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Five Keys to Leading Creative Teams Successfully

Five Keys to Leading Creative Teams Successfully

GUEST POST from David Burkus

Creativity is a team sport.

It’s been that way for a long time. But the level of teamwork required to solve problems and find innovation has increased over the last decade and even century. Most of the simple problems of the world have been solved, and the ones that remain are too often too complex to be solved by any lone, individual genius.

But not all teams fair equally when it comes to creative tasks, because many team leaders are better prepared to lead teams where the work is simple and easy to define. When reaching team goals is ambiguous and requires more creative thinking it also requires a different type of leadership.

In this article, we’ll outline those differences. We’ll cover five ways to lead creative teams.

1. Show Them the Constraints

The first way to lead creative teams is to show them the constraints. It may sound a little counterintuitive—after all aren’t we supposed to “think outside the box”? But one of the first things creative teams need is an understanding of the constraints of the problem—of the box their answer needs to fit inside. Research suggests creativity is more activated when people understand the constraints of the problem. Constraints aide in the convergent thinking of sifting through ideas that needs to accompany the divergent thinking of generating lots of ideas. You need both. But you need constraints first so that people know ahead of time how to judge the ideas they generate.

2. Support Their Ideas

The second way to lead creative teams is to support their ideas. Nothing stops the creative flow of ideas on a team more than hearing “That’ll never work” or “That’s not how we do things around here.” Leaders need to champion the ideas their team puts forward, at least until the idea generation phase is complete. When people think their leadership isn’t going to consider their ideas, they stop sharing them. Leaders need to not only support ideas when the team is discussing them, but also support ideas when it comes to selling them up the chain of approval needed to implement the idea. Without that support, people just stop trying.

3. Teach Them to Fight Right

The third way to lead creative teams is to teach them to fight right. We like to think of creative teams as fun and cohesive. But the opposite is true. There’s a lot of friction on a creative team. And research suggests that the most creative teams leverage task-focused conflict to generate more and better ideas. But those teams also know how to keep it task-focused and keep it from devolving into personality fights and hurt feelings. And often that requires leaders who can demonstrate and teach their people to fight for their ideas, but not fight their teammates.

4. Test What You Can

The fourth way to lead creative teams is to test what you can. Ideally, teams are going to generate a lot of different ideas. And it’s a bad idea to chase consensus and settle on an idea too soon. Instead, the most creative teams test out multiple different ideas to learn more from what worked and didn’t work, and then combine those lessons into a new and better idea. But too often, leaders facilitate a brainstorming session, circle the idea they like best, and that’s the end of it. Instead, the best leaders test as much as they can as often as they can.

5. Celebrate Their Failures

The final way to lead creative teams is to celebrate their failures. If you’re testing a lot of ideas, your team will fail. But if they fail small on a test, they’ll reduce the chances of failing big later. In addition, failures carry all sorts of lessons that can be learned to better understand the problem and generate even better ideas. That doesn’t happen unless the team understands that failure is part of the process, which is why the best leaders celebrate the risks that team members took and the learning moments their failures generated.

In fact, that’s why all five of these methods shouldn’t be looked at as a linear process. Creativity is an iterative process of ideation, testing, failure, learning, ideation, and more testing and failure. The best leaders know the goal isn’t to get it done, but to keep getting better. And that goes for the creative process, but also the team culture. The goal is to keep getting better until everyone can do their best work ever.

Image credit: Pexels

Originally published at https://davidburkus.com on May 24, 2022.

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Get Social with Your Innovation

Get Social with Your InnovationIf your organization is struggling to sustain its innovation efforts, then I hope you will do the following things.

  • Find the purpose and passion that everyone can rally around.
  • Create the flexibility necessary to deal with the constant change that a focus on innovation requires for both customers and the organization.
  • Make innovation the social activity it truly must be for you to become successful.

If your organization has lost the courage to move innovation to its center and has gotten stuck in a project – focused, reactive innovation approach, then now is your chance to regain the higher ground and to refocus, not on having an innovation success but on building an innovation capability. Are you up to the challenge?

