Giving Your Team Permission To Solve Problems

Putting Creativity at the top of the management agenda. 

The ability to create something novel and useful is essential to the entrepreneurship that jumpstarts new businesses and keeps successful enterprises in business after they have reached global scale.

Why isn’t creativity then, at the top of the management agenda?


Intelligence Quotient (IQ) vs Creative Intelligence Quotient (CIQ)

In its purest form, creativity means connecting the dots in unique ways to solve problems.
When looking at how artists step into challenges, the artist sits back, observes as unbiasedly as possible, allows an idea of how things could be to take shape, and takes action towards shaping that reality.

Whether building a new social media interface, learning to collaborate effectively, or landing on Mars, being creative means, in a nutshell, being a problem solver pur sang, unaware of the existence of any box.

In Steve Jobs’ words:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

Does IQ matter, then? IQ shows the ability to gather knowledge and search for solutions within that frame of what is known. Creativity, on the other hand, is the ability to go beyond the IQ frame, capitalizing on seemingly random connections of concepts.

Therefore, if innovation is important to scaling your business, deliberately creating a company culture that is fluid and creative will be key to your success as a leader today.


If you solve problems (you are creative), you alter existing power dynamics

So, if creativity means problem solving, just saying organizations need to become more creative is not really going to work. Problem solving is actually not allowed in many organizations, employees not being given permission to tackle actual problems.

Now that you have heard about the horsemen and power use, we can safely say, solving problems at work can be unsafe. You could end up being blamed when things go wrong. Or even if you do provide a brilliant solution, your boss or someone else around you, could feel disempowered by your contribution. You could expose yourself to risk if you alter the power dynamics in an organization unaware of its use of power.


Leaders! Safety is a prerequisite for creativity

A (development) team is an open system (a group of people in a relationship of interdependence among both themselves and outside variables) that eats information for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and produces innovation (novel and useful solutions). As I mentioned before, if innovation is important to staying in business and scaling your company, creating a company culture that is intentionally fluid and creative is key to your success as a leader today.

If you are seeking innovation and yet not getting the results you desire, could that be saying anything about the working environment you have or haven’t given shape to? Could blame be at blame (yes, I like puns, not blame) for the outcomes you are collecting?

In a blame-based environment, team members often resort to never trying anything new, doing the absolute minimum to get by, and waiting until receiving direct orders from you, so their tracks are covered and they can divert the blame towards you when results end up being disappointing.

For this reason, the first step towards building a creative culture that loves to experiment and solve actual problems, is to create safety. Safety is a prerequisite for creativity. It’s a powerful tool, fit for real business environments, that you can leverage to drive innovation, excellence, employee engagement and ownership.


Manager, in helping the team (and your customers), you help yourself

Contrary to widespread belief among most management cultures, a safe work culture is not something that is owed to you. It is something you as a leader are responsible for both shaping and upholding. It is your responsibility to ensure that your team is safe from your actions (that team members do not feel used as your preferred go-to emotional management tool), and that your customers enjoy safety when using the products you make. This mindset is not about others making you feel safe, but about you making it your mission to make others feel safe. In turn, you become protected too when this healthy mindset spreads across the entire organization.

I hear you say, hm…safety? Does that mean immunity, absolution when things go wrong?


The thing you have to keep in mind is, it is how you handle failures and mistakes that makes all the difference. Every time something doesn’t go according to plan, you and your organization have an opportunity to exercise your learning muscle. Whether you are facing smart, accidental or negligent failures, start by ditching the blame, and focusing on the learning and different possible responses.

See here a short guide on different types of failures and how you can handle them:

  • Smart failures: you want to expand the limits of what you know, and you plan actions and experiments carefully, keeping in the loop those who might be impacted by your actions. These are the mistakes that could propel you into leaving a memorable mark in the market, turning you into something better than you were before. You celebrate the team members that are able to experiment, fail, learn and handle recovery swiftly, and see them as an asset to your organization.
  • Accidental failures: they are part of doing business. Review what happened, derive action points to prevent these failures from happening again, and move on.
  • Failures caused by negligence or even malevolence: create a safe space and have a talk with the person in question. This could reveal unaddressed issues playing in the background. There should be consequences, but not from a perspective of blame. You focus your efforts on shaping a healthy and workable workplace.


Blameless Innovative Cultures

In blameless cultures, the focus is first and foremost on fixing issues, then making sure they don’t happen again. Team members readily admit to their failures and mistakes, and they feel safe to be transparent about both their strengths and their weaknesses.

Because no one is trying to save himself, learnings are shared across the company, and team members feel safe to share their weaknesses, employees raise their value to the organization as they go along.


A recipe for a creative environment

First, you sort out the safety issue.

Then add the following ingredients:

1. Darkness Principle (Watch my video)

The Darkness Principle says two things: 1. a single team member only has an incomplete model of a whole project, and 2. the best representation of a team is the team itself, with all of its parts, its members.

Besides, a team is an open system being impacted by a never ending list of external variables. For this reason, each team member will make you aware of a piece of the total complexity of a project that could otherwise go unnoticed.

The Darkness Principle is why you as a leader, want to be proactively interested in these 3 things:

  • Diversity – Think gender, race, ethnicity, personalities, styles, and different ways of perceiving and processing information.
  • Tapping ideas from all ranks – For the same reason. In a hyperconnected world in which employees have access to information from both within and outside of the organization, each team member will make you aware of a piece of the total complexity of the project that could otherwise go unnoticed.
  • Encouraging and enabling collaboration – Reality today is that most innovations draw on many contributions. Consider for instance the successful networked organizations of The Netherlands. They are not centralized and top-down. Team mates don’t do what they do because someone told them to do it. Contributing to an interdependent network is its own reward. And because each team member is exposed to different social networks, each one of them will bring an awareness of the total complexity of the project that is uniquely valuable towards the success of the collaboration.

2. Edge

Do you work out? In order for a workout to be effective, it has to hurt a little, it needs to take you away from your comfort zone. Do you want to master change, innovation and creativity? Become comfortable with the fact that discomfort is part of your success.

Providing your team with an effective workout doesn’t mean burdening them with insane amounts of work or unattainable deadlines. It means you want to provide your team with real challenges that are a little scary. As a leader you help your team find their edge by holding them accountable to big expectations while granting them a generous amount of autonomy to make their own decisions. The Darkness Principle will hep you create an atmosphere of resourcefulness that strongly supports creativity.

3. Reward risk-taking

Whether you are building your own company or someone else’s, you are taking a big risk. How about teaming up with mates who will take similar risks to help you further your vision?

Study the companies that inspire you. How many of them have achieved success by following tradition and sticking to the rules?

4. Encourage disagreement

Is the arguing in your workplace geared towards identifying the winner of a contest, or are you contesting to get to the essence of all the ideas present in the room?

Disagreement between team members is the foundation of debate and debate is exactly what you need to make sure your company is constantly putting its best foot forward.

5. Visually attractive environment

If you have worked on your safety and added the other ingredients in my recipe, splash with colour and personal expression! A drab-looking environment will not support your efforts!

How about costs? Experiments could be costly, I hear you think. Check my article ‘The Leader as a Service Designer: How to Deal with Uncertainty’.


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Sonsoles Alonso – I help CxOs and Founders Build Highly Efficient Happy Teams in 6 Months or Less with the Right Hires, using Systemic Tools and Serious Games.

Are you in tech? I recently teamed up with top-rated instructor Mark Farragher for our online course ‘6 Tools To Improve Your Tech and Leadership Communication’.

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Would you like to read some other posts? My most successful one so far is The War Against Talent, with over 100000 views.