Three Ways to Get Your Team to Think Creatively and Produce the Next Great Idea

These psychological findings will help your team collaborate to produce not just good but truly innovative results

Creative Collaboration

Uber. Airbnb. Electric vehicles. Self-driving cars. Buses that can drive over traffic. Pretty much everything Steve Jobs created at Apple since the iPod. These are the inventions of our time that aren’t just about innovation, but about leaps of imagination and creative collaboration. They are the kind of inventions that make us ask: How did they get there? And, more importantly, how can I get my team there? 

The end results may seem neat and tidy, but you can bet they didn’t seem that way at the start. Collaboration is messy. Creativity happens in fits and with many false starts. There’s no linear path from problem to solution, and there’s no magic formula to innovation.

But there are ways that leaders can intentionally create an environment that fosters curiosity and a willingness to engage with new ideas to see where they might lead.

The following are three key strategies to foster more creative collaboration on your team.

Create constraints

In 1974, Toshio Okuno was promoted to plant manager at Higashimaru Shoyu Co., Ltd., a manufacturing plant in Japan that produced over 200 products, including several varieties of soy sauce. At the time, the company was struggling. A crowded market, rising costs, and stagnate prices had led to declines in profit year after year.

Okuno accepted his new post on one condition: that he could have the freedom to revitalize the corporation. One of the innovative methods he used was called “the Hangen game.

Hangenmeaning to reduce by halfwas a game that consisted of removing half a team’s members and challenging those left to try to complete the work of the whole team. Okuno says removing half the people “forces the group to reconsider every task it performs and ask whether each task was necessary.”

Instead of finding small ways to marginally increase efficiency, the remaining team members identified fundamental ways to reevaluate their workflows. “I experienced the power of this approach personally as I listened to the workers review their jobs and come up with unique solutions that reduced their workload,” Okuno says.”I called it a game because I wanted them to enjoy the creative process. We proved that people really do become more creative when they are placed in a tight corner. Just as importantly, we proved that it can be fun to be creative.”

Ultimately, the team came up with a new system that kept the line running smoothly with just 16 of the original 25 team members. Okuno then could reassign the extra nine team members to other areas of the company. The pressure from removing half the team made it possible for employees to think more creatively about their jobs.

Why was the Hangen game so effective in fostering creative teamwork? A 2011 review of six separate studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology may shed light on the answer.

In one study, participants were asked to navigate a maze before solving a series of anagrams. Half the participants encountered an obstacle while navigating the maze. The other half could complete the maze unhindered. The group that overcame the obstacle came up with significantly more creative answers to the anagram puzzles, even though the task was unrelated to navigating the maze.

The researchers hypothesized that encountering the obstacle caused people to take a mental step back and evaluate the “big picture.” They considered a wider range of options than those who completed the maze with no obstacles. This is similar to the group dynamics Okuno observed in the Hangen game. This open mindset then allowed them to think more creatively on the subsequent task.

In other words, obstacles have the power to put us in a more creative, problem-solving frame of mind. Artists often come up with creative work using very limited resources. Managers can also foster more creative solutions in their teams by creating the perception of limited resources.

Sohrab Vossough, founder of design and innovation consultancy Ziba, says “scarcity forces focus”:

Given enough time and money, any competent organization can emulate something that succeeded in the past. But when limited resources take the tried-and-true off the table, the only option is to come up with something new.

We can see the principle of scarcity at work in creative teams, according to Vossough. “All this may serve to explain a common characteristic of continually innovative organizations,” he says, “that they operate with a scarcity mindset, even in times of plenty.”

As a team leader, it can be tempting to throw more resources at a problemextending deadlines, adding more team members, allocating a larger budgetor to scale back requirements. However, if creative solutions are the goal, you may be better off doing the exact opposite.

Set an ambitious deadline for a project. Define the problem as a challenge that tests current assumptions about what’s possible. Limit resources by setting firm numbers for project budget, the number of team members involved, or the amount or kinds of materials used.

Find ways to present challenges to your team to broaden their mindsets and consider a broader range of possible solutions. Teams often succeed because of the tension of working within challenging boundaries, not in spite of it.

Encourage debate

In 1948, Alex Osborn was a partner in the advertising agency B.B.D.O, “widely regarded as the most innovative firm on Madison Avenue.” That year, Osborn published a book called Your Creative Power, which shared his best advice on creativity.

His rules about brainstorming, in particular, caught on. Osborn insisted on the “no bad idea” approach:

Forget quality; aim now to get a quantity of answers. When you’re through, your sheet of paper may be so full of ridiculous nonsense that you’ll be disgusted. Never mind. You’re loosening up your unfettered imagination—making your mind deliver.

However, in 1958 a group of researchers at Yale University decided to test Osborn’s assertion in a controlled experiment. They recruited a group of students and had them work on different types of creative puzzles. Half the students were put into groups and instructed to follow Osborn’s guidelines. The other half worked alone with no guidelines.

