Often, we encounter teams that are stuck. Things aren’t working. Processes are slow. What can we do together to get through this? Often these are large jobs, over long periods of time, where team members can sometimes feel isolated. Here is a great article from HBR……
Another brainstorming session, another slew of tired ideas. Your team is in a rut, but what can you do about it? How can you push everyone to be more creative? Where should you seek inspiration? What’s the best way to bring in new perspectives? And finally: how do you prevent the group from getting stuck again?
What the Experts Say
Teams get stale from time to time for all sorts of reasons. After all, everyone is “seeing the same data, interacting with the same people, and having the same conversations, so it’s no surprise that the ideas coming out feel as though they’ve all been done before,” says Scott Anthony, the managing partner of Innosight and the author of The First Mile. But you can get your people back into the groove with a little work, says Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, a partner at The Innovation Architects, the advisory firm, and the coauthor of Innovation as Usual. “Sometimes you need to rethink what you’re doing.” Here are some ways to get your team’s creative juices flowing.
Diagnose and fix any obvious problems
The first step is to “take a step back and diagnose the problem,” suggests Wedell-Wedellsborg. “Observe what’s going on and ask other people’s opinions.” Think about when, where, and how your team has been most innovative in the past. Can you recreate that environment or group dynamic? “Figure out how people share ideas, and how open others are to those ideas,” he says. Also look at ideas that were generated in the past and see if any are worth resuscitating. “Maybe it was a good idea before its time or maybe it was an idea that was not managed well,” says Anthony. “You’re not looking for the perfect idea, it’s what you do with the idea that matters.”
Focus your team’s attention
Open brainstorming sessions with lofty goals like generating “500 New Ideas” are fine in theory, but in practice they are often ineffective and inefficient. “You end up with a lot of stuff that’s not relevant,” says Wedell-Wedellsborg. Instead, direct your team’s attention toward solving a narrow problem — for example, ways to fix a specific customer issue or to generate 2% cost savings in your division. “Define the task so your team is very clear on what it is trying to accomplish,” says Anthony. Management literature tends to associate chaos with creativity but in fact “constraints are the greatest enablers of creativity,” he adds.
Bring in different points of view
Most of us tend to live in filtered worlds — we read the same papers and magazines, listen to the same newscasts, get our daily updates from the same RSS and Twitter feeds, and have lunch with the same people. “But great ideas come from people who are immersed in more worlds than just their own,” says Wedell-Wedellsborg. Create opportunities to expose your team to different perspectives and points of view. Anthony suggests touring the offices of companies in different industries or inviting employees from other parts of your business to regularly present ideas to your team. The point is “to touch and interact with people who are thinking differently,” he says. “The magic happens when different skills and mindsets collide.”
Share relatable examples of success
The Steve Jobs-Mark Zuckerberg-Richard Branson “genius” innovation narrative is omnipresent in business blogs, books, and magazines. But to most work-a-day folks, those figures are “not as inspirational as you might think,” according to Wedell-Wedellsborg. “If you have a normal job — like most of us do — these examples can seem terribly ambitious and too remote.” For relatable inspiration, offer success stories that are closer to home. “Shine a spotlight on innovative things that have already been done in your organization,” says Anthony. The message is: “This is something we can do; your peers have done it.”
Conquer your team’s fear of failure
One of the most common reasons for stagnation is not your team’s lack of ideas but their fear that the ones they have aren’t any good. This fear of failure is so pervasive that many employees choose not to voice or champion their opinions, which, of course, hinders innovation. Leaders must therefore “manage the politics” around brainstorming, says Wedell-Wedellsborg. “Make sure there’s room for people to share ideas in a way that’s under the corporate radar.” Anthony agrees. You have to cultivate a “safe environment that is as tolerable to learning as possible,” he explains.
