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If there is one thing every entrepreneur or manager can depend on, it's that there is no shortage of change in the marketplace. Every business has to contend with aggressive competitors looking to improve or disrupt the market. Many are successful. Others simply create complication that must be addressed.
Whether you lead a company or a team, sooner or later you will be faced with the need to change things up. You could just tell your team to get creative, but that may result in useless ideas and frustrated teammates. That's when innovation starts becoming a bad word. What you need is a process to get your people thinking creatively in a practically applicable way.
For a more realistic and useful approach, I tapped five-time entrepreneur and venture capitalist Mike Maddock. He is the best-selling author of three books on innovation and is the CEO of Maddock Douglas, a consulting firm that helps leaders cultivate cultures of innovation and sustainable growth. His firm has helped more than 25 percent of the Fortune 100 companies create new products, services, and business models. YPO member Maddock has a quick wit and a charming way of making all people feel they can be effectively creative, even when he is speaking to hundreds. He shared with me these tips for swiftly taking any team on a path toward practical creativity.
1. Start with a wish.
For many teams, creativity never gets out of the gate, because fear and negativity stop the free flow of ideas. As a leader, when you frame a problem to your team as a negative, the door closes for solutions. Maddock explains a more effective approach. "The best leaders are masters at reframing difficult issues as wishes. They take these wishes to their brightest people to tackle together. For example, rather than saying, 'We can't get that through legal,' a masterful leader might say, 'I wish we could find a way to get that through legal.' Then sit back and watch the wish come true."
2. Kickstart innovation with insight.
Most teams have the ability to be wildly creative, but purposeless ideas have little value. Maddock is a firm believer that structure breeds creativity. "Inventors start with an idea and then look for someone who needs it," he says. "Innovators start with a significant market need and then, and only then, come up with a unique product, service, or business model to solve it." Once your team is clear on the market and the need, their ideas will more likely make a true impact on the market and your bottom line.
3. Put the team in a creative space.
Creativity is a result of concentrated thought and collaborative energy. A stifling office environment that insulates people from each other will rarely surface innovation, yet people also need their own space to think and ponder. Maddock prescribes a dual approach for best results. "Start by giving your folks an individual primary space that is private and allows them to focus," he says. "Then, and only then, create lots of cool open areas where the team can easily gather and collaborate."
4. Eliminate "I know."
Maddock sees in his practice how ego and knowledge can get in the way of innovation. Many people need to make assumptions about the unknown to feel comfortable day to day. As a leader, you have to get the team comfortable in the unknown if they are going to unleash their creativity. Maddock explains: "If you've been working in an industry for more than six months, you are becoming an expert. This means you know what works, what doesn't, what you can afford, what the boss wants ... and the more you know, the less likely it is you will recognize a game-changing opportunity." The most important thing for your team to know is that you believe it's OK not to know.
5. Foster a sense of play.
Maddock sees immediate innovation value in breaking out of the stuffy corporate office norms prevalent in companies. You may think the foosball tables and Twister boards that are increasingly common in Silicon Valley are childish, but Maddock explains their value. "The reason why you see toys, games, and silly hats in brainstorms is because people are more creative when they play and are relaxed. If you have an uptight team, you will get safe (read: nondisruptive and low margin) ideas. Data supports that playful teams create way more and way better ideas."
6. Break the rules.
Disruption and creativity are synergistic. Maddock puts it best: "Whether you know it or not, the very rules that your team uses to keep your company out of trouble are the ones holding you back from having breakthrough ideas." He uses status-quo-breaking questions to get executives to move away from conventional norms. Here are some useful examples:
- What would you do if you could remake your company or industry from scratch today?
- What would you do if you had $10 million to solve this problem?
- What's an idea that would get you fired?
7. Filter with purpose.
There may be no bad ideas, but not all of them are useful. Maddock believes in letting things go wild early, but at some point, you have to remember why you started ideating in the first place. He advises that leadership create clear criteria about what great ideas look like. Use statements like: "We can implement them in six months. We can implement without acquisition. They must be brand appropriate." Maddock says, "The more criteria you have, the better the results. When you are finished brainstorming, you can then rate and extract the best ideas and start taking action with the resources available. It's better to focus your team's attention on one or two really big ideas than dozens with low potential."
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