There is a great article “ Passion versus Obsession ” by John Hagel that explores the differences between passion and obsession. This is an important distinction to understand in order to make sure you are hiring people to power your innovation efforts who are passionate and not obsessive. Here are a few key quotes from the article:

“The first significant difference between passion and obsession is the role free will plays in each disposition: passionate people fight their way willingly to the edge to find places where they can pursue their passions more freely, while obsessive people (at best) passively drift there or (at worst) are exiled there.”

“It’s not an accident that we speak of an “object of obsession,” but the “subject of passion.” That’s because obsession tends towards highly specific focal points or goals, whereas passion is oriented toward networked, diversified spaces.”

More quotes from the John Hagel article:

“The subjects of passion invite and even demand connections with others who share the passion.”

“Because passionate people are driven to create as a way to grow and achieve their potential, they are constantly seeking out others who share their passion in a quest for collaboration, friction and inspiration . . . . The key difference between passion and obsession is fundamentally social: passion helps build relationships and obsession inhibits them.”

“It has been a long journey and it is far from over, but it has taught me that obsession confines while passion liberates.”

These quotes from John Hagel’s article are important because they reinforce the notion that innovation is a social activity. While many people give Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and the modern-day equivalent, Dean Kamen, credit for being lone inventors, the fact is that the lone inventor myth is just that — a myth, one which caused me to create The Nine Innovation Roles.

The fact is that all of these gentlemen had labs full of people who shared their passion for creative pursuits. Innovation requires collaboration, either publicly or privately, and is realized as an outcome of three social activities.

1. Social Inputs

From the very beginning when an organization is seeking to identify key insights to base an innovation strategy or project on, organizations often use ethnographic research, focus groups, or other very social methods to get at the insights. Great innovators also make connections to other industries and other disciplines to help create the great in sights that inspire great solutions.

2. Social Evolution

We usually have innovation teams in organizations, not sole inventors, and so the activity of transforming the seeds of useful invention into a solution valued above every existing alternative is very social. It takes a village of passionate villagers to transform an idea into an innovation in the marketplace. Great innovators make connections inside the organization to the people who can ask the right questions, uncover the most important weaknesses, help solve the most difficult challenges, and help break down internal barriers within the organization — all in support of creating a better solution.

3. Social Execution

The same customer group that you may have spent time with, seeking to understand, now requires education to show them that they really need the solution that all of their actions and behaviors indicated they needed at the beginning of the process. This social execution includes social outputs like trials, beta programs, trade show booths, and more. Great innovators have the patience to allow a new market space to mature, and they know how to grow the demand while also identifying the key shortcomings with customers who are holding the solution back from mass acceptance.

Conclusion

When it comes to insights, these three activities are not completely discrete. Insights do not expose themselves only in the social inputs phase, but can also expose themselves in other phases — if you’re paying attention.

Flickr famously started out as a company producing a video game in the social inputs phase, but was astute enough during the social execution phase to recognize that the most used feature was one that allowed people to share photos. Recognizing that there was an unmet market need amongst customers for easy sharing of photos, Flickr reoriented its market solution from video game to photo sharing site and reaped millions of dollars in the process when they ultimately sold their site to Yahoo!.

Ultimately, action is more important than intent, and so as an innovator you must always be listening and watching to see what people do and not just what they say. Build your solution on the wrong insight and nobody will be beating a path to your door.

NOTE: This article is an adaptation of some of the great content in my five-star book Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire (available in many local libraries and fine booksellers everywhere).

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Planning to Spread

We’ve all seen the viral videos that seemingly come out of nowhere to garner millions of views on YouTube, videos like this one where five people play one guitar singing Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”, which as of this date has garnered more than 163 million video views:

And if you add up all of the other postings of this same video, the total number of video views goes much, much higher.

Now, surely Gotye’s version of the song couldn’t have possibly garnered more views than this viral sensation that Walk Off the Earth’s cover created, could it?

Um, actually it did. To date Gotye’s official video has captured nearly 600 million video views, or nearly FIVE TIMES as many video views. So, it hasn’t turned out all bad for Gotye.

