Bold ideas are the lifeblood of great work. But when information keeps coming from the same place, your team may find itself in a creativity echo chamber. Instead of generating fresh lines of thinking, people keep bouncing back familiar signals that often get in the way of creativity and progress.
A recent survey by global communications firm Ketchum showed that creativity may be more stifled than ever. Close to 60 percent of respondents felt insulated from other teams inside their own companies. Nearly three-quarters felt that company leadership contributed to the idea bubble by shutting out junior professionals from creative decision-making, even though they were seen as most likely to propose the boldest ideas.
And in a telling disconnect, 72 percent said their employers valued diversity of thought -- yet 85 percent believed that their organizations were not doing enough to encourage a broader range of views.
Echo chambers pop up across industries. A study by life science conglomerate Merck KGaA found that 65 percent of respondents thought curiosity was essential in discovering new ideas, but virtually the same percentage of workers felt unable to ask questions or challenge assumptions on the job. To that point, 84 percent reported that their employers encouraged curiosity, but nearly 60 percent said they faced barriers to it at work.
The apparent contradictions reveal a double standard among management: Leaders like the concept of curiosity a lot more than the practice of it.
As I describe in The Feedback Fix, here are a few deliberate steps you can take to burst those creativity bubbles so that great ideas can spread throughout your organization:
1. Push the boundaries of debate.
Constructive conflict can produce creative solutions. When teams engage in rigorous debate, they are often forced to examine underlying assumptions, challenge the status quo and evaluate competing views. The process of perspective-taking can yield new insights that jumpstart creativity and workflow.
A digital marketing client of mine discovered the power of productive conflict with something called "Crash Test Tuesdays." Different design teams met over lunch to pitch high-level concepts and campaigns to one another and receive feedback. Some flamed out, but others flared to life. Hearing different voices helped ignite new ideas and put teams on a fresh path to success.
2. Make it safe to disagree.
Creativity can't thrive unless people experience "psychological safety," a sense of confidence that their team will not embarrass, reject or punish them for speaking up. Research from Harvard psyschologists show that teams who operate with psychological safety consistently deliver creative breakthroughs and report high levels of interpersonal trust. This freedom to "be yourself" around others can become a crucial differentiator in how teams perform.
That's what Google learned in 2012 with Project Aristotle, an internal performance audit of 180 functional teams. After a series of trials, the most consistent predictor of high performing teams turned out to be psychological safety.
There are lessons here for everyone else: To break a creativity echo chamber, people need to be able to think and act without worrying about social repercussions.
Create ground rules for giving feedback, akin to the "plussing" approach used by Pixar's animation team to build off existing ideas. Or try "brainwriting" as an alternative to group discussion. Either way, you'll give permission for people to freely share their best work.
3. Build teams with rival talent.
Understandably, some managers try to steer clear of conflict by forming "safe" teams made up of people who share similar backgrounds and experiences. Their sameness may hold them together, but when it comes to creating new ideas, challenging old assumptions, or testing different possibilities, it may very well keep them apart.
When Nest began production on its signature thermostat in 2011, it handed the reigns to a highly versatile group of user-experience experts, product managers, software developers, algorithm analysts, and marketing executives -- each of whom brought unique knowledge to the design process.
The group's highly specialized backgrounds and expertise turned out to be hidden advantage: Not only did the final product utilize machine learning to save energy and money, but it delighted customers with clever features like the coveted green leaf that appeared after consumers achieved energy-saving goals -- an idea that came from the marketing team, not the engineers.
To be sure, leaders need to set the right conditions for creativity to flourish -- first, by understanding the strengths of their employees, then by designing work environments to leverage those strengths. But if you want your team to find its next big idea, make sure people are listening to voices that sound different than their own.