7 Tips for Getting Your Team to Think More Creatively

7 Tips for Getting Your Team to Think More Creatively

David Hayes

Image credit: Jeff Clark
This story appears in the April 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Creative thinking is a tough act to pinpoint—it is, at the same time, highly specific and wonderfully simple. Which is to say that it can be hard to practice and engineer. All companies try, of course. Some succeed only to the extent that their culture allows; others, especially those helmed by forward-thinking entrepreneurs, manage over time to inculcate creativity into their very fabric of being. 

Within the context of these divergent realities, insiders agree that creative people in business share some highly effective habits. After talking with a variety of business leaders, we boiled down these suggestions to a list of seven can’t-miss tips to facilitate creativity. Somewhere, Steve Jobs is smiling.

1. Take time to ruminate.

Innovative concepts need to germinate and mature. For this reason, one of the most efficient ways to engender creativity is to simply give people time and space to think.

“When I need to go deep and ideate, I turn my car into a mobile office and work out of parking garages. I work in Los Angeles; we have so many of them. There’s no internet connection in most of them, and there’s no way for me to be disturbed. You can lose track of time. You can write. You can sketch. You can do whatever you need to do. Being interrupted when you’re trying to go deep can really hurt your ability to be effective. 

“I call this process of actively putting myself into an environment with no distractions ‘ruthless prioritization.’ It’s kind of like you’re taking kid gloves off and saying you’re aware that you do better work when you’re not distracted. You’re being aggressive with yourself about guaranteeing success. The only downside to this approach is that when your laptop isn’t charged, you have to leave the car on to charge it. That, and I usually have to pay for parking.” 

—David Hayes, head of creative strategy, Tumblr

Mike Byrne
Photo (C) Greg Strelecki

“I give every idea time to ‘bake.’ It’s a period of time when I’m not really honest with myself that I’m thinking about the idea, but I know I’m thinking about it, working it out in my head. Running is a great way to do this, when you don’t even realize you’re moving your arms and legs, and your mind starts to wander. For me, being in the shower is another great place to accomplish this. The best baking always comes when I’m doing something else. For some reason, it opens up my thinking. I get clarity. I can solve a problem quicker because the baking helps me get to the answer quicker.” 

—Mike Byrne, founding partner and global chief creative officer, Anomaly

2. Force the action.

Scott Keneally
Photo (C) Aeni Domme

Some leaders work their most marvelous magic when they’re under pressure to perform. With this in mind—at least in the right setting—deadlines can be a boon to creativity and innovation.

“I work best when others are counting on me. So when I decided to make a feature documentary about the obstacle race phenomenon, I knew I’d need to manufacture some sort of external pressure to stay motivated throughout the multiyear journey. 

“Enter Facebook. In the summer of 2013, I publicly announced my intentions, rose a bit of capital, started shooting and set about building a fan page. I obsessively created content—teasers, memes and such—and after cultivating 10,000 fans, I launched a brazen Kickstarter campaign—too brazen. It was more of a nonstarter, as I fell $262,500 short of my $297,000 goal. Still, thanks to the magic of very public promises, I couldn’t bring myself to quit. And I’m glad I didn’t. After bootstrapping this dream for the first 18 months, I found a production partner to help shoulder the load. We’re scheduled to wrap production this spring for a fall release.”

 —Scott Keneally, writer-director, Rise of the Sufferfests

“We don’t spend a lot of time with PowerPoint or traditional research presentations. When we bring stakeholders into the room, we set out to visualize ideas together. We have this approach called ‘thinkmapping.’ When we do that, we get up at a whiteboard and draw to make visual connections between insights and data. This process allows us and our partners to think differently.” 

—Michael Kantrow, founding partner, Makeable

3. Dream big.

Jenni Hogan
Photo (C) Jos? Mandojana

One of the best ways to inspire creativity in a workplace is to encourage colleagues that anything is possible.

“Creativity is not doing things the way they’ve been done before. A key to this is simply asking the question: What is your dream solution? That’s the first step. Having no boundaries. Not thinking anything’s crazy. Being open to ideas. There’s a fine line between creative and crazy, but you can’t even get close until you’ve asked yourself how you would want something to play out in the best-possible scenario for everyone. 

“It has become a question we ask every one of our clients before we get started working for them: If nothing was off the table, what’d be their dream? You’d be amazed at how approaching a problem from that perspective opens your mind.” 

 —Jenni Hogan, chief media officer, Tagboard

“We don’t hire people for specific purposes here. We hire talented people who we know are going to be passionate about the work. When these people come to us with their own ideas, we try our best to let them run with what they want to run with. We try not to say no. Instead, the way we look at it is, How can your special talent or passion fit into helping us solve a problem down the road?” 

