How To Make It Safe For Creativity In Your Workplace

[This is the second of a series on ways to encourage creativity into the workplace.]

Creativity is more than just a few good ideas. It shakes things up.

Creativity is for the rabble-rouser. The boat-shaker. The status-quo decimator. And above all, the truth-teller. Creativity takes courage because it brings about change and it tells the truth. Most of us don’t always want these things.

We say we want creativity in the workplace, but whether we’re aware of it or not, we quietly quell creativity with an insistence on being reasonable, realistic, down-to-earth, having common sense or being polite. Creatives are either quieted down or they quietly leave.

 Being With And Without

People are generally afraid of two things, both at the same time:

  1. They are part of a group.
  2. They are not part of a group.

Creatives, in particular, intensely need to feel like they — and subsequently, their ideas — are unique. That they stand out from the crowd. However, even the most individualistic of us likes to know someone has our back when we take a deep breath and say “I have an idea on how to change everything.” Fear makes creativity stay silent. How can we encourage creativity and meet the need for individuality while fostering solidarity and quieting those fears?

We answer that question in one way: making it safe for creativity to exist.

Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur.  It must be safe to tell the truth. — Ed Catmull, Pixar Co-founder

 Safety In Numbers

We’re not looking for safe ideas. We’re looking to make it safe to have ideas. To do that, we want to avoid these scenarios that commonly develop during brainstorming or creativity sessions with groups:

  1. The Laugh Down. No one laughs at an idea no matter how ridiculous it seems. An idea might be from way out in left field, but perhaps just a few feet away from where it is out there, lies a solution. Ideas can be fragile; even light teasing can cause serious damage to future group efforts depending upon the personality of the person.
  2. The Patronized Play. Out-right disagreement or ridicule at least has the side-effect of emotional push-back and energy. Being overly patronizing when responding to an idea you don’t like makes someone feel like a child. If you don’t like an idea, that can be worked out in discussion. Pretending to like an idea but subtly indicating to the group that you think it’s flawed silences creativity quickly.
  3. The Invisible Idea. Brainstorms are all or nothing. If people are throwing ideas out and they’re being documented, such as on a whiteboard, don’t be an editor. Put all ideas on the board. What’s written quickly leads the group on the path. This is not the time to determine what is relevant enough to make it on the board. Write it down. The group’s brainstorming will handle the editing naturally. Let everyone participate.
  4. No More Questions. Some people present creative ideas not in the form of solutions, but as questions. The gift of asking the right question is as valuable as the person who has the gift of finding answers. Every group needs those who ask questions, and those who provide answers. Let people ask questions without silencing them by saying “we’re looking for answers, not questions, right now.”

The trick to remember about ideas is that even the “bad” ideas are necessary. They help us work past roadblocks. They help us see the good ones for what they are by comparison. The kick open the doors to amazing ideas we wouldn’t have found otherwise. In that way, there are no bad ideas.

Being creative is terrifying enough, sometimes. Don't make it worse.

Many Voices, Many Volumes

A leader makes it safe to be creative and tell the truth. Group members go about this in different ways, depending on their personality.

Be careful that the loudest voices in the group don’t drown out the quietest. Watch for anyone who may consistently come up with strange ideas that don’t get used or that people to react poorly to. These are necessary ideas, but it is easy for someone to learn to keep quiet if it feels as if they aren’t a contributing member of the group.

Above all, build a culture of creativity. Let it be clear that truth, change, and ideas are all welcome.

Do It Now
Ready to make it safe for creativity in your workplace? There’s no time like the present. This week, do at least one of the activities below:

  1. Already have regular staff meetings? Add brainstorming or creative problem-solving to it. Every time. Don’t let staff meetings turn into a dry listing of updates and in-office events. Turn your next staff meeting into a brainstorming session for a project you’re in the middle of right now.
  2. Provide journals or notebooks (either real paper or online) for each person in the group, and let it be their own “safe” place to work through ideas. Have the group bring them to the next brainstorming session and discuss.
  3. Can’t think of a problem that needs solving? Maybe it’s time to find one. Have the group come up with five questions. Pool the questions and work through some of them as a group. Encourage questions that start with “what if.”
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