative…ie. inventive, original, novel, imaginative”; “be practical”; or “be analytic” in their responses.

Even though the students may have been naturally more pragmatic or analytical, those who were instructed to “be creative” were, indeed, more creative than the others. The instructions did not give them any specific ways to be creative or examples of creativity, but simply asking for creativity resulted in more creativity.

These students didn’t attend a seminar to learn to be more creative, and they didn’t hold a brainstorming session…although both of these could have made their responses even more creative. The skill of creativity already existed inside of them, and all it took was a prompt to “be creative” to encourage them to express new ideas.

There are at least 2 effects at work here.

First, when you, as a leader, direct teammates to “be creative” you add supportive extrinsic motivation. While most creative studies demonstrate promises of reward or punishment serve to decrease creative performance, extrinsic motivation focusing on rewarding creative ideas and providing feedback actually supports the more powerful intrinsic motivators. (Amabile)

Second, when you expressly ask for creative work, the cost of presenting a bad idea is reduced. Simply by asking for creative answers, you reset the bar for what constitutes an acceptable proposal. If the you reject the idea, the idea-maker has a psychological safety net. “Well, she asked for creative ideas, and that is what she got.” Possibilities that would have normally been hidden from you now have permission to be revealed.

Here is where you can ensure you never see ideas like these again. You don’t have to accept every idea, but you do have to keep holding on to your end of the safety net. If you reject an idea out of hand, complain that the idea is impractical, or admonish anyone for their “creative” idea, you will virtually ensure your team never brings another one to you in the future. Being creative often starts with imagining ideas in volume. You and your team need to be exposed to these half-formed possibilities to open your collective mind to new potential.

Instead of saying “that will never work,” ask how that idea could be combined with what you already do or with another teammate’s idea. Instead of saying an idea is impractical, ask what assumptions you would have to change to allow the idea to work. Maybe the ideas are truly bad. Tell the team that these are the non-standard ideas we need to be considering, but we aren’t there yet.

This technique is less effective when your team normally performs at a high creative level. If creativity is already expected and rewarded, asking for creativity is unlikely to generate anything new. You can, however, change the environment for creativity by altering the process by which you generate and judge ideas. Forming new teams, tweaking an existing process, or being personally involved in idea generation are all easy ways to actively ask for something different.

Whether looking for new solutions to seemingly intractable problems like developing the Afghan Air Force or finding a way to slow the increasing lethality of small drone attacks, establishing a focused team, setting expectations for creativity, and handling fledgling creative ideas with care yielded results for me.

Hearing bad, impractical ideas is not a waste of time. After all, if you already had the perfect idea, you wouldn’t be asking your team for new creative ones. Ask for creative ideas, and you will get them…as long as you hold on to your end of the safety net.

Photo by Tina Hartung on Unsplash

Amabile, Teresa M. “Motivational Synergy: Toward New Conceptualizations of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation in the Workplace.” Human Resource Management Review, vol. 3, no. 3, Fall 1993, p. 185.

Linda A. O'Hara & Robert J. Sternberg (2001) It Doesn't Hurt to Ask: Effects of Instructions to Be Creative, Practical, or Analytical on Essay-Writing Performance and Their Interaction With Students' Thinking Styles, Creativity Research Journal, 13:2, 197-210.

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