Employees who find inspiration in their workplace are generally happier, more engaged and more productive—all of which translate to tangible value for brands. And although some people tend to be more creative than others, it’s not a trait reserved for the select few—any employee can become more creative. Clever solutions to problems, innovative ways to streamline processes, and fresh approaches to product or service differentiation are all the result of creative thinking.
But how can marketing leaders foster such resourcefulness within their own teams? Academic research suggests that the key is to provide our brains with new stimuli that forces us to recategorize information and break habitual thinking patterns.
Provide the freedom to be creative…
Although not every outside-the-box idea is going to be a practical one, they’re all still valuable. This is because an outside-the-box idea—even if it is impractical in its unrefined form—shared by one employee could serve as the fresh stimulus that helps to spark additional ideas in others.
It’s, therefore, crucial you encourage employees to share their visions in a setting where others can engage with them—be that in a dedicated brainstorming session or a simple email in which they ask others for feedback. No idea should be shamed—rather, ideas should be consumed, grappled with, and expanded upon by others.
Recognizing creative risk takers and encouraging immersion in stimuli outside of the work environment (trips to museums, unique retail spaces outside of your category, etc.) will underscore to employees how much you and your organization value innovation (and support their efforts to embrace it).
…but “rein” it in for maximum results.
The concept of constraining employees when you want them to be creative may seem counterintuitive, but it’s often needed to ground employees. Without such parameters, employees might find themselves daunted by the prompt to “simply be creative” and spin their wheels futilely as they try to reinvent the wheel.
Research from Harvard Business Review supports this notion, and notes that constraints that spark innovation generally take three main forms:
- Limiting inputs: For example, a relatively tight deadline or budget for the task at hand—the input that is limited in this case is time or money.
- Enforcing specific processes: Such as setting guidelines for brainstorming sessions (e.g., a maximum of one hour of meeting time) or assigning team members to specialized tasks that fit within a larger creative process.
- Setting specific outcome requirements: Examples include a product brief that is under one page in length or a wireframe that clearly illustrates the user experience of a new digital campaign landing page.
The study indicates that when dealing with the above “hindrances,” employees are more likely to come up with more varied solutions.
Actively challenge conventions.
Exposing and confronting the organization and/or industry status quo is an excellent exercise for spurring creativity. Consider the following examples:
- At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the marketing team at a four-year college reviewed their undergraduate recruitment efforts for the last several years. They note that their efforts almost entirely targeted high school students, and, as such, a missed opportunity: The chance to tap into local two-year community colleges—which saw a spike in enrollment during COVID-driven uncertainty—and ideate an advertising campaign tailored to community college students.
- Executives at a hospital wanted to expand their patient pool. Upon closer inspection of their marketing, it became clear that they had traditionally targeted virtually any potential patient in the surrounding geographies, promoting a wide variety of specialty care. Missing from the picture are businesses—and their employees—and resulting in the opportunity to develop a direct-to-provider contracting plan.
- The member experience director of a local credit union identified the need to provide some level of after-hours support to its members. They knew keeping branches open 24 hours a day was not financially possible (that’s a creative restraint!) and that the credit union had historically been a bit behind the curve technologically. The solution? Interactive teller machines—a technologically sound way to provide around-the-clock support for members.
The bottom line: The best way to escape the status quo is to deliberately poke holes in it until innovative solutions inevitably arise.
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