No one has time to think anymore under the daily deluge of information and deadlines. With this relentless focus on getting stuff done, many people have lost the skills of critical and creative thinking. Like a muscle, thinking skills need to be built and maintained. You can help your team members through these strategies:
Expand thinking styles. Thinking is a skill that must be honed. When a team member makes a suggestion, focus as much on how she came up with the idea as on the concept itself. The next time an employee wants to talk to you about a problem, leave your phones behind and go for a walk instead of hashing it out in the office. Changing how—and even where—you think can contribute a wider range of possible issues to consider while pursuing solutions to problems.
Broaden your horizons. If you have been using the same processes for a while, it helps to get some outside perspective. Read books and case studies about cutting-edge companies in industries similar to and dissimilar from yours. Search beyond others’ products and processes to learn how they arrived at the solutions. Pick up the phone and arrange visits to companies renowned for unique approaches, such as Zappos.com. Attend conferences that challenge your usual way of doing business. Deliberately move past the team’s comfort zone on topics and intensity.
Isolate team members. Your employees need to look into the future to innovate. To do that, they can’t be distracted by today’s to-do lists. Immerse them in a major project where the treasure hunt is for problems. It may take a while to get deep enough into the problem to really see and understand the opportunities.
Innovation on a Post-it Note
Getting together as a group can be a great way to spur innovation, but meetings must allow for quiet thinking time and listening in addition to talking and information-sharing. Try the following process to facilitate both objectives:
Calibrate your team. As the manager and facilitator of a meeting where innovation is the goal, briefly review the project or problem for which innovative ideas are needed. Set the rules for open collaboration and positive, respectful feedback.
Generate ideas. Hand each person a Post-it notepad and a felt-tip marker. Ask everyone to write down their ideas. Allow about five minutes of quiet time to do this.
Give everyone a turn. Collect the ideas and randomly post them on a flip chart or the wall. Ask each person one at a time to present one of his ideas and make a case for why the solution addresses the problem. Go through each person’s idea before starting the group discussion.
Generate more ideas. Ask everyone to write down other ideas that came to them as they were listening to their colleagues’ presentations, and put up those Post-it notes as well. Repeat the process until no one has any more Post-it notes to contribute.
Discuss. Stand around at the wall or flip chart of ideas and begin discussing their merits or how to improve on what is there. Because everyone has had a chance to contribute at least one idea, the meeting truly becomes a team effort in innovation.
Why It Works
Post-it notes work well as a visual tool because they are small, forcing participants to think about how to communicate their ideas concisely. Holding off group discussion until the end of the process allows quiet people to be heard and encourages more-outspoken employees to take a minute to think before talking and dominating the conversation.
Remember that robust dialogue usually builds a better understanding of an issue. Except for the quiet, reflective moments, this meeting should be buzzing. If you take the time to train up the skills of your team members, they will be primed and ready for innovative sessions that produce ideas that vault your organization over its competitors.
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