Dr Amy Climer

Episode 19: Six Way Leaders Can Build Creative Teams

In this episode Amy Climer examines the research on how to build creative teams and provides six actions leaders can take to enhance their team’s creative output.

What You’ll Learn

  • Two myths about creativity that are common in teams and business
  • Six ways leaders can build creativity in any team
  • Three ways to build trust amongst your team

The Weekly Challenge

Which of the six actions can you begin this week with your team? Talk with you team to see which areas they feel are most important. Make one step towards helping your team become more creative.

Upcoming Workshops by Amy Climer

From Conflict to Resolution: Managing and Mediating Conflict at Work – November 6, 2015, Milwaukee, WI


Feel like reading instead of listening? You can read it below. Enjoy!

Amy Climer:  Welcome to the Deliberate Creative Podcast episode #019.  On today’s episode, we’re talking about six actions leaders need to take in order to build a creative team.  Of course, you all know me, this is all researched based.  This came out of a research I did a couple of years ago exploring creativity and transformational leadership and what I found is that there are six things that leaders can do that can really make a big difference in helping their team become more creative.

To start, I want to talk actually about two myths I think are pretty prominent out there in regard to leadership and creativity.  The first myth is this idea that creativity is born not made.  People are just naturally creative or they are not.  It’s a total myth.  There have been all these studies about how creativity can be enhanced and built with practice, time, and training.  There’s one study based on twins that show that 78% of our creativity is not genetic.  I was sure a little bit of it is, we all have aptitudes for certain things, but 78% is a lot.  That’s one thing you should know if you’re leading a creative team, sometimes, I think we have the tendency to earmark certain people as creative or not, but actually everybody has incredible capacity to be creative.

The second myth is this idea that we should just leave creative people alone and let them be.  That’s how they are going to be most creative.  I think that comes from the image of the artist working alone in their studio or the scientist tinkering in their lab by themselves.  Actually what research has shown is that yes some of that alone time is important, but also so is the group time and so is that collaboration.  When we’ve looked at highly creative people, what we found is a lot of times they had collaborators all along.  Einstein and Edison are great examples.  Neither of them worked alone.  This idea of leaving Creatives alone and just let them do their thing is a myth, but actually the reality is support and engagement are very important to help creativity flourish.I’m going to provide a little more clarity to help with these myths and there are six things that leaders can do to help lead their teams to a higher state of creativity.  

#1 Build Diverse Teams and Create a Sense of Inclusion

The first of these is design diverse teams and build a sense of inclusion.  Sometimes, we don’t have the opportunity to pick who is on our team and who is not, but sometimes we do.  When you have that opportunity to develop the team from the ground up, diversity is huge and diversity in all sense of the word – this could be people’s background, their educational background, their previous experience, their level of experience.  Sometimes having a mix of old timers and newbies can actually create a really rich team.  The challenge with the diversity though is that when you do have the diversity, you’re more likely to have conflicts and so part of that is figuring out how do we approach this and how do you build a team where we can foster this diversity in a really positive way.

Just to give you one example of a study, there was a study done in 2005 which looked at comparing heterogeneous teams, more diverse teams, of MBA students and employees in three different industries.  Compare those to more homogeneous teams – so teams that were more similar.  What they found is the heterogeneous teams generated more ideas, but that diversity sometimes did lead to more dissonance amongst the team members.  What’s ideal is that the leader can both build that diversity and then that sense of inclusion helping team members feel like they are part of a team.

#2 Build Trust Amongst Teams

One way to do that is point #2 and that is to build trust amongst the teams.  Trust is really important in fostering creativity.  Just to describe what trust is, I’m going to quote Patrick Lencioni who is a very well known consultant and a prolific writer.  He has written a number of books including probably the most well known one Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  It’s a great read.  I call it an airplane book because it’s just one of those books you can read in an airplane flight.  Its’ a quick, easy read, but he says a lot in there.  He describes trust as “the confidence amongst team members that their peer’s intentions are good and that there’s no reason to be protective or careful around the group.  In essence, teammates must get comfortable being vulnerable with one another.”