Now you might ask yourself, how could the huge success of the Walk Off the Earth viral campaign be trumped by traditional marketing if viral marketing is supposed to be the silver bullet?

Well, the truth is that whether you pursue traditional marketing and advertising or supposedly “viral” marketing activities, the goals are the same:

  1. Awareness
  2. Interest
  3. Desire
  4. Action

And it is within that first bullet point, that you find the viral component that any marketing activity or any evangelism activity (for innovation, for change, etc.) should always contain – spreadability.

Now, WordPress doesn’t seem to think that spreadability is a word, but let’s assume for a moment that it is and focus on the fact that most of the time, one of your goals in business (and your personal life) is spreadability. Ultimately, in many cases, success is determined by whether or not you can get your idea to spread.

This is true whether we are talking about an IT project, a Six Sigma continuous improvement effort, a change initiative, a Lean event, a marketing campaign, or a project commercializing an invention into a potential innovation.

So, can anyone guarantee that an idea or marketing campaign will spread?

The short answer is no.

Sorry, I wish I had better news for you, but the fact is that nobody can guarantee that your idea or your marketing campaign will go viral. Why?

You’re dealing with humans living in a complicated world. We’re not all built the same and the same person can have different reactions to the same stimulus (driven by mood and context among other things). This can result in a perfectly spreadable idea or message being stopped dead in its tracks, depriving you of all of the potential downstream sharing that you might have been hoping for or counting on.

Sorry, you can’t guarantee spreadability, despite what opportunistic marketing consultants claiming to know the magic formula might tell you.

Spreading ChangeBut, an idea can be built to spread.

And I’d like to share with you a simple framework, for free, that you can download and spread far and wide.

Click here to download the “Planning to Spread” starter worksheet as a PDF.

It’s based on the same priniciples as mind mapping and it will help you start either with a particular node in mind (someone you’d like to reach and influence) and work backwards, identifying both how to evolve your idea to best influence that particular node, and how you might be able to reach them (at the same time). Or you can work from the idea outwards. Focusing primarily on the WHO and the WHY as you move outward.

The key questions to consider as you are “Planning to Spread” your idea are the following:

  1. What is your idea or message? (Does it resonate with my target audience?)
  2. Who are you trying to reach?
  3. How will you reach them?
    • When will they be most receptive to the message or idea?
    • Where will they be most receptive to the message or idea?
  4. Why will they engage? (What value will they get?)
  5. Why will they share? (What value will they derive?)
  6. How will they share?

Working your way thoughtfully through these questions will increase the chances that your idea or message will spread, but they won’t guarantee it. Going through the process however will help you refine your idea or message, help you think through the mechanics of how you might encourage and increase engagement, and may even help you uncover flaws in your idea or message that you missed (and give you a chance to fix them).

Planning to Spread WorksheetHappy spreading!
(and please let me know in the comments below any things I might have missed)

So what am I trying to spread?

Well, in the run up to my second book (this time focusing on the best practices and next practices of organizational change), soon I will be releasing a new collaborative, visual change planning toolkit to help organizations work smarter by planning their change initiatives (and projects) in a less overwhelming, more human way that will help get everyone literally on the same page.

This is the idea that I will be spreading and there are many ways that you can benefit.

One way is by becoming a case study volunteer. I’m looking to select a handful of companies to teach how to use the toolkit for free and feature their experience in my next book on the best practices and next practices of organizational change. If you would like to get a jump on the competition by increasing your speed of change (and your ability to work smarter), register your interest here.

But there are several other ways you can benefit, and all of them can be found here (including upcoming chances for consultants to train on the methodology and boost their revenue and success as they work with their clients around the world to deliver positive change). I’ll be focusing on teaching and tools, not consulting.

What message or idea are you trying to spread?


Accelerate your change and transformation success

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Speed of Change

Speed of Change

Are You Innovating at the Speed of Change?

The world is changing all around us at an increasing rate, and individuals (and yes organizations too) are struggling to cope with this ever increasing pace of change.

