Creative side of the brain and logical side of the brain doodle
Brain doodle illustration, sketched brain concept with textures

What is creativity? Although the dictionary defines it as: “The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness,”[1] creativity can be hard to identify in an organisational context. Dr Jeff Gaspersz (professor of innovation management at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands and an acclaimed speaker on innovation and creativity) says that “Creativity is the quality of individuals or groups of individuals that leads to new expressions, new ways of seeing and new ideas.”[2]

It’s important to note that we often use creativity and innovation interchangeable, but creativity precedes innovation. It is the pre-innovation phase where the brain – and only the brain – is active. Creativity is not bounded by rules or parameters; the mind can imagine any idea. Innovation is where ideas are turned into new products, services or solutions. At this stage time and resources have an impact, so not all ideas generated in the creative phase necessarily result in innovation. There may be organisational, environmental or financial barriers to their practical development.

If creativity is synonymous with having ideas, there are a number of factors to consider in extracting those ideas from the brains of employees, i.e. unleashing creativity. One consideration is the method of idea capture. We’ll come on to the more conceptual elements in a moment, but if you don’t have a practical system for capturing ideas, all your efforts to foster creativity will be in vain.

How to capture ideas

Traditionally, many companies had physical “suggestion boxes”, where employees could post – either anonymously or openly – ideas for improvement and innovation. These suggestions often focused on the working environment and employee wellbeing, but occasionally gave rise to novel and inventive ideas for new products or ways of working. A modern equivalent is an online idea management system – usually via an organisation’s intranet or an email address. Less formal systems include capturing ideas up the line, i.e. ensuring that performance management processes and regular team and one-on-one meetings allow employees to articulate and share ideas freely.

It may not be essential to invest resources in developing a sophisticated idea management system. In a survey conducted in a major corporate in the Netherlands, 31% of employees said they would share ideas with their manager and 28% would tell their colleagues. Only 8% indicated they would use the official idea management system. If this behaviour is typical, then the onus is on managers to be aware of the role they play in capturing ideas and to ensure they fulfil this role. How skilled are your managers at recognising idea generation within their teams?

Creativity in teams – the importance of trust

How creative are teams? At first glance, it’s easy to assume that more ideas come from teams than from individuals. Team dynamics can encourage creativity, and what begins as a germ of an idea – an incomplete thought – in one person’s brain, can be enhanced by the input of another…and another…until a fully fledged hypothesis emerges. One might also suppose that, in our multicultural society, with greater diversity within our organisations than you might find in, for example, European countries, the spark of creativity would be brighter. More perspectives should yield more ideas. Creativity should flourish where there is diversity of expertise, ethnicity, cultural character, experience, etc. However, diversity does not automatically result in greater creativity. It can be a limiting factor, if there is a lack of trust among team members. Sometimes teams function more cohesively when they are homogenous, because they are less inhibited.

This may sound counter-intuitive, but creativity is about taking risks. It is about imagining things as they could be, not as they are, and therefore exposing the ideas to scrutiny and criticism. It is about being willing to say, “This may be crazy, but…” and feel safe in the knowledge that the idea will be taken seriously and not ridiculed. Employees will only take risks if they feel confident they have the support of their colleagues (and managers). Therefore, paradoxically, creativity is about trust. It requires openness between team members and a willingness to accept each other’s ideas. Only in an atmosphere of safety and trust can truly daring, unconventional ideas emerge. So while diverse teams have many advantages, you may have to work harder to create space and freedom within them for ideas to be born and incubated.

Behaviour in teams – the nine Belbin team roles

Everyone has the potential to be creative. Creativity is not the preserve of “the creative industry” or of particular functions (e.g. marketing) in a business. However, people express their creativity in different ways, and in an organisational context, particularly within teams, certain behaviours are displayed. It is important to understand the roles people play in teams and be able to recognise them in your own teams, if you want to develop their creative potential.

The nine Belbin team roles were originally identified by Dr Meredith Belbin as part of a unique study of teams at Henley Business School in the 1960s. Since then they have become widely used in organisations and teams around the world.[3] They are:

  1. Resource investigator: Uses their inquisitive nature to find ideas to bring back to the team. 
  2. Teamworker: Helps the team to gel, using their versatility to identify the work required and complete it on behalf of the team.
  3. Co-ordinator: Needed to focus on the team’s objectives, draw out team members and delegate work appropriately.
  4. Plant: Tends to be highly creative and good at solving problems in unconventional ways.
  5. Monitor/evaluator: Provides a logical eye, making impartial judgements where required and weighs up the team’s options in a dispassionate way.
  6. Specialist: Brings in-depth knowledge of a key area to the team.
  7. Shaper: Provides the necessary drive to ensure that the team keeps moving and does not lose focus or momentum.
  8. Implementer: Needed to plan a workable strategy and carry it out as efficiently as possible.
  9. Completer/finisher: Most effectively used at the end of tasks to polish and scrutinise the work for errors, subjecting it to the highest standards of quality control.

The “plant” is the most obvious creative role, but all have the potential for creativity. Not all teams will contain all of these, and many individuals perform more than one function. For example, a “completer/finisher” doesn’t just sit around waiting to check work for errors at the end of the process; but someone who has this quality is useful at that stage, whatever they might have contributed earlier in the project. Key to encouraging creativity is to allow “plants” to grow, and to encourage everyone to develop their “plant” capacity. In a highly technical or process-driven environment, such as engineering or IT, for example, the more analytical and practical traits tend to be more highly lauded, while “off-the-wall” ideas may be sidelined. If you want your teams to be creative, you must find the “plants” in the team (who may be disguised as “specialists” or “implementers”) and give them space to use their imagination.

A prepared mind

Finally, research has shown that, in workshop situations for example, participants come up with more ideas when they have been prepared in advance, i.e. given some information about the brainstorming context. There is a balance to strike: too much information can be counter-productive, as the brain goes into solution mode and thinks within the parameters provided. However, being given just enough information to understand the nature of the problem appears to stimulate the brain, either consciously or unconsciously, so that when the team comes together the output is greater than if they come at a problem completely cold.

The message here is that if you are planning a brainstorming session with your team, prepare them in advance, but don’t prepare them too much. Creativity thrives in an atmosphere of curiosity.

Find out more

If you’d like to know how you can assess and encourage creativity in your teams and your employees, contact us on on 012 940 6300 or hcs@eoh.co.za.

[1]Oxford English Dictionary

[2] http://www.jeffgaspersz.com/pg-25338-7-49921/page/innovation_by_professor_dr_jeff_gaspersz.html

[3] You can read about the research carried out at Henley in Management Teams – Why they Succeed or Fail by Dr Meredith Belbin

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