Three Steps to Creating a Culture of Creativity

Want to develop a culture of creativity in your IT organization? You might need to change your current thinking about efficiency, solving problems and leadership.

Solving problems is important. And there are plenty of them. But in many cases, the fastest way to solve a problem doesn't solve it, it just remediates the problem. And that is why we end up solving the same problems over and over again in IT organizations. But even if we are actually solving problems, most of the time what we are doing is fixing leaks in the ship. This is important, of course, but it does not produce the type of game-changing innovation that our customers need from their IT organization. This is why so many "highly effective" IT executives are finding themselves being challenged today for not being innovative. What is needed is creativity—and that sometimes requires a different kind of discipline: A willingness to NOT solve the problem.

I know, I have just written heresy number two. Don't solve the problem? Then do what? Just talk about it? That's a waste of time.

One problem with solving problems is that it doesn't allow us to cognitively explore the situation long enough for our creative forces to kick-in and assess the entire situation. Instead, we too often attempt to rapidly identify the best solution and get to work. Creativity, on the other hand, is not linear. It's iterative. It requires experimentation and evolution.

We were once brought in to help a large organization solve some problems with how its employees responded to critical incidents. We began the workshop by saying, "We are not here today to solve the problem. Today, we are simply here to understand the problem." The silence and the baffled looks were priceless. Everyone had entered the room expecting that we were going to develop an action plan to solve this urgent problem. Instead, we spent the day exploring the problem. Why were these critical incidents occurring in the first place? How were employees responding to them? By slowing down and taking the focus off the need for an immediate solution, we uncovered the challenges that lead to the disruptions. We discovered that they were mostly driven by a lack of understanding and clear communication. At the end of the meeting, the employees didn't agree on an action plan, but they did agree on some initial steps that might improve things. They also agreed to a set of regular meetings to review, evaluate and modify the approach. It took them about three months, but by going through this process they developed a cohesive approach to solving the problem in a meaningful and lasting way.

As mangers, we want results. But if you are willing to give your team the freedom to explore, experiment and evolve, you may find that the solutions they ultimately come up with are much more powerful and impactful. And that leads us to our third step.

Step 3: Stop Giving Direction

Are you ready to throw something at me yet? First, it's “let’s forget efficiency.” Then it’s “don't solve problems.” Now I want you to stop giving your team direction? I must be crazy, right? There are two reasons for this suggestion. The first is a concept called intrinsic motivation. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink writes about the need to move past the industrial age concept of extrinsic motivation, such as carrots and sticks, to a more modern approach of intrinsic motivation. Pink says each of us has a powerful internal motivational source that is based on three things: autonomy, purpose and mastery. We are all driven by these three things. We want to be in control of our own destiny and to create some kind of an impact. However, when we "give someone direction," we sap these three intrinsic motivational levers. On the other hand, by approaching the situation differently, we can produce the exact opposite impact. The key: Don’t give someone direction, give them a challenge.

This article was originally published on 07-17-2013
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