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Need more creativity from your team? Structure is the answer.

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

There's a growing need to solve complex problems together at work, and the types of problems that need solving require more and more creativity from our teams.

It is probably safe to say that we've all been made to believe (at some point in our lives) that creativity thrives only with free time, and that any structure will stifle any possibility of a creative output.

Or that we need a muse to visit us to have any creative inspiration - whether that is writing, drawing or plain-old problem solving.

But it isn’t true.

To be creative, you need to apply approaches that stack the cards in your favour.

In today’s newsletter we are going to share 5 simple tips to help stimulate creativity. You’ll see that what drives creativity for ourselves or within our teams is the opposite of what we may have learned.

In fact, creativity is as much - if not more - about creating the right conditions and applying disciplined processes.

5 Steps to Team Creativity

Here are 5 steps to ensure that you can stack the cards in your favour next time you need the team to be more creative:

1. Mix it up: Bring in diverse perspectives

When starting a new project, or bringing together a group of people to solve a problem, we have to pay attention to who we are inviting. Do they have different experiences and backgrounds (e.g., role, age, career stage, culture, etc.)? Do they bring different ways of thinking about the problem? Maybe they’ll even provide a different definition of what the problem is!

Mix it up. With diverse people and perspectives in the room, you will get a wider range of ideas and less group think. If you are always working with the same, intact team - invite others to join.

But you also need to make sure that every voice is heard. Any group will have individuals with different ways of working and contributing. Some people think best on their feet, while some people need time to reflect.

So you need to accommodate different ways of working and thinking in your workshops and meetings. Building in some time for people to think alone before sharing thoughts with the group can be very helpful. Visualizing the conversation (writing everyone’s ideas on sticky notes, whiteboards, etc) is important so that nothing gets lost. Ask to hear from people who have been quiet.

2. Safety first: Create an environment that encourages risk-taking

Whether you’re a team leader or a facilitator, you need to foster an environment where every team member feels that they can speak freely, contribute ideas that may go against the norm, and feel supported when challenging the status quo.

They need to feel that there won’t be negative repercussions for doing it - in fact, they need to feel that it’s encouraged.

One of the most important conditions for people to be creative - to be curious, experiment, and take risks - is psychological safety. But that safety needs to be intentionally nurtured.

Borrowing from Google Re:Work (and Harvard's Amy Edmondson who first introduced the concept), here are three key ways to encourage a psychologically safe environment:

Focus on learning over execution. Set up the problem as a learning opportunity rather than an objective. When exploring new territory, everyone is exploring. Learning involves testing, failing, and trying new paths. It emphasizes the process, not just the results. It also means no-one is the expert.

Be vulnerable. When you are open and candid, especially about your own struggles or mistakes, it makes it safe for others to do the same - or, at least they know that everyone has challenges and negative thoughts about themselves, which takes the pressure of perfection off everyone.

Ask lots of questions. Asking questions demonstrate that you don't have all the answers. It also opens up for more input from others. It welcomes curiosity, new thinking, and finding solutions in weird places.

3. Happy team, creative team: Elevate the mood to spark innovation

It’s scientifically proven that people are more primed for creativity when they are in a good mood. When an area of the brain called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) is activated, we’re more receptive to suggest and build on off-the-wall ideas.

And your ACC is most active when you are in a good mood. Plus, a good mood puts our brains in 'safe mode', and that increases the chances we will take risks.

So what are some ways to elevate the mood?

Focus on the positive. A great way to start the creative conversation is to acknowledge what’s working well. Sometimes the bright spots are the building blocks for fresh new ideas.

Share some funny experiences. Spend some time up front to get to know some fun facts about each other and laugh together.

Share gratitude. Getting people to think about what they appreciate and are grateful for, or sharing appreciation for each other feels good and is tremendously powerful. It’s also more profound and longer lasting, and has a huge impact on our outlook.

4. The power of limits: Embrace constraints to unlock your team’s potential

This might be the most counter-intuitive enabler of creativity. Instead of thinking that you need to have unlimited time or no boundaries - you actually need a disciplined process to be creative.

Tech and product design firms have figured this out. But it’s also true of many creative artists, like Charles Mingus or Jerry Seinfeld.

In our experiences with teams, carefully engineered problem solving sessions have been where we've seen most creativity emerge.

We are big fans of Design Sprint methods, which combine Design Thinking and Lean Startup with strong facilitation and highly structured workshops. Here are some of the core principles that allow any team - not just a bunch of 'creatives' - to come up with some really fantastic ideas and quickly turn them into concrete actions and plans:

Progress over perfection. The creative process is an iterative journey, and that small incremental advancement is the name of the game. To be able to do that we need to let go of getting it right the first time. This allows the team to make decisions - and real progress - because they know they'll be able to keep refining them and make them better.

Careful staging. You need to build the confidence of people participating and gradually increase the challenge over time. By 'breadcrumbing' the process, you segment everything - from problem definition to idea generation to evaluation to prototyping - and run the team through a number of exercises that help them diverge (explore) and converge (align) in cycles.

Limit open discussion. While ideas need to be talked about, you need to make sure there are time constraints and exercises that focus the discussion. Nothing turns off a team's creative energy more than long opinionated monologues or a circular conversation. Timeboxed activities create energy! They also force teams and individuals to ignore unnecessary details and focus on what's really critical. That's where you find the gold.

5. Serious work, playful mindset: Encourage creativity with fun and games

Somewhere along the way in adulthood we were discouraged from having fun while we are doing “serious” business. But much has been written about the importance of having fun and activating a part of our brains that connects to creativity.

Play is one of the things that makes us human, and it can be a fantastic warm-up for teams. A game or a fun challenge gets the creative juices flowing and primes the brain for abstract thinking.

But play can actually also BE the work, like when we use LEGO (R) SERIOUS PLAY (R) methods and materials. Some of the key benefits are:

Increasing your brain power. When we talk, we’re engaging 15% of our brains. When we use both of our hands to build something, we engage 80%.

Uncovering deeper, often hidden, meanings. When you build what you’re thinking about in 3D, the layers of meaning you embed are startling.

Powerful stories. Play sparks imagination and coming up with narratives. Everyone is a storyteller. And stories are 22x more 'sticky' than the most compelling fact - so what you come up with is more enduring.

Hard work can be incredibly fun. You just need to play hard.

So go get creative!

Creativity can be injected into team collaboration in a very thoughtful way.

It’s these small, critical steps, that help set the tone and provide the structure for teams to be creative.

  1. Bring in diverse perspectives

  2. Create a safe space

  3. Elevate the mood

  4. Embrace constraints

  5. Get playful

If you enjoyed this issue and want to learn more about how to brings teams together to creatively collaborate, feel free to subscribe and/or reach out to us.

Thanks for reading. See you again next week!


We hope you enjoyed this newsletter. Whenever you're ready, there are more ways we can help you:

1. Run workshops with your team to help you define a strategy, an employee experience, and/or create a new culture

2. Teach you how to facilitate powerful collaboration sessions with your team that yield results, fast

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