Create avenues for ideas to have an impact
Ideas only matter if you act on them. “People get cynical fast after they have a fun and empowering brainstorming session and then nothing happens,” says Anthony. As a manager, you need to commit to moving innovation forward. He suggests setting aside a small budget to create rough prototypes and simulations, or relieving workers of some duties to free up their time for new projects. Wedell-Wedellsborg also recommends testing ideas on a small scale. “Force people to come up with practical experiments so they then get honest feedback about what works and what doesn’t,” he says.
Avoid using the word “innovation”
In some organizations, you can still talk about an “innovation initiative’ and create excitement, but in most companies, the term is overused and has “been talked to death,” says Wedell-Wedellsborg. “If you say it, people will look at you with a vague stare.” Instead of the i-word, encourage your team in language that’s meaningful to them. “Don’t frame it to your team as coming up with ideas for an ‘Employee Retention Innovation Plan.’ Frame it as a ‘Making Your Company a Better Place to Work Strategy.’ That’s something most people can get on board with.”
Principles to Remember
- Create regular opportunities to expose your team members to new ideas and perspectives
- Cultivate a culture where your team feels confident sharing their rough ideas without fear of failure
- Develop a plan for action by setting aside a modest budget for experimenting with new ideas
- Host vague brainstorming sessions with grandiose goals; rather, focus your team’s attention toward solving a particular problem
- Hold up unattainable examples of innovation success; find models that are relatable
- Persist in using tired business-speak; frame ideas using language that will resonate with your team
Case study #1: Acknowledge risks and empower team members to speak up
In October 2012, Patti Pao, the founder and CEO of Restorsea, the luxury beauty brand, and her team were at a crossroads. Restorsea had raised a little over $10 million in funding and was the top selling skincare brand at the Lab at Bergdorf Goodman. But because of the costs associated with maintaining a presence in the brick-and-mortar department store — including commission for salespeople, samples, and advertising in catalogs and mailers — the company was losing money there. Meanwhile, Restorsea’s website was selling 12-15 times more than it sold at Bergdorf’s. “My team and I decided the internet needed to be our primary channel of distribution,” Patti says.
In an industry where buying decisions are made based on shoppers feeling, smelling, and experiencing products, it was “a big risk.” But she trusted in the group’s ability to figure out how to best execute the new strategy. Her first step was to make the group feel supported and encouraged by acknowledging that they were embarking on a scary challenge together. “I fostered an environment where people were okay about holding hands and jumping off a cliff,” she explains. ” I didn’t want my team to be afraid to fail; I wanted people to be more afraid of not moving swiftly.”
The team came up with several successful ideas and initiatives such as a Living Social partnership to build awareness of the brand, a blogger affiliate initiative to generate PR and editorial support, and a “Share the Love” program, where loyal customers are invited to send full-size day cream and eye cream to three of their friends and family members. Since the shift toward ecommerce, Restorsea has raised an additional $45 million in funding and is “tremendously more profitable,” she says.
Case study #2: Cultivate a culture of confidence and recognition for a job well done
Carl Galioto, the managing principal of the New York office of HOK, the design, architecture, engineering, and planning firm, says he takes a “very personal approach” to promoting creativity on his team. “I manage architects so in some ways I have an unfair advantage — they are generally creative and team-oriented people,” says Carl, who helped design One and Seven World Trade Center as well as JFK International Airport and Harlem Hospital Center.
At the same time, he works hard to “cultivate a culture of confidence” by recognizing each employee for what he or she has accomplished and achieved. “I talk with each member of the group one-on-one [and] tell them how much I value their opinion and what they’ve done before — even small things like process improvements,” he explains. “I say: ‘Remember when you figured out a better way to X?’ Then I try to push them to be even bolder.”
A few years ago, Carl and his team set out to develop HOK’s platform for digital design tools, building SMART, which leverages 3D modeling. To maximize creativity and excitement, Carl articulated a vision with a series of goals and then empowered his team to “propose an organization, a refinement of goals, and a destination” over a defined three-year period.
“They had creative freedom and the responsibility for achieving the goals on time and on budget,” he explains. They succeeded, and were fully credited and acknowledged for their efforts.