In today’s work environment, you need more from an employee than just strong technical skills. Sure, software engineers need to be familiar with the appropriate programming language, and data analysts need to know their way around a spreadsheet. But these things alone won’t make them effective. They need to know how to think outside the box.
But how do you cultivate creativity, and keep it growing among your new hires? After all, good ideas don’t just come out of thin air. Here are some practices that you might want to try.
1) Explain your thinking style
Not everyone will think the way you do–and when you work with people, you need to be clear about how everyone works. If you are a backward thinker, you begin at the end and work backward to the beginning. You define your goal clearly and you focus on that exact goal and move forward in well-defined steps.
If you are a forward thinker, on the other hand, you begin with a rough idea, and you move forward by reacting and correcting until you arrive with something concrete.
You’ll avoid frustration when you explain how you think. I once hired a talented young researcher. Every time she brought in her work, I responded by asking her to look at the problem another way. After her third presentation, she said to me, “I can’t work with you anymore. You don’t know what you want. I’m quitting.”
That was a wake-up call for me. From that point on, I make sure to explain my thinking style to everyone that I work with–and that meant going back and forth until we get there. When I do this, I create a platform for creative collaborations–by enabling others to work in a way that suits their thinking style, while making sure that they understand mine.
2) Make sure to challenge different creative muscles
In Lateral Thinking—a book about unleashing creativity–physician and psychologist Edward De Bono likened creativity to pouring hot wax into a block of wax. The first time you pour, you create a new hole–the second time you pour, your wax goes into the same hole, only deeper.
Sometimes it takes experimentation to elicit creativity, and that means pouring new holes into the wax. Don’t just ask your new hires to come up with three versions of a marketing plan. Ask for a strategic roadmap or ideas on making your website user-friendly. This gives your new hires a chance to exercise a different creative muscle, and they can learn what it takes for them to come up with a great idea.
3) Focus on what’s missing, not what’s wrong
When you watch yourself on video, you will most likely fixate on a particular flaw. You may obsess about how your smile seems crooked, how often you blink, how many “ahs” and “ers” you say in a minute. So what happens as a result of this kind of analysis? You pause, you clamp your jaws, you pop your eyes open, you have long, empty pauses. Focusing on flaws doesn’t work.
You have to look instead at what’s missing. If you speak with too many “ahs” and “ers” what’s missing is a connection between your speaking and your breathing, not that you’re stopping too much. You need to adopt the same kind of mind-set with your team’s creativity. Don’t focus on what they’re doing wrong. Instead, give them ideas on what they can do.
Whether you’re giving feedback or delivering a message, you have to approach it in a more–not less– perspective. As one of my clients explained, “When my boss asked us how we were going to cut costs, my colleagues presented their cost-cutting plans. I told him how I was going to sell more.” That client is one of his company’s top sales leaders.
4) Give feedback at a concept level
When you’re giving feedback to a new hire, you have to leave room for them to solve the problem. For example, suppose you walked into a room that had a fireplace at one end and two chairs against the back wall. When you say, “That’s ridiculous. Why don’t you move your chairs closer to the fire?” you’re jumping into solution mode.
Supposing instead you said, “I’d like you to consider how to optimize the experience of being in this room.” Now you’re challenging someone to think about what to do, and empowering them to come up with their own solutions. Your team might find the answers from the get-go, and you might need to tell them so. That’s okay, as long as you give them the space to be creators and problem solvers, not just doers.
5) Expect mistakes
Years ago, I was working with a leader from Toyota. He was talking about a discussion he’d had with a visitor from Ford, “I told him we have a system when employees notice a problem, they stop the line. We had 47 stops last month.” The Ford leader was impressed with the Andon process and adopted it right away. Then he came back a month later and proudly announced to my client, “We only had seven problems last month.”
My Toyota client explained that he’d missed the point. When you focus too much on avoiding mistakes, you’re actually blocking your creativity because you operate from the position of fear. You need to think of mistakes as a chance to fine-tune and improve the process. After all, creativity often comes from trial and error and you need to give your team the psychological space to do that.
Creativity doesn’t happen in a linear fashion. Often times, it requires trying different things before landing on something that works. Expect the same when it comes to your new hires. Be patient with the process, and you might just end up with something amazing.