The best thing you can do is ask lots of questions. In particular, ask open-ended questions (questions which require more than a “yes” or “no” answer). Answering questions makes people think, particularly if they believe you are genuinely interested in their answers. Hence you also need to acknowledge answers.
“Why” and “Why do you think…” questions are particularly powerful and this is doubly true if the question relates to a problem for which you are seeking creative ideas. “Why do you think sales of our electronic toilet paper dispenser are so poor?” “Why do you think people do not separate their rubbish in this neighbourhood?” Such questions force people to use their imaginations in order to understand a problem, sometimes from the perspective of other people. This is great for creative thinking.
I like provoking people. Not offending them – that doesn’t provoke. It simply offends. But provoking people forces them to question assumptions, question the status quo and consider alternatives. For instance, if you are talking with a group of general practitioners, you might say, “I believe technology is reaching the point where, in a few years, robots and computers will be able to perform most routine medical work.” With bankers, you might suggest, “once mobile telephone payment systems become standardised, it will surely make cash, debit cards and credit cards obsolete.” To a group of patriotic Americans, you could say, “Belgium makes better beer. Pity when we bought Budweiser, we didn’t improve the taste of the beer!”
Of course you have to be careful here. There is sometimes a very fine line between provoking a group of people and offending them. Arguing that God does not exist to a group of fundamental Christians will only spark defensiveness and strong emotions rather than thoughtful debate. You would do better, with such a group, to question the meaning behind one of Jesus’s parables. Likewise, criticising a nationality, particularly if you are not a part of that nationality, generally offends. If an American tells a group of French executives that the French are lazy, the chances are that the executives will simply stop listening. But if a French executive says the same thing, it would likely encourage debate on whether or not it is true and if so, why. The French do love to intellectualise.
If you are too critical of other people, particularly people who see you as some kind of authority (pupils to a teacher, children to a parent, subordinates to a boss), then those people change their behaviour towards you. They plan their actions to avoid criticism. This usually results in cautious and secretive behaviour. People do not want to take risks that might be criticised or share thinking that might be rebuked. However, being cautious with your thinking is is effectively keeping your creativity to yourself. On the other hand, if you regularly compliment people and give positive reinforcement, then the same people start acting to receive praise. This is more likely to encourage trying new things and sharing ideas for encouragement.
This does not mean that you should never criticise or that you should always praise, even when nothing praiseworthy has been done. Rather, do criticise when it is warranted. That will make your compliments more valued. More importantly, formulate criticism into something more positive such as a suggestion. For instance, instead of telling your child, “you’ve left all the lights on upstairs. You know that wastes electricity!” Tell her, “please remember to turn the lights off when you come downstairs, that way we use less electricity and you know that is better for the environment.” Instead of telling a subordinate, “that PowerPoint presentation is not at all convincing. Try again” say, “That’s a good start, but we need something really convincing to win the sale. Could you try to make it more compelling?” Can you feel the difference?
When you do need to criticise, or positively reinforce people, sometimes adding a challenge can push people to think about solving problems with new ideas – which is essentially what creativity is about. To a child, “You’ve lost your bus pass three times this month. What can we do to prevent this from happening in the future?”
There is more on this theme, albeit in a business context, in my article on the 3Cs.
Inspiration fuels creativity like few other things. Sometimes you can inspire people through your own actions. But, you need to find other inspirations too. Introduce children to the books and authors who inspired you. Take them to art museums, theatre and other cultural places. But do not just take them. Many younger children will be bored in an art museum. So, talk about the paintings. Even with very young children, this is important. For instance, you might ask a very young child what she sees in a painting or how she thinks the sculpture feels.
With employees, you can also take them to cultural events or, better still, give them tickets and let them go themselves or with family. Share articles that have inspired you and suggest good books. When someone on your team has done something incredible, share it so that everyone can be inspired.
Be Delighted with Creativity
When someone shares an idea with you, be delighted with it, even if you have doubts about the veracity of the idea. Be delighted even with small ideas. Be delighted with creative thinking. You can always review and improve the actual idea before implementing it. But if you are delighted by creativity, then people will be delighted to be creative with you.
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Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a radical new approach to achieving goals through creativity — and an alternative to brainstorming.