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Tuning into Your Team’s Creativity

Springtime, with its budding leaves, colorful blooms, and greening grass—as well as its association with spring cleaning and home improvement—also seems an ideal time to focus on creativity; specifically, on inspiring creativity to blossom in your company’s employees. Whether you’re planning a departmental retreat, a team building offsite, or just an hour-long brainstorming session, there’s much you can do to help your group come up with new ideas.

One of the first and most important things, says Dr. Roberta Ness, author of Innovation Generation: How to Produce Creative and Useful Scientific Ideas (Oxford University Press, 2012), is to get a handle on your old ideas. The way we think about challenges and projects is driven by cognitive frames, says Ness—the expectations and assumptions that guide how we process information and draw inferences.

“The first step to innovating is just to identify your frames,” she says. “Frames aren’t bad; they’re good—they allow us to live seamlessly in a complex society. But in order to innovate, you must learn to reframe your question or challenge in a new way.”

Ness began her investigation into innovation after wondering, “Why aren’t we solving the greatest scientific problems of the world today?” For the past three years, she has been teaching a course on innovative thinking at the University of Texas School of Public Health.

Fortunately, says Ness, there are many tools available that can help us reframe our challenges. She features practice exercises at the end of every chapter in her book. And the first tool in her toolbox for nonlinear thinking is, “Change your point of view.”

Doing this literally, as well as figuratively, by getting out of the office can help your employees and co-workers tap new creativity. A trend in corporate America since the economic downturn began in 2008 has been to seek offsite spaces that are affordable, yet still help to inspire. Many companies have turned to museums—science, art, and otherwise—for cost-effective meetings that surround attendees with evidence of others’ creativity and innovation.

“There’s an energy in museums that is inescapable,” says Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. “They create an environment for creativity and can change your whole mindset.”

For example, the Milwaukee Art Museum offers three corporate programs; from a short Art Break as a breather from a long business meeting, to a team creation project that lasts an hour or two, the programs use the museum’s exhibits and educators to provide fresh inspiration.

“The museum provides an open environment to explore the unfamiliar, and to expand the dynamics of a group,” says Alicia Pollnow, corporate sales manager.

In one exercise, team members work collaboratively to copy a work of art from the collection. The end result, says Pollnow, makes it difficult to identify individual contributions. “At its conclusion, our educator facilitates a dialogue about the experience and how participants can translate the learnings to their work lives.”

Kathryn Bartol, Robert H. Smith Professor of Management and Organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, says that offsite team building programs can be great for teams whose work is interdependent and can encourage risk-taking. “Interpersonal relationships are strengthened in an environment where mistakes don’t count, and divergent thinking is good for creativity,” she says.

Attendees at January’s Learning Technologies conference in England had the opportunity tap their creativity in yet another way: through the power of music. Ben Hines, of London-based Moving Performance Ltd., says that using metaphor in learning can increase transfer; one of his favorite metaphors is that of musicians, who must work closely and be in tune with one another. He illustrated the concepts during his session with a professional wind quintet.

Hines is a professional French horn player who began his career in product development at Barclays Bank, then at a law firm. He never gave up his music, though, and eventually realized that he could use it to speak to the commercial world about teamwork and collaboration. He founded Moving Performance in 2009. The firm’s hallmark program is “Know the Score,” a world-class leadership program in which participants share the stage with the members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; no musical experience or knowledge is necessary.

But creativity doesn’t require grand settings, Hines acknowledges. Just writing new words to a familiar tune can help bring your group together in a new kind of collaboration.

“The key is having the courage to try for new things in the first place,” says Hines, who puts participants at ease by “making a fool of myself,” playing a garden-hose-and-funnel contraption that simulates the sound of his French horn.

Why music? “It is the most emotive art form; people really connect to music, and it’s a universal language,” says Hines. “Rational responses to emotional challenges, such as change, will not work.”

A final key, says Ness, is to avoid censorship when you’re asking people to contribute ideas. Openness leads to greater productivity: “A good brainstorm can generate 100 ideas an hour,” she says.

Leonard Bernstein said, “The best way to know a thing is to understand it in a different discipline.” So whether you choose science, art, or music, take time this spring to open up yourself and your team to a new form of creativity.