8 Rules for Fostering Workplace Creativity and Innovation

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It’s not just a millennial mindset. The desire to feel part of a forward-thinking and innovative team while being individually recognized for one’s own creativity is inherent in professionals across industries, departments and generations. In this sense creativity applies to every role within today’s marketing organization, including analytics, technology and strategy. Great leaders know that encouraging both centricity and individual creativity, are key drivers of innovation across any organization.

Creativity is both an individually honed skill set and an improvisational team sport. Inherently, creative professionals constantly dream bigger – which means they’re evaluating and pushing the work, themselves and everyone around them. This sets expectations high for having room to shine and ideas heard within teams both big and small.

That’s not always easy. In theory, creativity and innovation are prized in the workplace. But in reality, not everyone understands how to balance innovative gumption, collaboration, diplomacy and decisiveness. In the right work environment, employees in any role will rightly assume that they should speak up and take the risks as creativity is encouraged and celebrated. Here are a few takeaways – and hard-learned lessons – to help cultivate innovation across your company:

  1. Hire and Embrace a Diverse Team

Having a talented team of innovative leaders starts by design. Whether they are introverts or extroverts, analytical or imaginative, big picture-focused or detail-oriented, always remember that great ideas can come from anywhere and diverse perspectives put flesh on bones. As a manager and leader, know how to plug members of your team into appropriate opportunities – because regardless of their personalities, you will need a wide array of skill sets, not a series of clones.

  1. Identify Your Lieutenant — and Theirs

If you haven’t trained up a team you can trust, your job is never finished. Operating in a creative organization demands time to breathe, assess and reevaluate how to push the envelope. Trust your team to own tasks while you ideate your own solutions, or you’ll lose your creativity in the process of being everywhere at once. In the back of your mind, always know your deputies and ensure they know how to motivate theirs.

  1. Set the Bar, Then Step Away from It

Both creativity and innovation are often in the eye of the beholder, and tastes vary wildly. While your job as a leader is moving the team toward a creative solution that fits your organization, allowing for creativity means giving enough runway to your team to find their way there.  It’s important to know, based on deadlines and project requirements, how prescriptive you need to be, when you can provide instructional parameters, and when you can give your team carte blanche to find their own path. Questions are powerful when expanding thinking, prompting new approaches, evolving strategy, and pushing the goal posts. Keep in mind how often you are imposing your own view rather than leaving room for self-determination. A strong leader knows his or her fingerprints will still be there even if the employee didn’t bend to your exact style of doing things.

  1. Never Underestimate the Power of the Self-Critique

Sometimes the most transparent honesty comes when first asking, “How do you think you did?” Putting the ball in your team member’s court helps to avoid feedback fatigue and positions you as an agent who can help improve their self-identified areas of weakness, rather than the one calling them out. Try to tap examples of how you’ve handled similar situations in the past, leaving your team member to devise the solution that works for them — and knowing they aren’t alone in the challenge. And don’t forget feedback goes both ways!

  1. Ask, “How Can I Help?”

Creative endeavors can often feel personally charged and disagreements leave faces red. Some of the best managers I’ve had cut straight to the chase. The question, “How can I help?” can be jarring at first, especially for employees who get stuck in a negative mindset when they vent or unload. Asking to help keeps them focused on solutions and able to articulate paths to make themselves, the work and the organization better, reengaging staff in moments when they might be apt to shut down and step away.

  1. Look to Left Field

Throw your templates out the window and embrace that the best ideas. Encourage risk-taking by articulating a steeper challenge than the one at hand, often over a longer period of time than needed, and give as few parameters as possible so you can color outside of the lines. If you feel like a challenger, you’ll innovate like one. Ignore the rules of your industry and build from the ground up.

  1. Encourage Time to Practice Being Creative

While many have a natural talent that makes them creative, that talent needs inspired, honed and practiced. Be flexible in your work environment and schedule, knowing that lightning can strike at any time, and you need the right bottle to capture it.  Encourage going outside, meeting with fresh mentors, taking walking meetings, building collaboration forums, flipping through visual or other sensory media, researching inspirational campaigns and other methods that give natural creativity a much-needed boost.

  1. Build a Culture of Gratitude

Most importantly, foster a culture of gratitude. This may start top-down but should be a practice throughout your organization so others are encouraged and comfortable bringing more ideas to the table. True leaders beget other leaders, and as a former colleague often reminded me, “a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.”

Following these rules won’t necessarily make your office more creative or innovative. There’s a mysterious aspect at play here, that stubbornly resists being commodified or understood. But by creating a safe place, you will give your team a fighting chance to innovate. If you’ve achieved that as a leader, then you’ve achieved a lot.

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