In fact, over the last 50 years the average lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 has dropped from 61 years to 18 years (and is forecast to shrink further in the future).1

Innosight Average Company Lifespan

Nobody of course wants to be one of those organizations that goes out of business, but the fact is that if your organization can’t innovate and change at the speed of change of its customers’ wants and needs, and the pace of geopolitical, social, and economic change in the world around it, then it will likely have to change its sign from open to CLOSED, permanently.

Your organization may indeed be doomed to fail if it develops on or more of the following change gaps:

  1. Your speed of hiring is slower than the speed of your growth
  2. Your speed of market understanding is slower than the pace of market change
  3. Your speed of insight dissemination and acceptance is slower than the pace of market change
  4. Your speed of idea commercialization is slower than the pace of market change
  5. Your speed of innovation is slower than the competition’s speed of innovation
  6. Your speed of internal change is slower than the rate of external change

The last one is of course the largest and the most important, and the most complex, being composed of your speed of:

  • Market Analysis (gathering of insights and inspiration)
  • Invention (creation of innovation source material)
  • Design (building a potential solution around an invention)
  • Development (taking the design and creating a scalable, launch ready solution)
  • Test (Evaluating with customers whether the solution works as designed and scales as intended)
  • Evolution (Launching the solution into the marketplace with open eyes and ears, pivoting/improving as necessary)

While it is possible to enter a market too early, you can survive this tactical error if you enter in a small way instead of committing to a global launch with grand customer promises. However, much more damage comes to organizations that enter too late. So, as an organization we must be constantly striving to get faster at discovering new market insights and adapting and aligning our organization to fulfill newly discovered market needs more quickly than our competition, otherwise we might find ourselves locked out of our customers’ top consideration set tier.

Consumption Spreads Faster

What other change gaps do you see as you look at your business or that of your competition?

This is the first of many articles that I will be writing in the run up to my second book (to be published by Palgrave Macmillan), in which I will explore the importance and implications of change in the ongoing success of organizations, along with building up a concise set of best practices and next practices for change.

To help kick off this journey I will be conducting a FREE webinar with my friends over at CoDev, focusing on how Innovation is All About Change. This exclusive sneak peek and Live Q&A will take place from 12:00-1:00pm ET on January 15, 2015, and will feature a quick introduction to a new visual, collaborative change planning toolkit that I’ve developed and am ready to share with the world. Click here to register (link expired).

I hope you’ll come join me on this journey to improve the pace of change in our organizations!

UPDATE to banner: You can now access a free recording of this webinar using PASSCODE 1515 here (link expired)

1. Innosight/Richard N. Foster/Standard & Poor’s
2. Image Source: Wikipedia


Build a common language of innovation on your team

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Eight I’s of Infinite Innovation – PDF Version

Eight I's of Infinite Innovation - PDF VersionIn the wake of my hugely popular article on Innovation Excellence I’ve decided to make it available as a PDF.

Download the Eight I’s of Infinite Innovation PDF now

Some authors talk about successful innovation being the sum of idea plus execution, others talk about the importance of insight and its role in driving the creation of ideas that will be meaningful to customers, and even fewer about the role of inspiration in uncovering potential insight. But innovation is all about value and each of the definitions, frameworks, and models out there only tell part of the story of successful innovation.

To achieve sustainable success at innovation, you must work to embed a repeatable process and way of thinking within your organization, and this is why it is important to have a simple common language and guiding framework of infinite innovation that all employees can easily grasp. If innovation becomes too complex, or seems too difficult then people will stop pursuing it, or supporting it.

Some organizations try to achieve this simplicity, or to make the pursuit of innovation seem more attainable, by viewing innovation as a project-driven activity. But, a project approach to innovation will prevent it from ever becoming a way of life in your organization. Instead you must work to position innovation as something infinite, a pillar of the organization, something with its own quest for excellence – a professional practice to be committed to.

