Few business leaders view IT as an inherently creative organization. That's an attitude IT leaders must work to change.
Creativity lies at the heart of every successful IT technology. It took imagination to build a business world powered by concepts such as cloud services, big data, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Such ideas don't come out of thin air; they're developed, refined and applied by creative minds.
Building an IT team that isn't afraid to think creatively and is eager to push business operations into promising new areas is an objective that should top every IT leader's agenda. Fortunately, getting a competent yet currently unimaginative IT staff to think in fresh ways isn't particularly difficult. That's because creativity isn't a unique skill bestowed on a select few; it's the skilled application of knowledge in fresh, interesting and productive ways.
Here are 7 tips to get you started on your quest toward developing a staff that addresses challenging issues imaginatively, unconventionally and constructively.
1. Tap into your IT team's hidden creative talent
IT holds a unique enterprise position, spanning virtually all end-to-end business processes across multiple departments. "With some creativity, that unique vantage point can be utilized to find projects that can be game-changing for the company," observes Michael Cantor, CIO of Park Place Technologies, a data center maintenance service provider. Cantor believes that IT staff members have just as much ability to define projects and business cases as teams in any other business unit. "Fostering the creativity to uncover and define technology opportunities can drive tremendous business value," he notes.
Cantor feels that basic process analysis offers a logical and fertile starting point for sparking creativity. "Pick any process, even one that seems well-optimized, and step out of the way to let a workgroup dive into the process using modern agile techniques, such as a Gemba walk or ... a Kaizen event," he suggests. "Letting an autonomous group work through the process without a lot of senior leadership micromanagement can produce some very creative results."
2. Dedicate an occasional day to creative thinking
Creativity flourishes in settings where a variety of ideas can be brought forward, discussed with passion and allowed to combine and evolve dynamically. "This type of activity doesn't naturally occur over e-mail, and a typical one-hour meeting is too constrained to allow for the natural evolution of ideas," explains Ryan Frazier, managing director of technology for the Harvard Business School Online.
While it may feel unnerving to bring together an entire IT team for an extended and semi-unstructured discussion, a creative unfolding of new perspectives not only leads to better concepts but helps build team cohesion and alignment around potentially useful ideas.
"We took this approach recently when looking at redesigning our data management environment to support advanced analytics," Frazier recalls. "By setting aside an extended period to work with our teams and an external consulting group, we were able to refine our ideas and develop a more promising approach to achieving our technical and business objectives."
3. Don't expect instant results
Creativity doesn't run in sync with timelines and deadlines the way successful businesses projects do. "It's important to give your creative team ample time and space to come up with something innovative, but it's also important for you to help get those juices flowing," says Soo-Jin Behrstock, CIO of denim and apparel maker AG Jeans and Koos Manufacturing.
A creative team is often more productive when it's given ample time to assess a challenge than it is for them to continually focus on a particularly daunting task. "Pay attention to what you're asking from your team and determine whether it's reasonable for them to deliver it without experiencing burnout," she advises.
Encouraging creativity also opens the door to a wider range of thinking, Behrstock says. "Your staff members are likely to have come from a variety of backgrounds and may be able to provide perspectives that you would never have considered otherwise," she notes. "You can't do things differently if everyone thinks the same way."
4. Embrace automation to release creativity
By handling many of the repetitive, mundane tasks that bog down IT teams, automation can free up time for team creativity. "It allows more opportunities for creativity, critical thinking and face-to-face interactions across an organization," explains Chris Bedi, CIO of ServiceNow, a digital workflow service provider. "According to a recent survey, 85 percent of IT managers say process automation improves job satisfaction and 87 percent say it increases time available for creativity," he observes.
5. Encourage (friendly) dissention
Providing room in creative discussions for team members to constructively disagree with colleagues and superiors, regardless of enterprise hierarchies, can help foster an environment in which employees feel confident that their opinions can be heard without retribution.
"Some of the most creative solutions will come from those [staffers] that are closest to the problems and, in many cases, that will tend to be front-line staff that deal with issues on a day-to-day basis," says Christopher Goranson, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy. "Providing opportunities for employees to form bonds over the ownership of problems by granting room to experiment in deploying fixes can result in solutions no one else would have thought of."
Most importantly, nurturing staff creativity requires a long-term commitment. "While it's great to start small, you'll want to build on the goodwill of the participants and ensure that ideas are followed up," Goranson advises.
6. Host a hackathon
A hackathon is a sprint-like event that gives developers, designers, engineers, project managers and other idea generators the opportunity to showcase their creativity.
"Hackathons have grown in popularity, and their structure — constrained time and focused problem areas — create ideal conditions for the creative process," Frazier explains. "We recently used this technique to help build connections on a team visit with our offshore development group, and the ideas that surfaced generated visible excitement in our business partners and [provided] some interesting additions to our roadmap."
Another hackathon fan is Pam Nigro, senior director of information security at Heath Care Service Corp., the U.S.'s fourth largest health insurer, where she is responsible for information technology/information security risk and compliance testing.
"We have enabled competitive hackathons during which we give teams organized unstructured time, support, lots of food, a little friendly competition and a problem to solve," says Nigro, who's also a board director of ISACA, an international professional association focused on IT governance. "During these hackathons it's important not to use titles, as well as to allow for self-direction, so that everyone can come together as a team with a focus and purpose." Nigro also advises seeking top leadership support and engaging enterprise executives in employee competitions as judges or, at a minimum, in celebrating the participants and winners.
7. Consider offering formal creativity training
IT employees can sometimes be victims of their own technical expertise. "Creativity training can help them look at challenges in entirely different ways, enabling them to invent and discover solutions that are quicker, cheaper, more effective and often, in retrospect, simple and obvious," explains Bryan Mattimore, co-founder and "chief idea guy" at The Growth Engine, a product development and brand positioning consulting firm.
Formal training allows creativity skills to be taught in a scientific, logical manner, a concept that should appeal to any IT leader. "When we do creativity training with IT managers and engineers, we use an action-learning approach," Mattimore says. "We require all session participants to submit real-world IT challenges that we then match to the creative techniques we want to teach." He adds that it's important to use teaching approaches that force IT leaders and their staffs to search for solutions beyond their normal analytical thinking techniques.
Developing a creative culture takes time and begins with enlightened management. "The first step to fostering creativity in the workplace is having an open-minded leader to set an example and steer the team in the right direction," Behrstock says. "While traditionally leaders are used to coming up with answers and presenting them to their team, it's now more about asking questions than giving answers."