I love that image.  I just feel like that the goal is to get to this place where teams can focus on the work at hand rather than wasting time and energy jockeying for political power or monitoring their interactions with the group. Really it’s about being themselves and when team members get to that place where they can just really be themselves then you know, “Okay, we really have a high level of trust in this group.”  You want kind of a moderate to high level of trust in order to foster creativity.

Sometimes there can be situations where within team members the trust is so high there’s almost too much comfort within the group and you want to kind of shake things up a little bit – not by doing something that’s going to be untrustworthy.  That’s’ not what I mean, but that may be bringing other people into the team whether short term or long term.  So there’s always this sense of drive.  You want to keep that going.  Building trust amongst the team is important and that’s point #2.

#3 Engage in Cognitive Conflict

The third thing is engaging the team in cognitive conflict.  So there are different types of conflict that happens within teams.  Cognitive conflict is this conflict where we’re disagreeing around ideas or how to go about doing something.  We’re disagreeing about the content, about the stuff that we’re working on.  And then there’s something called affective conflict, which is that conflict where I’m disagreeing with somebody else because of our personality differences or past issues.  That type of conflict is not helpful at all and sometimes that can stem from social identity conflict which is where I’m in conflict with someone just because of their identity, their race, gender, their sexual orientation, even their political belief, sometimes even their sports team.  I know here in the US we can really get fanatic.  I’m going to say that in jest because most people don’t take it quite that seriously but the point is, sometimes we have these social identities and we have these beliefs that for some reason we can’t get along with someone else because their identity is different than ours, and obviously that is not helpful for a team.

What is helpful is using that diversity in a way where we can engage in cognitive conflict.  We can challenge each other, we can criticize ideas so that we generate higher quality ideas; therefore leading to more innovation.  As a leader, you want to encourage that cognitive conflict and really create a culture of collaboration.  You want to share this level of disagreement but really with the focus on ultimately we’re all going to be collaborating together and working together.

I just want to talk about three ways that you can help build that sense of cognitive comfort, that comfort around the conflict.  I guess I should also clarify that when I say conflict, I’m talking about sort of a moderate level.  You don’t want the team to always be in conflict because eventually, they need to agree on a solution and they need to come together, but you also don’t want them to always agree on everything because then you can have group think – that idea where harmony is more important than coming up with the best solution.  That moderate level is ideal.

One way to develop that and make it more comfortable for people is you want to develop shared working agreements and this is also a great tool to help build trust.  Working agreements can sometimes be called group norms, a full value contract, ground rules, team expectations.  There are all sorts of names for this same concept and what it is, is where the group comes together and they have a conversation about the type of behaviors that they want to see in the team.  One that I’ve seen often is presume positive intentions.  If I go into a team and I know that my teammates are going to presume positive intentions about me, it’s much easier for me to not be so guarded and worried about saying something stupid because I know they are going to show me some grace.

Another example is listen to understand.  Again I know that my teammates are going to listen and want to understand me.  That’s going to help me be more comfortable engaging in a moderate level of conflict that’s going to help increase trust.  That conversation of building those working agreements can be really valuable.  I think working agreements always seem to be visual and so at some point in that conversation, they get charted upon a flipchart or typed up in a Google Doc or whatever way.  You can make them fun and put them on something symbolic like maybe a wooden block.  Once I even had a group write working agreements on a raw egg and they carried that egg around for a day or two as a symbol that these working agreements are really important to us.  Obviously, that’s a short-term tool.  Eventually you need to transfer that to paper.  You can kind of get creative with developing the working agreements.

The value of the working agreements is what do you do with them later.  You have this conversation but then of course you periodically check in.  It can sometimes be tough conversations of, “Hey, how are we doing on these?”  If things aren’t going so well, you talk about it and if things are going well, you also talk about it as a way to kind of reassure and to support what the team is doing.  So developing working agreements is one way to help enhance trust and help the team engage in cognitive conflict.