So, if we take a lot of the best practices of innovation excellence and mix them together with a few new ingredients, the result is a simple framework organizations can use to guide their sustainable pursuit of innovation – the Eight I’s of Infinite Innovation. This new framework anchors what is a very collaborative process. Here is the framework and some of the many points organizations must consider during each stage of the continuous process…

To continue reading, download the PDF

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For Sale – Innovative Business Idea

For Sale - Innovative Business IdeaA few years ago I looked around the corporate and consulting landscapes and I noticed that there was a talent gap in both places. There are many occasions when consulting firms look to their bench and don’t have the talent they need there to fulfill a client need right away and so sometimes they lose business to their competition. And on the corporate side, there are many occasions when a manager or director has more work than they can possibly do themselves and what they really need is not a consultant but a smart, flexible resource that can parachute in and get up to speed helping them very fast. Having been called in to fill both of these kinds of gaps from time to time alerted me to the existence of these two market needs, and so I started to create extendedbench.com.

There is definitely a need for an ‘extended bench’ or a ‘talent stable’. Unfortunately I don’t have time to build out this business and in an effort to simplify my life, I thought I would put the web site and the associated domains and collateral, pitch decks, etc. that I’ve started up for sale to someone who has a passion for realizing the idea – probably someone from a staffing or recruiting background.

The following domains are included in the sale:

  • extendedbench.com
  • talentstable.com

Have a look at the web site, decide what these assets are worth to you to accelerate your entrepreneurial pursuit, and make an offer (no offer too low).

And if you think the idea is terrible, sound off in the comments about why.

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Innovation Quotes of the Day – June 7, 2012


“It’s not that it isn’t happening; we see innovation all around us. But it strikes me that actual innovations are not as widely or evenly distributed as innovation initiatives are. It’s not that companies don’t want to innovate. It’s that they don’t have the stomach for it. As with everything in business, execution is everything. And execution is bloody hard.”

– Steve McKee


“Disruptive innovations often require employees do things in a new way, and that can be uncomfortable, even if it is only your employees imagining what you are going to ask them to help your customers imagine.”

– Braden Kelley


“Challenge your team to assess the strength and clarity of ideas in the early stage pipeline and discard projects that don’t resonate with the consumer, rather than carrying them along in the name of “we need to show more ideas in the pipeline”. Advancing projects with weak consumer propositions increases your costs and takes the focus off of the projects that can make a difference to the outcome of the business.”

– Donna Sturgess


What are some of your favorite innovation quotes?

Add one or more to the comments, listing the quote and who said it, and I’ll share the best of the submissions as future innovation quotes of the day!

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Innovation Quotes of the Day – May 31, 2012


“Every bursted bubble has a glory! Each abysmal failure makes a point! Every glowing path that goes astray, shows you how to find a better way. So every time you stumble never grumble. Next time you’ll bumble even less! For up from the ashes, up from the ashes, grow the roses of success!”

– From the movie “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”


“You can’t really innovate for the past (your offering won’t be innovative and will be beaten easily by competitors). If you innovate for the future, then adoption will be slow until customers become ready. The trick is to task your insights team to provide guidance for the future present.”

– Braden Kelley


“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”

– Dr. Linus Pauling
– submitted by Khululeka Khumalo


What are some of your favorite innovation quotes?

Add one or more to the comments, listing the quote and who said it, and I’ll share the best of the submissions as future innovation quotes of the day!

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Innovation Quotes of the Day – May 6, 2012


“If it is a good idea… go ahead and do it. It is much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”

– Admiral Grace Murray Hopper


“If people in your organization don’t talk about innovation in a consistent way and see communications reinforcing the common language, how can you possibly hope to embed innovation in the culture of the organization?”

– Braden Kelley


“I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened of old ones.”

– John Cage


What are some of your favorite innovation quotes?

Add one or more to the comments, listing the quote and who said it, and I’ll share the best of the submissions as future innovation quotes of the day!

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Innovation Quotes of the Day – April 9, 2012


“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

– Will Rogers


“Invention is driven by ideas while innovation is driven by insights.”

– Braden Kelley


What are some of your favorite innovation quotes?

Add one or more to the comments, listing the quote and who said it, and I’ll share the best of the submissions as future innovation quotes of the day!

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