The notion of “thinking outside the box” has become a cliché that business owners and managers often pay lip service to. Unfortunately, simply talking about creativity in the abstract or including it in your mission statement doesn’t make it part of your company’s reality.
But there are many companies that have actually found ways to encourage a more creative atmosphere. The following are three principles that can guide you to do the same:
One paradox about business is that your profits largely depend on productivity and efficiency while, at the same time, these values are not necessarily conducive to creativity. When you’re at your most productive, you are usually using methods and procedures that you have already mastered.
For example, if your company’s main product is Widget X, you will naturally want to find ways to make more of these widgets in less time. A truly creative approach, however, might involve developing a Widget Y, which could represent a radical new breakthrough.
That’s why it’s important to balance productivity and creativity. You certainly don’t want to undervalue efficiency–it’s essential for keeping up with demands. But at the same time, you should always be examining your assumptions and remaining open to alternatives.
There are several ways to actively encourage a creative atmosphere in the workplace. For example, Google encourages engineers to spend 20% of their work time on creative projects of their own devising.*
Another unconventional practice that Google has instituted is Google Talks, where speakers from authors to musical performers like Lady Gaga are guests. These guests may not know anything about technology or much about what Google is working on, but they can inspire creativity and new ways of looking at things.
From a conventional business point of view these practices seem counterintuitive, as they have nothing directly to do with productivity or efficiency. But Google realizes that the key to long-term success is innovation and creativity, so they implement strategies that foster these values. This principle can be applied at much smaller companies as well.
If you want to encourage creativity, you have to take proactive steps to make this a part of your company’s culture. In a way this is another paradox. Creativity is usually considered spontaneous rather than planned, but you can indeed do everything possible to make conditions ripe for innovative ideas. One way to do this is to schedule meetings that are more like creative brainstorming sessions than traditional meetings.
IBM–usually considered traditional in most respects–is a company that sees the value in brainstorming. The company is known for its Jam events where employees are encouraged to come up with creative ideas. This tech giant once held an online brainstorming session where more than 150,000 people from more than 100 countries participated.
You don’t need to have such a mega-event, though, to get the benefits of such practices. In fact, a good argument can be made that smaller brainstorming sessions are more likely to encourage real creativity.
You could, for example, hold brainstorming sessions on broad topics that affect your company. Depending on the size of your business, you could mix up the makeup of the teams to encourage more diverse communication and thinking.
Asking the right questions is one of the most powerful ways to spark creativity. This is sometimes a matter of reconceptualizing a problem as a question. This may seem like a subtle distinction, or merely a matter of semantics, but it can make a huge difference.
For example, suppose you are behind schedule for releasing a certain product or update. Focusing on the looming deadline and the various problems that may have contributed to your situation is not the best way to inspire a creative solution. Instead, you might ask questions like, “What are some ways we haven’t yet considered to speed up production?”
A similar approach could be taken when talking with an employee who is having difficulty in a certain area, such as fulfilling target goals for sales. Rather than giving the person a lecture or pep talk, you might pose a question that motivates him or her to seek new ideas that would lead to better performance.
Asking open-ended questions gets people’s minds into a problem-solving rather than problem-focused state. The power of questions is that they automatically provoke listeners to begin searching for answers. That’s why they can be such an effective tool for encouraging greater creativity.
These are just some of the ways to foster an atmosphere of creativity at your company. If you place a high value on creative solutions, you should always be on the lookout for new and less obvious approaches in every area of your enterprise.
*Editor’s Note: Google eliminated its “20% time” policy in August 2013, but other companies offer similar programs.
—Yan Revzin is the cofounder of Fortune Cookie Advertising, a non-traditional and experiential marketing company selling advertising space within fortune cookies at Chinese restaurants throughout the United States. He is also a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. Follow him @fortunecookiead.