Another way is to really encourage members to monitor their own behavior.  What I mean by that is in highly functioning teams, members are aware of and monitor their own behavior trying to focus on how they can best contribute to both the team relationship and the team task.  In essence, the team members understand “I contribute to the culture of a team.”  It’s not just the leader that’s creating the culture.  That will never work.  Sometimes that can require some unlearning of inappropriate behaviors such as sarcasm or interrupting.  It might require being really willing to accept and incorporate feedback and colleagues and then paying attention to the responses of their behavior.  They typically do a certain behavior that encourages them to watch how other people respond to you when you do “X” behavior.  Helping team members monitor their own behavior and each other’s behavior can be very helpful.

Third thing is teaching skills of collaboration.  I think we talk a lot about collaboration at least in our typical US culture, but I don’t know that we necessarily teach it and there are some specific skills that can help that.  In a previous episode, I explored the Seven Norms of Collaboration which are excellent tools to help that.  Perhaps bringing in somebody to teach those skills can be really valuable.  That’s one of the things that I do with organizations is help them understand how to collaborate better.  Those are three things you can do to engage the team in cognitive conflict which is the third skill, the third behavior you can do to enhance team creativity.

#4 Allow for Autonomy While Working Towards a Shared Goal

Number 4 is allow for autonomy while working towards a shared goal.  Hands down, there is loads of research that says when teams have a shared vision or a shared goal they are working towards they perform best, whether they are trying to be creative or not.  They need the shared vision.  In essence, that’s what a team is about.  It’s all about coming together towards something for something.  There has to be a shared vision or a shared goal.  What I’ve been surprised in the work that I’ve done with teams is how often this isn’t very clear.  Maybe the CEO knows, maybe some of the executives but even then, I’ve seen CEOs stumble and hesitate and have difficulty describing what the purpose of their organization is or even a specific team.  The point is everyone on the team needs to know what that shared goal is and what is it that they are working for.

It also is helpful to figure out who are the decision makers and what role the team will play in that process.  Is the team themselves completely solving the problem or are they contributing ideas and advice for someone else to use?  When teams understand that and know that, they could be much more effective and then they are able to better focus on their task and not guess what their task is.  I have definitely worked with teams before where they knew in general what they were working for, but they didn’t know if ultimately they were making a decision or if they were making recommendations for a superior to be making the decision and making that clear upfront is very helpful.  Otherwise, some of the motivation wavers because the sense of purpose has wavered.

Within that, there’s a shared goal within the team but then the other pieces to allow for autonomy.  What I mean for that is that there needs to be some freedom and autonomy for how the group approaches the challenge and actually solves it.  The leader can really help by clarifying the team roles but not dictating the process or the steps the team must follow.  That’s where the creativity comes in.  You want them to be creative.  You want them to be critical thinkers so giving them that freedom to do that is really important.  At first glance, this idea of freedom and autonomy may seem to against one of those myths that I mentioned earlier that the myth that just let people be and they will be more creative that way.  The difference here is that we’re giving them some freedom and autonomy to be creative but with a lot of support, which is what we have been talking about building trust, enhancing conflict, etc.

#5 Balance Individual and Group Work Towards the Goal

Number 5 is balance individual and group work towards the goal.  This actually does go right along with that autonomy piece and that we want the team to work together but also want to give them time to individually work on the problem.  Probably the most ineffective teams I’ve ever been a part of were teams that only worked on the problem when they were together in a meeting.  They will just pick up where they were in the last meeting.  It was like no one did anything in between.  It was incredibly slow, quite painful, and not creative at all.  There needs to be some work in between.

The other thing is this idea of meetings.  In 2007, there is a report put out that showed that in the United States, approximately 11 million meeting are attended each day and the average worker spends about six hours a week in scheduled meetings where senior managers are spending up to 23 hours per week in meetings.  We’ve all been to meetings that are horrible.  I know I have and they are just painful because you just feel like, ”Oh my gosh.  This is such a waste of time and I could be doing something so much more productive, interesting, and creative.”  So really think through the meetings that you have as a team, think about how do we make these productive?  How do we make these worthwhile?  Do we actually need a meeting?  Who actually needs to be there?  This goes back to the episode with Vicky Cassidy a couple of episodes ago and she was talking about productivity and how to make your team more productive.  If meeting is an issue, go listen to that episode.  It might help you a little bit.

