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Expert Interview: Why Teams Need Creativity & Innovation to Succeed

Think creativity is only vital for marketing teams? Well, think again. Jeremy Utley, Director of Executive Education, Hasso Plattner Institue of Design at Stanford and co-author of Ideaflow, redefines creativity as a capacity and ability to innovate and solve problems. 

Most of us are facing problems with multiple possible answers. Yet, the cognitive bias is to fixate on the first plausible answer, despite there being no evidence that early answers are best. Ideaflow provides tools, routines, and frameworks to help people generate the volume of solutions they need to ultimately break through and do that on a routine basis.

In this expert interview, Jeremy shares how creativity is vital for successful teams, departments, and organizations.

Ideaflow is counterintuitive to how organizations operate. Can you explain how the concept promotes and encourages innovation among teams?

Conventional wisdom defines innovation as an event, a hackathon, a workshop, or a sprint. Innovation isn’t an event; it’s a capacity. It’s an ability that has to be developed and nurtured just like any other ability. So if you think about your piano ability, you must play scales. If you think about your ability to swim, you have to swim laps. The things you want to maintain require attention. 

Yet there’s this binary belief when it comes to creativity or innovation. Either I am creative or not, or we are innovative or not. So we wanted to dispel that myth. The truth is that innovation is a capacity that can be nurtured and developed just like any other and will atrophy if ignored. And so, Ideaflow is meant to provide resources to encourage teams to attend to their creativity regularly. 

Read more: 6 Skill Development Tactics for Successful Teams

So, Innovation and creativity are more of a process or journey than a destination?

My favorite definition of creativity comes from a seventh grader in Ohio who said, “Creativity is doing more than the first thing you think of.”

And that’s a profoundly simple definition. One, it doesn’t have anything to do with the arts. Creativity is much more than artistry. It certainly encompasses artistry, but it’s far greater. And it speaks to a cognitive bias that we all hold. It’s called the Einstellung effect; when we think of a solution to a problem, we cease looking and become blinded to better solutions. And so if you’re aware of that, you can circumvent it. 

Creative problem-solving is a four-step process:

  1. Awareness. Become aware of the challenge 
  2. Incubation. Think about the challenge
  3. Illumination. This is where the light bulb comes from, illuminating the potential solutions
  4. Verification. You determine whether this is a good solution or the right fit for the problem

In today’s work environment, hyper-productive, hyper-efficient, hyper-task, and focus-oriented, step two goes unattended. Instead, we say, “OK, here’s the problem; what’s the solution?” There’s no time or space to entertain, consider, or marinate. 

In the book, we have an idea called the “innovation sandwich,” which extends that moment of incubation over time. So you open yourself up to new input and new inspiration. And pulling it out across time increases the likelihood of a breakthrough.

Why is the concept of Ideaflow important in industries that may not be considered creative?

You see this on several levels. There are creative and non-creative companies, creative and non-creative departments, and creative and non-creative people. But creativity is the art of solving problems. And there aren’t any people, companies, or departments that don’t face problems. So no matter the industry, problem-solving is required.

So when you realize creativity is about generating novel solutions to problems and you take the definition that we heard from the seventh grader in Ohio, that creativity is doing more than the first thing you think of, then it stands to reason that every problem is fundamentally an ideas problem. Not just the issue of what new product we should launch or what’s our marketing campaign. But also things like how we should change this expense reimbursement process or how we should onboard new employees.

Read more: 5 Effective New Hire Onboarding Strategies

HR and finance teams are every bit in need of creative thinking when it comes to generating novel solutions to problems, as the marketing and advertising departments are. But if people don’t realize that they’re calling on their creativity when solving problems, they don’t reach for the toolkit. And that’s part of the reason we wrote the book, to help broaden the suite of tools available to an individual, team, or organization when trying to solve problems.

What’s your advice for team members apprehensive about sharing ideas or creative solutions?

One of the greatest enemies of creative thinking is our own bias to self-censor. We only want to share good ideas. But the best way to get to a good idea is to have several bad ideas.

