Unless you're a solo entrepreneur, you probably didn't build your business on your own. Nope, I'm not referring to President Barack Obama's incendiary remarks that recently ruffled some feathers in the small-business community. I'm talking about employees.
If you dream of building another Google or Patagonia one day, you'd do well to not only accept input from employees but actively seek it. Creativity doesn't just happen. If you're ready to really embrace the kind of culture where creativity and innovation may thrive, here's how to get started.
1. Leave space. This goes for both physical space and time. Have meeting spots available for people to congregate informally. Include white boards or even computerized boards so that ideas can be written down. Even flip charts will help. Make sure your team has some free time to think and come up with new ideas. If their work keeps them too busy when do you expect them to be creative?
2. Encourage risk. Creativity is about trying something different and experimenting. If your employees are afraid to move left of center, you won't get anything but the status quo. Think about rewarding those who take chances, even if their ideas don't succeed. Let your team know that thinking creatively will make the company better.
3. Talk the talk. At your staff meetings, introduce examples of people and organizations that take chances. Recognize unusual approaches, and don't settle for the first solution to a problem. Have your team brainstorm around decisions, and work cooperatively toward a good choice. Leave options open for your team to step up with new ideas.
4. Walk the walk. Are you letting your creative side show through? What new things have you tried lately? Have you shared your unusual perspectives with your team and asked for their insights? Do you reward creativity in others? If not, start now.
5. Bring in creativity enhancers. This is a grown-up way of saying have toys in the workplace. Crayons, paints, odd little plastic frogs and snakes, Slinkys, paddle balls and whatever else looks fun and interesting. Scatter these across desks and on top of file cabinets. Put a Ping-Pong or foosball table in the cafeteria. Playing wakes up the creativity inside all of us. After all, when we were kids we were naturally creative. Toys will shake that old perspective out of mental mothballs and back to the surface.
6. Think outside your industry. Some of the most creative solutions come from adapting ideas from one industry to another. Subscribe to magazines from other fields, encourage team members to check out Neatarama, subscribe to Brain Pickings or look out for other sources of unusual information. The process will help expand employees' minds and add new thinking to your environment.
7. Assign crazy. You may need to jump-start the creativity process through unusual nonwork projects. Think about buying tickets to a circus, festival or some other event. Have your team attend and return with at least one idea that could apply to your business. Bring in artwork or a poem and have everyone comment on what they think. Host a chocolate or cheese or other type of tasting and encourage everyone to describe the flavors in nontraditional ways.
8. Set boundaries. Creative can quickly move to crazy if people don't know where the lines are. Be sure to stay focused on goals and performance expectations -- those don't leave when creativity arrives.
9. Be patient. Apple wasn't built in a day and your team won't move from mundane to exciting in a few weeks or even months. Once everyone understands that business as usual is now business unusual, people will either join in or select out. This will leave you with room for adding more creativity with your new hires.
How do you support creativity at your business? Let us know in the comments section.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
Matthew Toren is a serial entrepreneur, mentor, investor and co-founder of YoungEntrepreneur.com. He is co-author, with his brother Adam, of Kidpreneurs and Small Business, BIG Vision: Lessons on How to Dominate Your Market from Self-Made Entrepreneurs Who Did it Right (Wiley). He's based in Vancouver, B.C.