COO of Axmor Software, founder and IT director of SoftLogica
Creativity goes hand-in-hand with innovation, and it’s hardly possible to imagine a startup without a spark of creative thought. But what if there are processes that are stifling your team’s full creative potential, making it harder to work, develop, and stay ahead of the competition? What are the key elements that inspire creativity within a team, and how can team leaders help? This practical guide summarizes the most effective methods, as well as mistakes to watch out for.
IT demands creativity like few other fields because oftentimes projects entail the design of original and unique solutions. If your team lacks the sufficient creative muscle, any high-uncertainty task may appear daunting and cause them to fold or end up following an old and familiar pattern, however unsuitable it may be for the project in hand. Creativity provides the freedom of means that distinguishes truly great results and products.
So, where does creativity stem from and how can you help your team be more creative? The methods described in this post are tried and tested and fairly universal in their application. That being said, every team and project is to a certain degree unique, so you’ll need to try them out to see what works best for you. Ultimately, if you apply some effort and dedication to fostering a creative environment, in time your team’s ability to come up with innovative solutions can become a considerable competitive advantage.
1. Complicate things intentionally
When a task appears to be simple or mundane, it is often the case that no creative solution springs to mind. However, if you artificially limit the available resources (such as time constraints or use of a particular instrument), it does spur creative energy. For example, imagine you had to paint the rainbow with only one color!
“Within my team, this usually takes the form of prohibiting the use of an available library, thereby forcing us to come up with the solution for the one necessary function from scratch.” — says Lena Kulakova, Chief of .Net Development Group at Axmor Software.
The psychological basis for this method was described in a book called ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. What it comes down to is that a highly skilled mind needs a challenging task to summon its full potential.
“In my experience, challenges and complications make developers more engaged, which in turn leads to greater creativity. “ - says Lena.
2. Simplify things intentionally
Intrinsic to the mindset of every successful developer is the ability to foresee all eventualities that the system needs to successfully process. More often than not, this leads to a multitude of valid ideas being thrown out during the early stages of development due to seemingly lacking feasibility. However, many hypothetical problems will never actually occur in real life, or if they do, they can be easily dealt with by non-technical means. Therefore, manage limitations by examining the system’s requirements carefully with the intended users and test the proposed solutions before rejecting them, in order to protect seemingly faulty ideas from an untimely demise.
3. Provide the necessary freedom: set a task — and walk away
Micromanagement and imposed direction are certain to set the creative process off course. A more effective way is to have point A, (the problem) and point B (the desired result) and nothing in between. Daniel Pink breaks it down succinctly in his work, Motivation 3.0: motivation requires autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Presumably, your team already has the latter two, so you only have to give them sufficient autonomy for them to be able to come up with a solution. This means more than just avoiding meddling with the process, you should also reserve giving judgement and giving direction until a solution is found, however difficult this may seem.
4. Use experiment instead of expert feedback
Once the ideas have started to come in, it’s important to test them out in the field, even if the team’s ‘elders’ doubt their feasibility. Let the team try and poke holes in an idea to see if it holds up to scrutiny and then test it out in real life. This will give faith and confidence to your team members and allow them to switch from a follower’s perspective to that of a decisive leader and explorer.
This is not to say that there should be no feedback whatsoever. Even the best idea needs to be strengthened by removing the clutter and fortifying the essence before it enters the world. It is the leader’s responsibility to help innovations grow by providing counsel on how to make it better.
5. Be mindful of work-life balance
Overworked and stressed out teams can seldom afford the mental energy to come up with something innovative. A state of creativity is a luxury that is engendered as a result of having sufficient hours of rest. To this end, brainstorming sessions should be scheduled at convenient times when everyone is able to relax and concentrate on the problem in hand. A 40 hour week ceiling is a must.
6. Be supportive
Fostering a culture where creativity is appreciated is an example of ‘the long game’, but it certainly pays off. Introduce a system of values and behaviors that support out-of-the-box thinking. Whenever someone comes up with something new — it needs to be appreciated. If an idea deserves to move to the next stage, the author needs to be aware of all developments, even if it doesn’t make it to the end.
Encourage team leaders and management to throw their weight behind any idea they like, whether it is being pitched to the team or to the client. A supportive environment is essential to the creative process.
A mistake to watch out for: Praising everything without discretion in an effort to appear supportive can backfire, your team will see right through such a well-meaning yet insincere approach. It's important to be engaged, evaluate things honestly and give substantial feedback. A dismissive approval can be as damaging as a brush off.
7. Learning goes hand in hand with creativity
Whether it is a study of business processes of shipping barge dispatch, or a conference on familiar subjects, new experiences and new knowledge are the superfoods essential for creativity. New perspectives feed the search for a solution and fill the gaps in often metaphorical and imaginative ways. Changing roles within an organization or trying out the user’s seemingly unrelated experiences can have the same effect.
Fostering greater creativity and helping developers grow intellectually and professionally may be one of the most valuable things a good leader brings to their team. People tend to value a manager’s contribution to their personal success significantly more than the leader’s own ability to make competent decisions.