It’s a function of volume and variation. And the same variation that enables somebody to think of a bad idea is the variation that allows them to think of a good idea on the other end of the distribution. Ideas are like natural phenomena. 

Surgeon and saxophone player Charles J. Limb did a study of jazz musicians and hip-hop artists. And he found that when they were in their creative state, the part of their brain that censors, the inhibition center, actually shuts off.

So, if you want to enter into a state of creative free association, you have to turn off that censor; remove the filters enough to stop censoring all the time. 

We like to practice a daily ideas quota. So when you’re trying to think of the answer to a question, for example, what should the subject line of this email be? Well, every day, there should be at least one point per day where you shift the goal and say, “Instead of trying to come up with the answer, I’m going to come up with 10 possible answers.”

By the way, these are not good answers. And every day, if you develop that instinct, you’re giving your brain permission to silence the self-censor. And then you increase the likelihood that you’re in a mental state where you can stumble over good ideas. 

What tools do you recommend for teams to foster creativity?

Simple tools like a notebook. I always have a notebook sitting here, and I write ideas down. 

If you want to be an ideas person, write down your ideas. It’s not rocket science. Write them down daily; write down problems, insights, and quotes. Most effective problem solvers have a habit of keeping a notebook. 

Another thing that I do is keep a stack of Post-its and a pen on my bedside table. That’s useful because a lot of research suggests that ideas that come to you in the hypnagogic state, right on the borderline between waking and dreaming, your brain is less inhibited. So I keep a notebook by the bed, and if something comes to me in the middle of the night, I’ll have the discipline to write it down. 

When is the best time to brainstorm, or what is the best format to promote creativity in a team setting?

One pro tip: don’t do it at the end of the day. Do it at the beginning of the day. 

The innovation sandwich suggests that research is most compelling when it speaks of alternating between individual and group thinking. So if you want to turbocharge your brainstorming, acknowledge the value of alternating between individual and teamwork and separate those two things. 

We recommend a four-step process for brainstorming:

  • Step one: Send the challenge to group members before a meeting and say, “Think about it and come up with some ideas.” 
  • Step two: Meet together under very clear rules to build, not judging, but building on and developing one another’s ideas. Then importantly, wait to make a decision. You decide not to decide. You say, “We’re not gonna choose till step four when we come back together.” 
  • Step three: Keep thinking about this individually. Step three is all about allowing individuals to continue to entertain the question.
  • Step four: Come together and evaluate everything you generated during the previous steps. And share what will probably be the better ideas generated during the individual time in step three.

How do you encourage innovation and creativity in learning and development? You mentioned it’s a muscle that can atrophy, so how do people improve and continue to hone these skills? 

You have to treat innovation and creativity like a capacity. If you were running a swim team, you would pay attention to how many laps people swim. So, how many ideas are people generating? 

Are you attending to someone’s creative muscles while running an organization? Are you nurturing them? To someone with a creative mindset, every problem is an opportunity to generate options. Every issue is a chance. So it’s really about giving people a chance to practice regularly.

And so, Ideaflow is meant to provide tools, routines, and resources to encourage teams to attend to their creativity regularly. And it’s something that starts with the individual but has implications for team dynamics and group collaboration as well. 

Encourage many ideas and not just good ones.

So remember, when your team needs to solve a problem, tackle a challenge, or come up with a plan, don’t stop after the first idea because to have a good idea, you need lots of ideas.

“I call it the Einstein effect,” Jeremy says. “Someone once asked him how he gets so much more done than other scientists with the same IQ. And he said, ‘I stay on the problem longer. You only understand a problem once you’ve seen it from eight or nine different lenses. And breakthrough thinkers like Einstein are willing to stay on a problem longer than feels comfortable to come up with the best solution.” 

Check out Ideaflow to learn how to establish a daily creativity practice and persuade your team and organization on the importance of centering Ideaflow. Follow us on LinkedIn for more in our expert interview series. 


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