Counter to Osborn’s brainstorming method, the study’s solo students won out on measures of both quantity and quality. They came up with more solutions to their creative puzzles than the students who in groups. Furthermore, their solutions were judged as being more feasible and effective.

Studies since then have shown similar results, according to psychologist Keith Sawyer:

Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.

In 2003, psychology researcher Charlan Nemeth discovered that the secret to creative brainstorming might actually be the exact oppositive of Osborn’s advice. She gave groups of five students a single problem to solve: “How can traffic congestion be reduced in the San Francisco Bay Area?” The groups then had 20 minutes to come up with as many solutions as they could. Each group was assigned one of three conditions:

  1. Brainstorming guidelines, including the “no criticism” rule
  2. Debating guidelines, including suggestions to debate and even criticize each other’s ideas
  3. Control group with no extra guidelines

The brainstorming groups outperformed the control groups, though only slightly. However, the group that actively debated ideas came in first.

The debate groups came up with almost 20 percent more ideas, on average. Even more surprising, the effect continued after the initial brainstorm. After the teams broke up, researchers asked each individual if they had any more ideas to share. The brainstormers and control group members offered three more ideas on average, while the debaters produced seven.

Nemeth said of the study:

While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.

Nemeth suggests dissent helps us come up with new ideas because it encourages us to reassess our viewpoints by engaging more with the work of others. Although it’s less positive to throw out the “no bad ideas” spiel, Nemeth says the compromise is worth it. “Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant,” she says “but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

So throw out the old rules that prohibited criticism and encourage your team to set aside egos, ask questions, and engage with each other’s ideas in a constructive way. Reframe debate as a positive, vital part of any problem-solving or creative process.

Foster positivity

The strategies outlined above can easily backfire without a positive team culture to support them. Teams can quickly become overwhelmed by the pressures of meeting seemingly impossible expectations, and debates can easily devolve into petty disagreements, resentment, and gridlock.

These strategies are most effective when supported by an underlying culture of trust and positivity that allows people to be vulnerable and candid with each other, and to accept criticism as a positive force and failure as part of the creative process.

Research shows that positive moods make us more open to learning new things and considering a broader set of options. They make us more receptive to both criticism and opposing points of view. In contrast, negative moods narrow our mindset, focusing on problems rather than possibilities.

Teresa Amabile, an expert in the study of effect of emotional states on work, suggests that creativity and positive emotions may act as a feedback loop. Creative tasks can make you feel more positive, while feeling positive makes you more likely to be creative. In addition, positive emotions can help us develop psychological and social resources that outlast our temporary happiness. So we may be more creative in the future, thanks to a positive state of mind now.

Similarly, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s research has shown the myriad benefits of positive emotions on individuals’ work, creativity, and overall well-being:

They feel more effective at what they do. They’re better able to savor the good things in life and can see more possible solutions to problems. And they sleep better.

Fredrickson teamed up with psychologist and business consultant Marcial Losada to see how the impact of positivity on individuals transferred to team dynamics. Losada studied 60 different teams while they conducted annual strategic planning meetings, a process that requires a great deal of collaborative creativity to be successful.

His team observed and recorded the meetings behind one-way glass and classified each statement made as being “positive,” “negative,” or “neutral.” They also classified statements based on two other key criteria:

  1. Was the speaker focused inward on the group itself, or was he or she outward, taking into account the larger context the surrounding the organization?
  2. Was the speaker focused on advocating his or her own point-of-view, or was he or she asking questions and actively gathering new information?

The researchers then ranked each team’s subsequent performance based on independent business metrics. High-performing teams had a positive-to-negative statement ratio of about six to one. In contrast, more than half of the statements made in low-performing teams were negative.

In addition, individuals on high-performing teams balanced their statements between asking questions and advocating their own point-of-view and between an internal focus on the group and an external focus on the larger context within which the company operated. Low-performing teams did the exact opposite; they tended to focus inward on the group, almost never asked questions, and advanced their own point-of-view almost exclusively.

“None of them were listening to each other,” Fredrickson says, “They were all just waiting to talk.”

That’s not to say that team must be positive at all times in order to be successful; negative emotions do have their place in the creative process. Some studies have shown that “neutral or mildly negative moods can be more effective for tasks such as systematic analysis,” since they make us “less prone to errors in judgement, more accurate when recalling events, and better able to craft higher-quality, persuasive arguments.”

Yet when negativity becomes the dominant mood, teams quickly fall into a downward spiral of negativity, narrow-mindedness, and self-advocacy. To uncover creative solutions, effective managers create positive team cultures that foster an openness to new ideas, encourage questions, and help employees think more broadly about about the challenge at hand.  

The stories behind creative teams, the winding path to innovation tends to be equal parts science, art, and luck. However, there are things you as a leader can do to create a culture of active engagement, debate, questioning, and open-mindedness that surfaces those elusive creative ideas that set companies apart.

As Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer puts it:

While we need [constraints] to spur passion and insight, we also need a sense of hopefulness to keep us engaged and unwavering in our search for the right idea. Innovation is born from the interaction between constraint and vision.

We hope this article gave you some concrete ideas for getting started.