Teaching teams to be creative

You can learn anything, given enough time and dedication. You can learn to be rich. You can learn to be smarter. You can learn to be an expert tennis player. You can learn to be kind, gentle and wise.

The old view of intelligence was that you were born with it, or not. All education and training could do is bring you to your natural limits. Success was a matter of learning your talents and developing them as best you could. The new view, backed by the latest psychology and neuroscience, blows this out of the water. The brain is flexible and plastic. At any age, any part of it can be rewritten and repurposed. If you feel as if you have peaked, it’s only because you’re not pushing yourself smart enough, or hard enough.

Creativity is a skill. It’s one that you can learn. It’s different from learning algebra, but only in the details. It’s about nurturing a particular way of thinking, practicing it and defending it. I spoke about how to do this in the last post. Then I raised the question: how do you do this for teams?

An individual can learn to think in new, exciting ways. Sometimes all it takes is a little motivation. For groups of people, it’s harder. Your own habits can be replaced. For groups of people, it requires rewriting the rules on how that group operates.

Fortunately, I have a lot of experience on that subject. I have been in the business of transforming organisations my entire career. I started as a data analyst, hunting for new connections and opportunities for people. It was satisfying to see colleagues change the way they worked and scoring huge wins.

My first encounter with training was developing a course around revolutionary tradecraft. This tradecraft – at the time, my greatest achievement – has transformed the way organisations around the world think about data. I fell in love with training, this mystical process where you directly altered the behaviours of people. It has been the focus of my career ever since.

The question of how organisations change – and how to control it – has been the common link across my working life. It’s a question I never intent to stray far from. The answers are powerful. Transforming a workplace’s culture can have an impact that’s impossible to foresee.

How does a team learn a new skill or way of thinking? If it’s a technical skill, that’s relatively easy. Good training will transfer knowledge. Applying it in the workplace will develop the skill. If you have the chance to both learn and do, technical skills are easy. This isn’t because they are simple to learn (I’d never say that!). It’s because they are easier to measure and often seen as more important than ‘soft’ skills.

Training isn’t always the best way to develop any skills, especially less technical ones. But it can be. It’s an uphill battle, certainly. People need to be convinced that they need these skills, that the training is the best way, that it’s worth the investment, and about a hundred other points along the way. It’s worth it, though.

If you are in a position of influence, you can apply the advice from my last post. You can nurture creativity by changing the environment and rewarding experimentation. You can practice it by shaping tasks to include space for innovation, reflection and failing. You can build energy by reminding your team of the impact their work has on the organisation, the community, maybe even the world. You can support focus by containing distractions and given them the space to think.

But maybe you can’t do any of that. That would be too easy. How do you encourage a culture change to embrace creative thinking?

Learn the organisation’s expressed values

Most organisations claim to support creativity. Few actually do, but don’t let that stop you from using their slogans against them. When the corporate strategy includes a throwaway line about “harnessing the innovative potential of employees”, leap on that. Reference it in your reports, meetings and emails. No one is going to deny that innovation is important and no one is going to admit the strategy is meaningless. It might not convince everyone, but it will open the door to your message.

Learn the organisation’s actual values

If you want to change the culture, you need to learn what the culture is. For a laugh, read Enron’s code of ethics. Then never again make the mistake that a mission statement has any link to a company’s culture.

Mission statements, strategies and the like are all just words. To understand a culture, you need to see what people do. When does the organisation celebrate and commiserate? Who do they hire, fire and promote? What gets the most attention? Which valuable projects wither and die?

That is the culture. Anything else is a paintjob.

Tap into these. If the mission statement goes on and on about providing quality products, make a note of that. If the sales team is rewarded for pushing known lemons, act on that. Link your training to boosting sales while paying lip service to improving quality. It allows people to buy into the lie to save face while giving them what they really want.

Produce value

And prove it. Measure everything before and after the training. Find a metric that improves and build a story around it. Your training genuinely added value, but softer skills are harder to measure. Find what data you can and make it work for you.

The best thing is to link your training to some major, visible project. Don’t take credit where none is due – people can smell the crap a mile away. Genuinely help a major project, then milk your contributions as much as you (honestly) can. If you can’t feed into a high-visibility project, create one.

Never stop pushing

One iteration of the training won’t change anything. Chances are, you’ll be lucky to get even that. Don’t let that stop you. Never stop striving for organisational change. Take feedback and act on it. If people say they’ll pick up the course when things are “less hectic” (ie, never), streamline it. Make it more accessible. When events shake things up, point out that your training is well-suited to take advantage of/deal with the opportunities/threats. Don’t allow people the luxury of pushing your training from their minds.

I like to attach an unusual word or phrase to my initiatives. When people repeat them back to you in other contexts, that’s how you know you’re in their head. While you’re there, take advantage of it. Keep the training alive. Only when creative thinking is a habit can you let your guard down.

Organisations rarely change willingly. Encouraging change is an enormous task. But by understanding how culture shapes thinking, you can bypass their objections and encourage a gentle transformation. It’s not easy. Culture has a way of resisting change. It’s worth it, though. Affecting change is proof that you are alive.

What does creativity training look like, though? And how do you convince people to embrace it? Stay tuned for my next blog post answering these questions and more.

This post is part of Creativity Month over at Mindwalker Training.


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