How to make employees more creative

(MoneyWatch) I recently wrote about the desire for creativity in business and the multiple ways in which it is unintentionally hampered. The first way to make people more creative is to stop all of those bad habits. But is there anything else you can do?

If people have spent years in corporate cultures that dampen or suppress their innate creativity, it can take a long time before they feel confident and trusted enough to open up. Having said that, years of experience have shown me that almost everyone is far more creative than he or she is ever allowed to be at work. The talent is sitting there -- setting it to work can be exhilarating. Here's how:

Talk about it. Telling people to be creative is about as inspiring as telling them to be funny; it provokes an opposite response. On the other hand, praising every trace of creativity you find -- in someone's presentation, or a suggestion or even something another company has done -- prompts people to believe that creativity is what's wanted, admired and rewarded. That alone can be quite stimulating.

Brainstorm. Brainstorming is more difficult than it sounds or looks. It's better when you ask people to come with ideas -- even write them on Post-It notes before they attend a meeting. The reason for this is that, once an idea's out there, most people will just refine it. Nothing new or radical will emerge. On the other hand, if you make it clear that people must come equipped with prepared ideas -- and the more the merrier -- you will have a richer field to work with.

Leave the building. Go look at something provocative, inspiring, challenging. Take people out of the stale routines of their daily work. Our brains create neural networks that are the physical incarnation of routine. If you want people to use those brains differently, you have to upset them a little bit. Present them with challenging and even discomfiting -- but not threatening -- information or experiences. Shake them up!

Go home. Many people have their best ideas on the way home, just before or after sleeping or, famously, in the shower. It's well understood by neuroscientists that often the best way to solve a problem is to look away from it. Discuss this with your teams and make it clear that taking breaks and disrupting routines can be productive. I find it especially helpful to set myself a question before I go to sleep.

Liberate creativity. Many creative companies put their creative people in a single department. The implication, widely understood, is that creative people can be that way but no one else can or has anything to offer. You need to make it clear that every discipline has scope for creativity, enabling people in accounting, health and safety, legal, and other units to can come up with good new ideas.

Shut up. The minute bosses speak, everyone positions themselves in relation to them. Silence is golden.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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