—Ozzy Jimenez, co-owner, Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar

4. Change the scene.

Michelle Kohanzo
Photo courtesy of The Land of Nod

Routines are great for circadian rhythms but terrible for creative minds. Mixing up the environment can be a great way to spark new and exciting thinking.

“At the office there are so many distractions; there is this constant pull to get back to your desk and get back to work. My favorite way to have really creative collaboration is to mix things up. It doesn’t matter where you go, so long as you go off-site. Sometimes we’ll have meetings at someone’s house, or a Starbucks, or in public spaces at hotels. Sometimes we just go outside. We even offer internal internships for people in one department to spend one day a week [for 10 weeks] working in another department, just to broaden perspective. Being in a new environment brings good creative energy. It mixes things up enough to get people thinking differently, and that’s almost always a good thing.”

—Michelle Kohanzo, managing director, The Land of Nod

“I give every idea time to ‘bake.’ It’s a period of time when I’m not really honest with myself that I’m thinking about the idea, but I know I’m thinking about it, working it out in my head. Running is a great way to do this, when you don’t even realize you’re moving your arms and legs, and your mind starts to wander. For me, being in the shower is another great place to accomplish this. The best baking always comes when I’m doing something else. For some reason, it opens up my thinking. I get clarity. I can solve a problem quicker because the baking helps me get to the answer quicker.” 

—Mike Byrne, founding partner and global chief creative officer, Anomaly 

5. Work together.

Brainstorming has had its critics over the years, but few can dispute that hashing out concepts and ideas with others makes the process more inclusive—which means more creativity across the board.

“We have a very open, collaborative work environment. I don’t like when I go back into the kitchen and it’s quiet. Our Food Innovation team includes chefs, food developers and academics who come from all over—East Coast to West Coast, big-city people and those who grew up on farms. They are in the kitchen every day, always around the food, challenging each other to build on ideas and having fun eating those ‘What if we added this/did that’ concoctions. 

“Our partners and suppliers join us on a daily basis; often we even have a mash-up of competitors in our kitchens building ideas together. Creativity is about exploring, collaborating and pushing your boundaries of comfort. That doesn’t happen at your desk, alone.”

—Liz Matthews, chief food and beverage innovation officer, Taco Bell

“Collaboration here is not hierarchy-based or level-based. You don’t have to worry about what your superior says. You walk into a room and everybody checks their egos at the door. Once we’re in the room, we’re all equal. 

“Even though I’m the CEO, we try to encourage an environment where someone two rungs down from me will be comfortable challenging me. Ours is a culture of ‘Let it out.’ Still, it is a fine line between challenging others and going too far. We always try to be respectful. We try to understand the difference between words that hurt and words that heal. When you’re collaborating, your choice
of words can make all the difference.”

—Jeff Church, CEO, Suja Juice

6. Leverage technology.

With many remote workers and businesses spread out geographically, technology can be the only way to make disparate work forces feel like a creative team.

“We have people collaborating across continents—people in the U.S., Italy and Hong Kong are working on the same thing. Quite often we talk by doing email and sketches. Sometimes we do videoconferencing. This is so much more efficient than trying to write long emails.”                    

—Stanley Cheng, CEO, Meyer Corporation

“You have to invest in how you can be creative together. We purchased an online tool six years ago that we could not live without as a company. It’s called The Recipe Exchange, and it’s based on recipes and pictures of food and videos of food. Every chef in the company has to have all their recipes up on this site—more than 30,000 recipes in all. The idea is that everyone gets to look at everyone else’s work on a daily basis. We trade recipes. We collect feedback. Then we pick what’s best. The process creates a sense of community as if we all worked in the same kitchen. There’s no other way we could do that across 26 restaurants.”  

—Chef and restaurateur Michael Mina

7. Be fearless.

It’s a given: When you’re pushing boundaries through creative thinking, you’re bound to fail sometimes. The best way to stomach this failure is to expect it, prepare for it and move on quickly when it happens.

“To succeed in business, you need to have a level of fearless play. For me, that’s all about understanding that there’s going to be failure as you create. You’re
going to have to get your hands dirty and do things you’re uncomfortable with. You’re going to lose more than you win. 

“As a creative leader, you need to show people that it’s OK to experience all of these things. You need to help them recognize that sometimes being creative is scary and challenging, that it’s not always going to be easy.” 

—Valerie Carlson, executive creative director, SapientNitro