The other thing is just to really think about and plan to make sure the meetings are well designed and facilitated well.  Sometimes it really makes sense to bring in an outside facilitator.  I know I have been invited in to facilitate board meetings especially annual general meetings of groups where everybody wants to be a participant.  It can be very difficult at times to be both a facilitator and a participant so think about that and explore a little bit about how you can either balance both or maybe you’ll bring in somebody to help that, or rotate the task amongst the team.  That actually can work really well.  I’ve seen that work well before.

#6 Provide Creativity Training

The sixth thing that leaders can do to enhance creativity in their teams is to provide creativity training.  This helps debunk that myth that I mentioned earlier – the myth that people are just born creative or they are not.  Actually, there’s research dating back to the 70’s if not earlier showing that creativity training works – meaning that when people experience creativity training, they are more creative and innovative.  They come up with more ideas.  They are more open to new ideas.  It’s actually kind of impressive.  There’s one study that was done in 2008 that I thought was really interesting where the organization delivered creativity to half of the city employees in Orange County, California.  About 350 and half of them went to creativity training and then eight months later, the city officials reported nearly $600,000 in new revenues and $3.5 million in innovative expenditure reductions – meaning that they didn’t have to cut positions or at least not very many.  When asked “what do you think attributed to this change?” they all pointed back to ideas developed by employees after their creativity training.  It wasn’t just the new ideas that were developed but also that managers who went to the training were more open to new ideas that came from their employees.

Creativity training is actually kind of incredible and we talked in episodes #003 through #007 about the Creative Problem Solving Process and that’s one of the process that I teach when I do creativity training.  I’ve seen some pretty cool results.  I definitely encourage you to think about some creativity training and that could be as simple as sharing this podcast and doing some brown bag lunches or some in services with the groups that you work with, with the teams based on the Creative Problem Solving Process.  Get together and have a conversation.  Go through the episodes #003 through #007 if you think that would help.

Those are six things that leaders can do to help enhance creativity and to help build a creative team.  Just a quick review: 1) Design diverse teams and build a sense of inclusion.  2) Build trust amongst the team.  3) Engage the team in cognitive conflict.  4) Allow for autonomy while working towards a shared goal.  5) Balance individual and group work towards the goal.  
6) Provide creativity training.  These are six actions leaders can take to help their team be more creative.  Which one do you need to do?  That’s your weekly training.

For you regular listeners know that every week, I give a weekly challenge based on the content.  Your challenge this week is think about which of these six can you do if you’re a leader of a team, which of these six can you do with your teams?  If you’re not a leader and you’re a team member, which of these can you bring up as an idea?  Can you influence the team to explore one of these six things?  Think about that.  Feel free to shoot me an email or write a comment on the show notes.  Tell me how it went.  Tell me how what happened.  I love hearing from you all.  Thank you to everyone who has emailed me and sent me notes.  I love it.  It’s really fun for me.  Thank you.

All right, y’all.  That’s it for today.  I hope you have a wonderful week.  Feel free to tweet about this, share it on Facebook.  Spread the word and help everyone else become as creative as you are becoming.  Have a great week.  Bye!

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Rave Reviews

  • Amy Inspires Creativity Growth in Everyone
    January 5, 2022 by cjpowers7 from United States

    Amy Climer’s show helps all of us grow our creative muscles. She is authentic and cares about her listeners. Amy empowers us with tools that work in the office, training sessions, and our communities. The best part is her ability to make what feels out of reach, something that can be accomplished with simple steps forward.

  • A great way to get inspired!!
    March 8, 2021 by binglish from United States

    Love listening to Amy’s podcast! Her guests are awesome and conversations are full of inspiring information.

  • A must for people who want to think better
    May 26, 2019 by Dhensch from United States

    Amy Climer hit a home run with this podcast and continues to get hits with every episode. I was hooked with the first one and binge-listened to the four solo episodes about the Creative Problem Solving process. Her knowledge of the subject of creativity and innovation is incredibly deep. And, she makes it easy for others to learn and apply. I have listened to other "expert" podcasts and Amy's is different in that she holds nothing back. Episode after episode offer practical insights, tips and tools. She has a generosity of spirit that is contagious.

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