What to Do When Your Boss Says ‘Be Creative’

Novel ideas don’t just come to us like flipping on a light switch.

Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks | University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business

There’s a misconception that our brains are like computer random access memory, able to pluck the best information on command or, in particular, when needed for generating new ideas.

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You need a deliberate process to tap into the repository of knowledge, perspectives and insights.

That isn’t how it works, and it’s why many individuals and teams struggle to innovate.

They’re told to “be creative” without being taught how exactly to accomplish that. Akin to being told, “be funny,” or “be spontaneous,” despite good intentions, we find it hard to comply.

That’s not the right way to lead a team or develop novel solutions. My research shows that you need a deliberate process to strategically tap into the repository of knowledge, perspectives and insights that reside inside your brain – and within a team’s collective brain.

When we’re trying to innovate and make use of the things we’ve already experienced and know, we can’t simply hope all the relevant memories will be right at the tip of our tongue.

We need an intervention.

We need a series of steps to bring to the forefront more of our diverse experiences, memories and knowledge than would normally come to mind.

Stitching together ideas

I take students through this intervention in the Leadership Impact through Innovation program from Ross Executive Education.

My bricolage process – stitching together diverse sets of existing resources and ideas in new ways – is the result of years of research and working with executives around the world to develop novel ways to address opportunities and find solutions.

Bette Nesmith Graham created a new approach to solving typos by inventing Liquid Paper.

A classic example of bricolage is Bette Nesmith Graham, who invented Liquid Paper. A 1950s secretarial typist by day who painted in her spare time, she used her experience outside work to solve a problem at work.

The problem wasn’t new. The solution wasn’t new. But she was the one who made the connection between these two experiences between her personal and professional life to create a completely new approach to solving the problem of typos (there is no backspace or erase button on a typewriter).

A common mistake leaders make is to assume putting together people with diverse backgrounds will lead to great ideas.

When teams – even diverse teams – get together to brainstorm, they tend to focus on things they have in common.

It’s human nature, something we find in study after study. This bias toward fixating on ideas team members have in common is often the reason teams fail to produce their innovation potential.

It’s true that the more buckets of knowledge you have the better, but unless you have a way to surface and connect that diverse pool of knowledge, you’re not going to have them available as a resource for the team’s core task.

As many ideas as possible

I often ask people for as many ideas as they can generate to solve a specific problem they’re facing at their company. Oftentimes, after about seven ideas – plus or minus two – they feel their well is dry.

If you nudge people, they may come up with a couple more, but they are often very similar to the initial set.

But then they’re given a description of a person with a certain occupation and certain kind of life. They’re asked to imagine what kinds of ideas that person might come up with to solve the same problem.

The key is to have individuals try to take the perspective of a different person and think through that imagined lens.

The vast majority of the time they come up with not only more ideas, but ideas that are different from the original set.

When they return to work, they’ll encourage their teams to take the perspective of real people, not hypothetical ones, such as someone from a different functional area in the company or a business unit based in a different country.

Unlocking novel ideas

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The idea is that people not only learn how to be adept at innovation, but how to lead it.

This simple task of perspective taking is sufficient to unlock novel ideas and perspectives that already exist in an individual’s mind.

The idea is that people not only learn how to be adept at innovation, but how to lead it.

This helps them understand how people tend to act and how to overcome those ingrained biases to leverage everything at hand to build something new.

This article first appeared on the University of Michigan’s Ross Thought in Action blog and was republished with permission.

You might also like:

How to Unleash Your Creativity 

What TED Taught Me

5 Innovations That Could Save Your Company’s Life

Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. He is an award-winning scholar and executive educator who has taught leaders in more than 30 countries around the world.

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