If you'd like to see more creativity in your workplace, who better to ask for advice than someone running a toy company? Take some tips from Jeff Freeland Nelson, CEO of St. Paul-based YOXO, which sells creative construction kits for children at 1,600 stores, including select Targets and Barnes & Nobles. Here's what he says you need to do to pull the best ideas from your team.
1. Engage your entire company in creativity.
The artists, wordsmiths, and leaders within your company shouldn't be the only people generating good ideas. Don't you want everyone doing it? In fact, the people interacting most with your customers or involved in making your product are probably the most insightful. "They know in many ways more about our product than those of us who are worried about finance and keeping the company afloat," Nelson says.
2. Create scarcity.
Presenting your team with a challenge that's too broad--such as, "How can we make a better product?"--can hamper creativity. Instead, ask narrower questions, such as, "How can we make a more eco-friendly product?" or "How can we engage younger customers?" These kinds of parameters nudge people to start thinking in a certain direction. "Kids are a great example of this," Nelson says. "If you give kids unlimited resources, they get overwhelmed and are like, 'Well, I don't know what to do with this.' You give them a pile of mud and 12 sticks, and they're going to create all day."
3. Get organized.
Have a routing process in place so good ideas see the light of day and don't get lost. You want team members to know what to do with a flash of inspiration when it hits them. At YOXO, employees write creative briefs that land on Nelson's desk.
4. Tear down your shrines.
These barriers emerge when anyone working for your company has been around long enough to know the way things have always been done, or the original ideas the business was founded on. "If I get those shrines out of the way, suddenly these ideas come up and I realize, actually, that's exactly where we should go," says Nelson.
5. Remove idea killers.
It might be a committee or a person in a leadership role, but when an idea reaches these people, it dies. Identify the brick walls in your organization and get rid of them.
6. Bring in your customer when you hit a roadblock.
At YOXO, this means getting prototypes in the hands of kids visiting a local science museum, or parents handling products in stores. These people are the best suited to help with product development and give the company feedback.
7. Start with data.
Get visual information about your products up and in front of employees' eyeballs. "It can be visual, it can be numbers, it can be charts--just get all the data out there," says Nelson. "And then start to draw those unlikely connections."
8. Screw up publicly.
You want a culture in which people feel comfortable taking risks. "Creativity is about putting it out there and having ideas that might fly and ideas that might not," he says. "So it's very important for everyone, all the way up to the CEO, to be willing to try something and to fail and to do that in a very public way. It sends a message to the rest of the company that we tolerate failure, because we're on our way toward huge success."
9. Ask, listen, and act.
Ask employees for three things they would do if they were CEO to course-correct or improve the company. This is a fast way to generate a lot of ideas that won't take years to get through a committee.
10. Give it time.
Ideas often begin as nuggets that morph and grow, or die, if necessary. "Creativity is almost like going on a diet or getting more exercise. It's something that you practice every day," Nelson says. "And if you practice it long enough, you start to see the results as opposed to trying to change things overnight."