By Steve Wunker
This blog first appeared as Steve Wunker’s piece for Forbes
“How do I get my team to show creative thinking?” Under normal circumstances, many executives we work with routinely face this challenge. But with the pandemic transforming the way we do business, bold thinking has turned into a necessity.
Several obstacles block innovative thinking, especially at established firms with a deeply engrained corporate work practices. People have busy schedules, work in siloed teams, and have trouble breaking away from longstanding assumptions about their market. They might lack the confidence that they can be creative and are worried their ideas will reflect poorly on them. They may be coming up with the same old answers because they keep asking the same old questions, not reframing their challenges or bringing new information to the table. And with COVID-19 thrown into the mix, engaging colleagues in a remote brainstorming session has become all the more challenging.
So what can executives do to encourage creative thinking? In our work, we’ve identified six best practices that companies can adopt to unlock bold ideas internally.
1 – Put your team in the right mindset ahead of time
Creative thinking doesn’t simply happen on the spot – you have to set the stage first. Before holding your workshop, make sure you communicate the urgency of the situation and the need for innovative ideas. Ideally, share around some data on your business’s performance, market trends, and upcoming threats to support your ask.
When it comes to prework, there are a few key things to keep in mind. First, make sure your team is aligned on what problem they are solving for – by holding a questionstorming session before the main workshop, for instance. Then, make any prework as easy as possible for your colleagues by providing templates and clear guidelines on what’s in scope and what isn’t. This will help them save time and structure their submissions in a consistent, focused way.
2 – Split up the work into focal areas
Rather than focusing everyone’s attention on the same questions, consider dividing up the work into separate focal areas. It could be by region, product line, customer type, or other variables depending on the scale and complexity of your ideation. This will make your team more efficient as a whole and encourage more granular innovation.
These divisions don’t have to stop at the level of demographics or product lines. To encourage even more focused thinking, consider breaking down your current offering into smaller pieces, so that your team can each focus on one piece and rethink how you execute and arrange them. For instance, if your business is to make cheese (a truly appreciated profession!), think not just about the cheese, but how it is packaged for convenience, how its distinctiveness is messaged, the way it is displayed at the grocery store, what you might be selling along with the cheese (nuts?), your distribution model, and so on.
This also applies to the customer journey: instead of simply thinking at the level of the customer, divide it up based on the steps they take before, while, and after they use your offering. By assigning a separate task force to each step of the customer experience, you are more likely to unlock new and exciting opportunities.
3 — Introduce outside thinking
One easy way to jumpstart new ways of thinking is to show examples from other industries. By looking at the same problem faced by other sectors of the economy, your team will be exposed to more unconventional approaches. If you have time, you could even ask each attendee to do some research and bring their own case study from another industry.
Make sure the industry has some relevance. It doesn’t make much sense to try to be the Google of cheesemaking. But you might, for instance, look at what’s happened with jam, yogurt, or other industries that are similar enough to draw parallels but sufficiently different to lead you in unanticipated directions.
Also consider watching how your own industry operates in other countries and sharing these insights with your team. Just keep in mind the legal, political, and cultural differences that are specific to the region, while staying open to certain ideas that could apply back home. Hint – Japan is often an intriguing place to look; it’s also an advanced economy but things tend to operate quite differently there.
4 – Force your team to question their assumptions
Particularly in established firms, it’s easy to get wrapped up in preconceptions about your market. To fight these biases, have your team list out all of their assumptions and unknowns, and link each item to either existing evidence or new efforts required to validate them. That way, your team’s creativity will no longer be limited by unverified assumptions about your market.
A more direct approach would be to have the problem assessed with fresh eyes, especially when there are many components to it. Say you are looking to rethink your customer experience across several product lines. Why not assign to each product line a group of people who typically specializes in a different offering? By working on a product that does not typically fall under their purview (with enough knowledge to make meaningful contributions, of course), your team is less likely to bias their thinking with longstanding assumptions.
Questioning your assumptions doesn’t have to happen only at the start of a workshop. Once you have a few potential solutions in mind, consider pressure-testing each approach with a pre-mortem, where your team imagines they have carried out the plan, failed, and have to figure out why. This exercise will force your team to question their ideas more thoroughly.
5 – Make room for individual ideation
As we’ve already seen, innovation requires input from different industries, regions, and company functions in order to be effective. However, for a collective discussion to yield compelling results, each team member needs the time and space to think on their own. Whether this happens during the prework or the workshop, make sure you carve out time for individual ideation. And importantly, make people accountable by asking for written submissions or having each person present their ideas
Of course, coming up with creative ideas on your own is easier said than done. Without external stimulus, people may not know where to start. Give your colleagues material to work with by sharing out existing research on your customers and market trends. And as with any prework, communicate clear guidelines so that they know how to structure their thoughts.
6 – Reframe the question
Creativity is often a matter of perspective. In addition to individual ideation and external input, show the problem from a different angle. You could ask your attendees to rethink their strategy by taking on the persona of a competitor. How would they tackle these challenges differently? Alternatively, you could divide up your attendees into two teams, with one “blue” team embodying the organization’s usual thinking and the “red” team employing more purposefully unconventional approaches.
But perhaps one of the most powerful ways of reframing the question comes down to the customer. Through our work, we’ve seen many brainstorming sessions anchored in customer groups based on age, gender, and other demographics. And while they play an important role, these criteria don’t leave much room for customer-centric innovation – your cheese might seem to attract a large number of suburban women in their thirties, but the reasons why may vary. Some may be looking to spice up an evening with a fancy appetizer or a platter that’s easy to share, while others may be looking for a healthier food to snack on. Instead, consider segmenting your customers based on their Jobs to be Done – the tasks they are trying to get done when they purchase your offering. Are there clusters of customers whose needs are not being met? What solutions might fill that gap?
Some people have a creative mindset to begin with. They can spot opportunities and find scrappy ways to capture them. But being innovative is a pattern of thinking, not DNA. It can be taught, established, and replicated across an organization. By embracing these six principles, your team will be better prepared to think differently and let their creativity blossom.
This piece was written with my colleague Charlotte Desprat.