Getting Your Employees to Think Creatively

We spend a lot of time talking about innovation in government. In a time of budget cuts and sequestration, it is essential to improve government services and meet rising citizen expectations. In the private sector it is easy to name the innovative companies- Apply, Google, Amazon etc. But how are they actually doing it and how can government emulate them? What makes some organizations innovative and others not? How can managers encourage creative thinking at work?

There’s a lot of great ideas, books and theories out there, but I recently stumbled upon James Caan, CEO of Hamilton Bradshaw blog post, and he provides five tips to encourage employees to think differently:

  • Give your staff the time, space and resources to be imaginative and creative. It is easy to get caught up in the daily tasks of your job, but it is important to set aside time to strategize and think creatively. Apple is a good example of this as they devote up to a fifth of their work day to creative thinking sessions.
  • Constantly question yourself and your working practices. Instead of sticking with tried and tested methods, leaders should always be thinking of alternative approaches when it comes to solving issues and problems. Sticking with the “norm” or what others do is not always the best practice.
  • Encourage people to work in groups. That way, ideas can be shared along with responsibility and the credit for success. Collaboration and brain storming is critical to coming up with the best ideas. As Caan said, “a company which has an overly competitive and individualistic culture can stifle creativity.”
  • Promote an open environment. Not every idea is going to be a great idea, but managers should encourage people to share all ideas- without fear of criticism. If people are scared of being mocked then they may not step forward with new ideas.
  • Make the creative process fun. If you want to inspire people to think differently then you have to create the right culture and environment to allow them to do just that. The workplace and culture is essential to creating a fun, dynamic and collaborative environment.

Encouraging people to work in groups and collaborate is an important factor. But it’s important to take it to the next level and pair people who normally don’t work together in working groups. Across departments, your employees will have different experiences that shape their opinions and thinking style. For example, where I grew up, went to school, and who I’ve met along the way can impact how I think about the world. There isn’t necessarily a right vs wrong way to think- it’s just different. When promoting innovation within your agency, it is critical to mix people together with different opinions because this leads to open dialogue and healthy confrontation. Many times in the workplace we shy away from disagreements. But diversity of thought and healthy confrontation can lead to the most innovative ideas. If these people don’t exist within your agency, go out and get them!

All of these steps can be accomplished, but it starts from the top. Employees at all levels need to feel comfortable expressing themselves, thinking outside the box, and stepping away from some daily tasks in order to dedicate time to just thinking creatively.

What do you think? How else can you promote innovation within your agency?

Innovation was a hot topic at GovLoop and Young Government Leader’s Next Generation of Govenrment Trianing Summit. Check out some of the presentation recaps here:

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Terrence (Terry) Hill

I think that it is important to use existing internal networks as ideation systems. Some agencies have these systems (sort of like OMB’s SAVE Awards/IdeaScale system). In order to be successful, these systems should be moderated/managed. Also, leadership needs to participate in the process. There should be a process for periodically evaluating good/popular ideas and implementing them. If not implemented, we owe it to employees to provide feedback on why his/her idea is not being implemented.