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9 Ways to Cultivate–Not Crush–Your Team’s Creativity

Derek Smith // July 11, 2019

Young woman floating away with an umbrella against a yellow wooden wall

Creativity excites the mind by kindling our curiosity and taking us to unexpected places. And it’s always been at the heart of business. Why? Because the brands that grab us on an emotional level are the creative brands with a unique, compelling identity. The Apples and Disneys of the world.

A company that invests in creativity is more likely to foster innovation, have more satisfied customers, provide a better customer experience, and find financial success, according to Adobe’s State of Create study.

But here’s the rub. Only four in 10 of the respondents in the global study described themselves as creative, and few (31%) felt they were living up to their creative potential. Another global study by McKinsey & Company found that only 6% of executives were satisfied with their performance in innovation (an output of creative thinking).

Companies crave creativity. But they aren’t getting it. So, how do you cultivate this critical quality in your marketing team?

With time, space, and trust.

1. Give them enough time...

Big ideas don’t happen overnight. Your creative team needs a solid creative brief that sets them up for success. Then they need ample time to think through the problem they’re trying to solve, to brainstorm fresh ideas and concepts—to find the tension and see where it takes them. Sometimes it means turning back halfway through and going back to square one to discover a different solve.

Perhaps you have a pressing business deadline that must be met. If that’s the case, consider carefully whether you’re giving your team enough time to deliver awesome creative; you’re not doing anyone any favors by delivering something subpar because you don’t give yourself enough time.

So keep your creative director in the loop and always make sure you have enough time to plan, bring in the right people, and iterate your way through to project completion.

2. Enough space...

Your creatives will want time to digest the challenge and ask any clarifying questions. Some will also want to spend time concepting on their own so they can bring ideas to the table when the team meets together.

So give them space to go off on their own and write or sketch out some initial ideas, and then come back together to concept as a group and select the best direction to move forward with.

Encourage your designers, writers, and videographers to take breaks when they need them; getting out for a quick walk around the office can refresh a fatigued mind. Also think about empowering your people with flexible schedules that allow them to work when they’re most productive.

3. And the right environment.

You can also encourage creative thinking by making your office a stimulating environment, with things like:

  • A library of books
  • Advertising magazines like Advertising Age or Ad Week
  • Business magazines like Fast Company or Inc.
  • ADDYs Awards books and Communications Arts Annuals
  • Artwork such as paintings, photographs, or illustrations
  • A designated quiet area
  • Strategy games like chess or Blokus
  • Objects like Rubik’s cubes
  • Newspapers like The New York Times or Wall Street Journal
  • Access to online learning resources like Lynda.com, Skillshare, Coursera, or EdX
  • Access to streaming music sources like Spotify or Pandora
  • External speakers who can address topics of interest
  • Presentations from vendors who can collaborate or offer helpful services
  • Lunch and learns to discuss creative topics
  • Creative reviews where creatives can get objective feedback and cross-pollinate ideas with others not directly involved

Allow your creatives to attend events like CreativeMornings, AAF, or AIGA so they can develop their creative muscles and talk shop with others involved in similar projects.

Finally, be sure to lead by example and show off some creativity of your own.

4. Don’t fear failure.

Perfection proves elusive in this business. Try as you might, you’re going to miss an occasional deadline—perhaps because someone else missed theirs. You’ll have an occasional runaway project that goes over budget. And sometimes, for whatever reason, you simply miss the mark.

But that shouldn’t stop you from pushing the creative envelope, from trying to deliver something new and bold. When you fall down, you get back up and keep going (and, of course, figure out where things went wrong and what you can do differently next time).

5. Build trust.

Assuming you’ve hired the right people in the first place, your team is more than capable of delivering. You just need to trust them—and support them in trusting each other.

Since everyone has their own distinct personality, consider having your employees take a personality profile test so everyone can get an understanding of the different personalities on their team. Element Three uses the DiSC® profile to help us understand the makeup of our teams, and we use resources like TrueU courses to learn how to work with different personality types.

Another way to build trust is to have your team get to know each other better by volunteering together as a group or working together on a pro bono project that they’re passionate about such as supporting a local nonprofit. Or you can have them participate together in an outdoor adventure or similar team building experience.

6. Two ears, one mouth.

Part of building trust involves a willingness to listen to different perspectives regardless of someone’s background or experience level. Given the chance, a junior copywriter or production designer could come up with the idea that takes your company to the next level.

So it’s crucial that you include everyone by finding the right brainstorming strategy. A common obstacle is that one or two extroverts will dominate the discussion, while others might keep their ideas to themselves out of fear of rejection or a lack of confidence in speaking up.

How do you deal with this?

  • Give the introverts on your team plenty of time to come up with ideas.
  • Have people write down their ideas on pieces of paper so that all ideas can be considered without worrying about who thought of what.
  • Provide frequent feedback and encouragement to those who need it.
  • Use a brainstorming technique like Yes, And!

7. Guard rails, not handcuffs.

One thing that chafes creatives is an overreliance on process, or “how it’s done here.”

Creativity isn’t linear; it’s a messy, back-and-forth endeavor. So give your team guard rails in terms of deadlines, budget, and supporting resources, but try not to box them in. Let them wander and experiment as much as they can without breaking the bank.

8. Allow them to present their work.

As a creative, you can get pumped up about your campaign concepts and advertising creative. So it’s disheartening when someone outside of the creative team presents it. Or, worse yet, when a stakeholder presents it to their boss without your involvement.

Whenever possible, allow your creatives to present their own work. Advertising is subjective, especially at the concept stage. Sometimes explaining the inspiration behind the idea in your own words can make all the difference. Plus, it helps your creatives advance in their careers by developing presentation skills.

9. Reach skies by leaving floors.

Some marketers are idea machines who have no problem generating a massive amount of ideas, sorting through them to find a strong concept, and crafting thoughtful creative.

Others harbor what one leadership expert calls a “sticky floor”—the belief deep down that their ideas just aren’t good enough. It’s your duty as a leader to help these people learn that they can be creative. That they are good enough.

Encourage a growth mindset in your employees. Then back out of the way and be delighted by their creative solutions to even the most complex problems.

For further reading:
20 Creative Thinking Tips
How to Nourish Your Team’s Creativity (Harvard Business Review)
Creativity and the Role of the Leader (Harvard Business Review)
7 Ways Business Leaders Can Foster Their Teams’ Creativity (CMO.com)

Derek Smith Team Photo at Element Three

Derek Smith's skills as a reporter serve him well as a senior writer here at Element Three – and if you need a coach for your soccer team, he's got you covered. He's worked as a content strategist as well as a copywriter, so he's always thinking about the why behind every word and every piece of every campaign.