Monday, February 11, 2013

Cultivating Creativity in Your Firm

In a 2010 survey of over 1,500 CEOs around the globe, creativity was identified as the most important leadership trait for the next five years. That makes sense given how much the business landscape has changed in recent years. Navigating the so-called new normal requires a departure from business as usual—and demands leaders who can show the way.

Innovation is much needed in our business as well. But do technical professionals struggle more than others in generating creative ideas? Analytical thinking, common in the A/E industry, is probably more useful in solving technical problems than in producing business innovation. Plus we seem more prone than other industries to adhere to certain informal standards of practice, which can inhibit creative thinking about the business.

But interest in innovation seems to be at an all-time high among A/E firm leaders. In recent months, I've heard many appeals for more innovative approaches to strategic planning, business development, project delivery, and operations. While research indicates that you can't necessarily produce innovation on demand, there are proven ways to cultivate greater creativity in your organization. Here are a few:

Set aside times for creative reflection. Consultant Todd Henry, in an HBR Blog post, writes that when he asks groups how many depend on great ideas for business success, nearly everyone raises a hand. But when he asks how many had set aside time in the last week to focus on generating ideas, rarely does a hand go up. That points to the first challenge we face in being more creative—lack of focused time.

Great ideas don't necessarily emerge because of a scheduled brainstorming activity. But they are certainly less likely to appear in the routine press of getting work out the door. Setting aside occasional periods for creative thinking—both for individuals and groups—will no doubt pay off over time in helping spur more innovative ideas in your firm.

Mix different disciplines and perspectives. Innovation usually results from linking pre-existing ideas in different combinations. New ways of doing things are rarely new; they are simply reconstituted. How does this happen? By bringing fresh perspectives to the problem, often from outside the disciplines you would expect to be best suited for the task.

The design of the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, for example, involved the unusual combination of architecture and biomimicry—one of the first of its kind in 1996. The unique ventilation system, which requires 10% of the energy use of a building with a conventional HVAC system in that climate, was derived from the natural design of termite mounds. Turns out the architect had a passion for ecology.

You can promote better innovation simply by combining different disciplines in atypical ways. Bring in construction experts during the planning stages. Engage nonengineers—even people without a technical background—to help with engineering design. Exchange ideas with professionals in unrelated businesses.

These kinds of cross-disciplinary collaborative actions contribute to what is called associative or intersectional thinking. This involves connecting seemingly unrelated ideas in ways that often lead to creative breakthroughs. For more on this approach, check out this summary of the popular book The Medici Effect by Frans Johannson. 

Place constraints on the brainstorming process. We often view brainstorming as an open-ended endeavor where every idea is uncritically welcomed. But research shows that creativity is enhanced when the range of possibilities is narrowed, or the challenge is daunting. Perhaps these conditions help us focus better.

Mick Pearce, the architect of the aforementioned Eastgate Centre, was presented with a seemingly impractical challenge—design an attractive, functional office building that used no air conditioning. The building was to be located in a city where temperatures in the hottest months average in the 80s, combined with high humidity. Who knows whether he would have come up with his world famous design had he been simply instructed to make it energy efficient.

When I facilitate brainstorming sessions, I like to limit the discussion to just a few alternatives, or even to a single objective. I sometimes present the group with a formidable scenario like, "determine how you would do business development if the budget was cut in half." Setting strict time limits can also be productive. Consistent with the studies, I find such constraints produce better creative thinking than opening up the process as has been traditionally practiced.

But don't rely too much on group think. Another interesting research finding that bends conventional wisdom is that in general better ideas seem to arise from individuals than groups. Group dynamics—the interactions between people in the meeting—often impede, rather than propel, creative thinking. Of course, effective facilitation helps, but some groups simply don't work all that well together from a creative standpoint.

If this seems to contradict my earlier point about collaboration, the advice here is to seek innovative ideas from both groups and individuals, often in combination. For example, ask people to individually identify both internal and external best practices that they've observed. Then have a group start with this list to either select some for further consideration or use the ideas to inspire better ones.

Break the routine. One reason that group exercises often fail to produce creative breakthroughs is that they tend to follow a familiar pattern. Most firms or offices have a certain way that planning and problem solving meetings are conducted. There's a comfort level because people generally know what to expect, and that may help draw out more conversation and sharing than doing something different.

But routine meetings usually yield routine results. If you want to stimulate creativity, shake up the format. A few suggestions:
  • Take a walk. There's evidence that physical exercise promotes creative thinking. I know I come up with some of my best ideas while running or bicycling. Instead of sitting around a table, have the group go for a walk, sharing ideas on the way.
  • Do a round robin exercise. Break into small groups, with each assigned to a different problem or idea. After they've worked on their assignments for a time, rotate the groups—all except the "issue leader." Continue this process until the rotation—and the assignment—is completed.
  • Use analogies. To promote more associative thinking, you might consider creating some imaginative scenarios to connect your company with other companies or situations. For example, ask questions such as: "How would Google manage our data?" "If we were presenting our proposal orally instead of in writing, how would we do it?" "If we were starting the company over, what would we do differently?" The answers to these questions aren't the real objective, of course, but the exploration that they provoke.
What other ideas do you have for breaking the routine and encouraging more innovation? What has worked for your firm? I'd love to have you share your suggestions in the comments section below.

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