Don’t be an ‘idea killer’: 10 tips for cultivating creativity

Some of our best ideas come when we’re taking a break from concentration. At least, that’s what recent research says. Since the concept for this column coalesced while I was sweating my way through a Zumba class, I’m prepared to believe it.

I’d been doing a lot of reading about the cultivation of ideas — especially the leader’s role in brainstorming, creativity and innovation. I collected insights and advice from all sorts of experts to use in my teaching. I wanted to craft a column, too, but kept debating with myself about the framing.

Not surprisingly, my breakthrough came when I stopped fretting and shifted my focus to enjoying some music and keeping pace with the class leader.

Then, mid-merengue, I flashed on a memory from my newsroom. It was the term “story killer.” It was our description for a naysayer at planning meetings (“We covered that before.” “That’s so boring.”) or a journalist who gave up too soon when checking out a tip. We weren’t fond of story killers.

The next thought came easily. The broader leadership equivalent would be an idea killer, wouldn’t it? An idea killer may be a boss who actively shoots down proposals, or passively lets them languish. It may be be a manager who doesn’t know what it takes to build a culture of effective brainstorming, networking and innovation.

So that’s how I danced my way into crafting this list. It’s for leaders who never want to be known as idea killers:

1. Challenge conventional brainstorming. I hate to burst your bubble, team lovers, so I’ll let Leigh Thompson of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School do it. In her new book, “Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration,” she cites decades of research to conclude that groups are inferior to individuals when it comes to creativity. But don’t abandon team idea generation. Just make it more effective. Read on.

2. Give people time to think independently before an idea meeting. We often bring a group together to brainstorm, then encourage people to keep thinking about things on their own afterward. But Thompson says the data are clear that “…groups organized with alone-then-group hybrid structure generate more ideas, better ideas, and are better able to discern the quality of the ideas they generate.”

3. Ask for quantity and creativity, not perfection. There’s evidence that if you ask people to come up with a few great ideas, they self-censor, fearing their offerings aren’t good enough. Ask them to conjure up of lots of creative thoughts and the results are better.

4. Diversify your teams. Groups with the same membership fall into patterns and habits that can discourage creativity. Our comfort with one another can lead to complacency. Research suggests that adding new minds, people with different backgrounds, personalities and expertise can improve the quality of ideas in a team.

5. Banish the “Dragon’s Den.” William Duggan of the Columbia Business School has talked about the ineffectiveness of organizations that believe the best way to get good ideas is to make people fight to present and defend them. In his new book: “Creative Strategy: A Guide for Innovation,” Duggan says harsh critique processes (which some companies dub the “Dragon’s Den” or “Lion’s Den” method) favor those who can argue the best, not those who have top ideas. He adds:

Worse is when these harsh methods are actually an inquisition. Remember the purpose of the Spanish Inquisition: to root out heretics. Harsh criticism in companies does the same. It makes everyone conform to conventional wisdom…

6. Share the big picture to produce better pitchers. Often, managers reject an idea that’s pitched because of cost, because it might overlap into another unit’s turf, or because it doesn’t fit with overall business strategy. So, why not teach staffers about the bigger picture? Build business literacy about budgets and strategy, so they can be creative, collaborative and connected to priorities. Today, in networked organizations, that’s imperative.

7. Reward the “givers” on your team and beware the “takers.”  My favorite new business book is “Give and Take,” by Adam Grant of the Wharton School. His research on reciprocity styles identifies “givers” (those who instinctively help others), “takers” (who automatically put their own interests first) and “matchers” (middle-grounders who believe in fairness and balance of trade.) Givers are adept at building networks of support in organizations, matchers do fairly well, but takers? Grant cites research that says:

The takers were black holes. They sucked energy from those around them. The givers were suns; they injected light around the organization. Givers created opportunities for their colleagues to contribute, rather than imposing their ideas and hogging credit for achievements. When they disagreed with suggestions, givers showed respect for people who spoke up, rather than belittling them.

Grant says takers can seem smart and powerful, since they often champion their own ideas with great confidence. But in time, their colleagues, especially the matchers, punish them by withholding information and support. Givers, on the other hand, (whether managers or staff), create environments of psychological safety, where people feel free to offer ideas and take risks. Net effect: givers build better networks, encourage creativity and even cause others to change their reciprocity style, according to Grant.

8. Introduce your staff to the “Empty Chair.” In his latest book, “To Sell is Human,” Daniel Pink tells the story of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who often includes an empty chair at the table in important planning meetings. It represents the customer:

Seeing it encourages meeting attendees to take the perspective of the invisible but essential person. What’s going through her mind? What desires and concerns? What would she think of the ideas we are putting forward?

While you’re looking at that empty chair, remember to make sure you think of every possible customer that could occupy it — not just those who look and sound like the colleagues in the room with you.

9. Make it fun. Come on, what do you expect from someone who’s own book is titled “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know“? You know I’d be delighted that Thompson’s “Creative Conspiracy” cites research tying happiness at work to creativity.

Positive mood increased creative performance as well as the efficiency of implementation…Positive moods increased the task focus of the groups. People who are led to be in a positive mood generated more original ideas than people who are in a neutral mood. Similarly, people who have been offered more positive (as opposed to negative) feedback are more likely to give helpful hints to others.

But the positive mood and fun have to be genuine, not phony or forced.

10. Watch out for the four villains of decision-making. If you truly don’t want to be an idea killer, think about this good advice from idea gurus Dan and Chip Heath, authors of “Made to Stick” and “Switch.” In their latest book, “Decisive,” the Heath brothers cite four barriers to good decision-making. Before you embrace or extinguish an idea, beware of narrow framing, confirmation bias (gathering self-serving information), short-term emotion, and overconfidence about how the future will unfold. Skip the villains and you could be a hero.

One bonus tip: If you really want to help nurture great ideas, give people a break from multi-tasking, because it interferes with creativity and concentration.

I discovered that in Zumba class, too. I was doing just fine, following along with the instructor, smiling about my flash of insight about those story killers. But I didn’t stop there. I tried writing the first paragraph in my head.

Now, THAT was a bad idea.

In moments, I was hopelessly out of step with the class, demonstrating the folly of trying to execute competing cognitive processes (craft a paragraph, count your steps) simultaneously. I learned, to my embarrassment, that you just might kill a story AND a salsa at the same time.

Here’s the podcast version of today’s column:

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  • Tan

    Years ago, I had a manager who said, “That’s a dumb idea,” to me during a brainstorming meeting. Post meeting, I told him while I was not deterred my his comment, it was detrimental to the team for two reasons:

    1. It might stop those timid members of the team from presenting an idea for fear of criticism; and,

    2. Who knows how my ‘dumb idea’ might roll around in someone’s head and result in a great idea. No two people think alike; brainstorming meetings are about presenting ideas, not deciding on ideas.

  • Rajat Kapur

    Totally had flashbacks of previous managers who killed creativity by their comments (at worst) or their lack of willingness to think of innovative ways to solve a problem.

  • Billy Pittard
  • Bill Dallman

    Jill, these are great. As a leader I celebrated reading about the strategies I do implement, but as an employee I cringed as I thought of some of my own behaviors in a group session. Thanks!

  • Charm Wilk

    Kudos, Jill! The tip on multi-tasking is a good reminder

  • http://twitter.com/Celemonde Celemonde

    Great read! I especially like the “empty chair” & watch out for the 4 villains. Thank you!