Teams are only as creative as the work they produce. When that work fails to meet expectations, leaders struggle to help their teams recapture the magic.
Fortunately, creativity isn’t a secret magical formula that comes and goes with the wind. Creativity is a skill — one of the most important skills for modern teams to hone. In fact, teams can “rehearse creativity” the same way they might practice sales tactics or software proficiency.
Leaders of creative teams are responsible for more than just projects and deadlines. They must also help maintain their workers’ ability to respond to challenges, come up with innovative solutions, and outthink the competition. Before the energy of your creative team starts to run low, use these best practices to help your employees shine:
1. Create positive conflict.
When you hear the term “team,” you probably think of a group of people who get along all the time. In truth, creative teams should clash. The reason isn’t that creatives are uncooperative “geniuses”; it’s that creativity, as entrepreneur and author Allen Gannett makes clear in one of the season’s best books on creativity, that requires community engagement and iteration.
What does constructive conflict look like? Gannett points to Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the duo who wrote the lyrics for the 2017 hit film “La La Land.” “Ideal collaborators balance out each other’s weaknesses and provide different perspectives,” he writes in “The Creative Curve.” “Creativity, after all, is a team sport, and even if you lack a close working partner like Benj Pasek or Justin Paul, other collaborators are out there.”
2. Set firm limitations.
Creativity, especially in a professional setting, works better within context. A person given total creative freedom with no boundaries might struggle to come up with anything at all, while a person with a specific objective and parameters can work quickly toward a set goal.
Before beginning any new project, ensure the team understands the practical applications of the work. Give teams goals and boundaries, then let them figure out how to bridge the gap on their own.
3. Keep up a stream of feedback.
The best creative processes include a constantly evolving conversation between boss and team. Don’t give your employees a goal and then wait three weeks to evaluate their progress. Instead, encourage team members to come to you with iterations of their ideas and provide regular feedback on whether those ideas will work in the context of the project.
Keep feedback as positive as possible. No one benefits from a boss who shoots down ideas. Research from Columbia Business School found that employees who receive performance ratings are less likely to respond to managerial feedback. When an employee comes to you with an idea that won’t work, search out the good parts of the proposal, and encourage the employee to incorporate those parts into the project. Your own critical thinking results in stronger feedback that can be applied by your team.
When you must reject an idea, don’t criticize it in front of others. Have a one-on-one talk with the employee about why the idea won’t work. Express your gratitude for the suggestion, and encourage the employee to keep it the strongest elements in mind for future projects.
4. Change the environment.
No matter how creatively designed, offices become routine and constraining after a while. Help your team keep its creative spark by getting out of the building and into the world.
More time in nature leads to improved mental functioning. If knocking down walls isn’t feasible for your company, make regular trips with your team to places outside the office. Go to museums, parks, and other areas of inspiration, then sit down over lunch to talk about what you experienced. Excursions like these provide excellent creative fuel.
As fun as employee adventures can be, keep them constrained to work hours. No employee wants to feel pressured to spend a Saturday hanging out with co-workers. Besides, employees need time off to refuel their creative tanks.
5. Provide time for independent exploration.
Teams who spend all their time working and little time learning tend to stagnate. Avoid that fate by providing the schedule and resources your team members need to pursue their own development.
Teams must be able to adapt quickly to changes and new demands. Provide employees with access to educational resources, as well as time to explore those resources. Make it clear that you prioritize the continued development of your team. Set monthly meetings for employees to talk about what they’ve learned on their own and how those lessons could help the team grow.
Your team needs you for more than vacation sign-offs and deadline management. Leaders who leave the creativity of their teams to chance inevitably see that creativity wane. Pressures to innovate will continue to grow stronger, and in the face of that pressure, leaders of creative teams must rise to the challenge to keep their workers ready for the challenges to come.