Creative Thinking Skills: How to Teach Your Team to Think Like Originals

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Creative thinking skills drive next-level innovation. In our series on must-read books for HR leaders, we're exploring key takeaways from "How Non-Conformists Move the World" by Wharton Business School professor, Adam Grant. Grant suggests that being an original and developing creative thinking skills can be taught and cultivated, which ultimately can help businesses maximize the contributions of their teams. How should HR leaders encourage employees to be original, think outside the box and voice their ideas without fear of rejection? Can employees be trained on how to be original, or does the culture of the office matter most? Here are four core takeaways for every HR leader to consider.

1. Teach Employees the Skills of Original Thinkers

Some employees may inherently be out-of-the-box thinkers, while others need coaching and encouragement. Often, workers come from environments where original thinking wasn't valued; it may have even been discouraged. Teach your team how to think originally. According to Grant, there are several ways to do this:

  • Invite them to ask questions and to question the status quo. Assume that any system, rule or way of doing things is open to further consideration.
  • Encourage them to generate multiple ideas. The world's biggest successes were often prolific, yet their most important and revered works were developments of only a few of their concepts. The more ideas you come up with, the more likely you are to strike gold.
  • Teach employees to test radical ideas with their peers. Grant notes you're most likely to get good, balanced feedback from peers. Risk-averse managers may be overly critical, while junior staff may be too afraid to speak up and honestly critique an idea.

2. Build a Culture That Supports Originality

Grant notes throughout the book that leaders play a vital role in creating a culture that supports originality. For example, he highlights the importance of creating a culture where executives are willing to accept feedback, answer questions and consider out-of-the-box ideas. He recommends asking for contributions from individuals at all levels and in all functions of the organization. Not only will you garner a more diverse perspective and more creative suggestions, but you will establish a broader culture where everyone trusts that their opinions and contributions are valued.

Building a culture that supports originality also starts with the hiring process. When businesses hire for cultural fit, they tend to perpetuate the existing culture and hire individuals who think in similar ways to existing staff. By creating a more diverse sourcing and hiring strategy, candidates can be evaluated for their potential cultural contributions and create a broader organizational culture with wider perspectives.

3. Invest in Skills That Teach People How to Manage Their Emotions

Fear often holds people back from sharing their ideas. They may be afraid of getting in trouble, being rejected or not looking smart. Grant notes that teaching employees how to manage their emotions can support creative courage. One key step is helping staff stay motivated; thinking creatively can be exhausting. If employees are motivated to move forward with their projects, it encourages them to imagine the outcome and be motivated by that gap. If they are not invested in the project, suggest they focus on how far they've come and continue to build on that momentum. Let employees know that it's natural to be nervous. Instead of artificially trying to calm themselves, encourage employees to focus on why they are excited by the challenge at hand and use that energy to power them as they move forward with pitching ideas, arguing their position or leading the execution of difficult projects.

4. Focus on Productive Communication Strategies

Specific approaches to communicating original ideas — particularly on difficult subjects — can help encourage employees to get engaged, says Grant. He recommends a strategy that he calls balancing your risk portfolio. In other words, pick your battles and push innovation forward in the areas you care about the most. Consider introducing ideas by being transparent about why they might not work and encouraging others to weigh in. Ask if the potential benefits are worth the effort in the face of the issues that have been raised. Finally, don't be afraid to bring up ideas multiple times. Grant notes that studies have shown positive responses increase to ideas when people have heard it between 10 and 20 times. Polite but persistent communication strategies that acknowledge potential downsides and hone in on priority areas can help original thinking employees to get big results.

In the business landscape where innovation defines success, cultivating your team's creative thinking skills can be a significant point of differentiation. For HR leaders, the good news is that it's possible to invest in and further develop this area. As you look at your HR training and development budget, ask how you can strategically invest to help further cultivate these critical skills.

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