Industryweek 2993 Creativity

How Manufacturing Managers Can Tap into the Unlimited Creative Potential of Their Employees

Oct. 4, 2012
When companies realize that all employees are creative -- and all they have to do is understand and appreciate the diversity of their different styles -- they open the door to a world of innovative solutions, right within their walls.  

Editor's note: Learn strategies to unleash the creative potential of your whole company by attending Part 2 in the online training series "Everyday Innovation" on Nov. 1. 

Are some people born more creative than others? Can creativity be learned or taught? Is it limited to a gifted few? How can you find people with that special talent for innovation?

These are some of the vexing questions that come up when we try to find out: Who is creative and who isn't?

It turns out the answer is everyone.

Creativity is not a special gift endowed only upon a lucky few. It is for everyone and it is everywhere.

Dr. Michael Kirton, a renowned British psychologist, demonstrated through his research that all of us are born creative in our own ways. But the key to tapping into this creativity is understanding that our approaches to creativity differ in terms of level and style.

With this knowledge in hand, you only need to apply some key how-to aspects in order to unleash the creative potential of all your employees.

Creative Styles: Adaptors vs. Innovators

Researchers have noted that our brain uses an innate strategy to solve problems and be creative on a continuum of styles ranging from very adaptive to very innovative -- and there are distinctive differences in the approaches of each type.

For example, adaptors prefer more structured problem-solving methods, and are most comfortable when everyone is in agreement about the process and the solution. They are also more likely to try to solve a problem and be creative by working within the current system as opposed to developing a completely new one.

In contrast, innovators are at ease with a less structured problem-solving approach and don't view a lack of consensus as an obstacle to finding a new solution. Additionally, they tend to look beyond the status quo for solutions, even to the point of overlooking positive aspects of the current system.

So does this make innovators more likely to produce successful novelty?

Not necessarily. Neither style is more creative, or better at problem solving or decision making. Depending on the situation, one style may be more adept at solving the problem at hand.

In many cases, however, a team composed of both adaptors and innovators is the most effective -- as long as they understand how to work together and respect each other's styles.

It's not uncommon for team members to mistake differences in creativity style for differences in capacity or ability. This can lead to generalizations ("she's a typical accountant and doesn't care about the big picture") and misperceptions ("this idea is just the boss' latest pet project").

Especially without understanding the underlying mechanisms, a fairly large difference in style can lead to challenges in communication, trust and the very ability to work together.

For example, more adaptive people prefer to solve the problem in a structured approach, relying on details.

At the same time, more innovative people prefer to stay at a higher level and create breakthroughs starting from the big picture. They are also eager to resolve the problem at hand by looking at it from unsuspected angles versus more adaptive people who want to resolve the problem in tried and tested ways.

Such differences in approach can lead to misunderstandings and in turn to interpersonal conflict that can seriously damage a team's collaborative ability. As we all know, a team's ability to work together effectively is the single most important driver for its ability to develop effective solutions.

Looking Within for Solutions

With the world coming closer together, there appears to be a trend of sourcing globally for solutions to local problems. Amazon's Mechanical Turk or trends such as Open Innovation are examples.

But there's another important source for problem solving that's much closer and easily overlooked: a company's employees.

Since all employees are creative, companies are missing out on a significant opportunity for innovative solutions if they don't also look within their own walls.

In order to unleash a company's true potential and create value for its customers, it must tap into those employees' creativity. After all, employees are the ones who are most in touch with customers, suppliers, the related community and the environment.

However, every now and then their creativity may get blocked and companies can lose confidence in their own people's virtually unlimited abilities. As a result, we often hear employees making a statement such as, "I'm afraid I'm not the creative type."

But this simply isn't true; as we've learned, people are just creative in different ways.

Therefore companies need to understand people's creativity from a scientific point of view, considering their different styles and levels. Then, they can create the right environment for their employees' creativity to unfold and manage their employees' creative diversity to create superior value for their customer.

Three Key Aspects to Unleashing Creative Potential

Let us look into some key how-to aspects that are necessary for you to unleash the creative potential of your employees.

1. Provide access to the right tools, techniques and processes. We can't expect a carpenter to be proficient if he or she is only trained in using a set of nails and hammers. To truly be a carpenter, he or she must be trained in the necessary tools, techniques and methods associated with the craft.

Similarly, if we want employees to create better or new solutions for their customers, it is important that they get access to the right tools, techniques and processes to understand the jobs their customers are trying to get done. Only then can they generate new ideas, create better solutions and implement them.

2. Adopt a repeatable framework. Beyond availability and mastery of the right tools, the framework for creative problem solving matters. Given the right framework, every employee can participate and be productive in the creation of novel and superior solutions.

The process shown in Figure 1 consists of four phases: Define the innovation opportunity; discover ideas and alternatives; develop the detailed solutions using the selected ideas; and demonstrate success with prototyping and piloting.

With its phases of divergent and then convergent thinking, this holistic process has proven effective in integrating virtually all tools and approaches for the creation of novelty.

Teams can effectively choose from a large range of those tools and approaches inside a consistent, repeatable framework that can be deployed to an entire company. This framework also allows companies to bring together and capitalize on a diverse range of problem solving styles.

Figure 1. A Simple Framework for the Front End of Innovation Process

3. Appreciate diversity. The third crucial element is the true appreciation of diversity. This starts with the wisdom of Delphi's Oracle: "Know thyself." People need to understand and appreciate their own preferred creativity style, learning how they can put it to the best use.

They also should acquire the ability to emulate other styles, so they can understand and appreciate the approaches of their colleagues. True appreciation of different styles will allow a group of people's natural range of creativity to elucidate a challenge from all angles in order to reliably come up with superior solutions.

When companies realize that all employees are creative -- and all they have to do is understand and appreciate the diversity of their different styles -- they open the door to a world of innovative solutions, right within their walls.

All you need are the right tools, a repeatable framework and a true appreciation of that creative diversity in order to unleash your employees' creative potential.

Dr. Phil Samuel is chief innovation officer for BMGI, a management-consulting firm specializing in performance excellence and innovation. With more than a decade of experience, Samuel also is the co-author of "Design for Lean Six Sigma: A Holistic Approach to Design and Innovation" and "The Innovator's Toolkit: 50+ Techniques for Predictable and Sustainable Organic Growth."

Dr. Michael Ohler is a principal with BMGI and a certified Lean Six Sigma black belt and innovation expert. He has more than 10 years of experience in project management, quality, financial controlling and continuous improvement.

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