One challenge most leaders face is how to inspire more workplace creativity. There are plenty of clock punchers out there—folks who are physically working but mentally retired. Elevating people to higher standards of performance and inspiring useful ideas requires igniting their imaginations. Open-door leaders are keen to prevent complacency and lethargy. They know that the mental grooves of habit eventually form ruts of routine. When people see things the way they’ve always seen them, everything stays the same, dulling work to the point of drudgery.
Inspiring creativity and imagination often requires disrupting people’s mental routine and catching them off guard. Consider the marketing meetings a large manufacturer of paper plates held to figure out how to reach more customers. To the people who spent most of their working life centered on this commodity product, the answer was simple—discounting! Whenever the company wanted to increase market share, they would simply pump out more Sunday coupons. But the temporary discount-driven boost in market share would often come at the expense of lower profit margins.
As a result, the division’s leader wanted his employees to be more imaginative than just defaulting to discounting all the time. He wanted them to remember that they weren’t just selling plates, cups, and napkins; they were working for a brand that was deeply connected to the family experience.
To lift his employees out of the rut of discount thinking, the division leader conducted a brainstorming meeting at a beautiful community park near corporate headquarters. The meeting was different because it was set up as a backyard barbeque. There were picnic tables with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, an outdoor grill sizzling with hotdogs and hamburgers, even outdoor games like horseshoes and tetherball.
Of course there was also something else: lots of the company’s plates, cups, and napkins. They weren’t just commodities; they were an essential part of the experience. The division’s open-door leader used this picnic to help his employees shift their thinking away from commodities and toward values and traditions. They started seeing that on any summer day, their products were smack-dab in the middle of people’s backyard barbeques, picnics, and birthday parties. The products were important because they helped make family time more fun, enjoyable, and worry free. Without the picnic table, grill, and their products, a backyard would just be a sorry patch of land behind the house.
Contrast this leader’s approach to inspiring people’s imagination to the alternative, which you have probably experienced. Your boss likely gathered everyone in the same old meeting room—the one where people usually drone over monthly accounting reports—to get lots of great ideas. You probably had to hunt all over the building to find a flipchart and then search again to find a marker that actually worked. As a bonus, the 2 p.m. meeting was just in time for everyone’s after-lunch coma to set in. After everyone arrived, your boss, standing next to a white piece of flipchart paper and holding a black marker, gleefully said, “Okay everyone, let’s get creative!”
The quickest way to get stale, retread, and uninspired ideas is to situate everyone where they do their routine work and have routine meetings. When it comes to inspiring great ideas, the climate you create to gather those ideas matters a lot. Any boss can hold a boring meeting in a tired conference room. By contrast, any boss can also hold an inspiring gathering at the local park, but few do. If you want uncommon ideas, don’t choose common approaches.
By choosing to get people outside their thinking routines and away from the four-walled environment of their workplace, the division leader in the first example helped shift people’s thinking for the better. When they started percolating new marketing and product ideas, the word “discounting” never came up. Instead, they started talking about creative marketing campaigns designed to inspire the feelings of a warm summer afternoon. They talked about partnering with an outdoor grill company. They talked about designing new “summer flower” borders for their plates and napkins. They talked about creating an interactive website where customers could swap their favorite picnic recipes. By shifting people’s thinking and getting them away from the ordinary work environment, the open-door leader opened up a space for them to think in a more inspired way.
Note: This article is excerpted from Leaders Open Doors 2nd Edition: A Radically Simple Leadership Approach to Lift, People, Profits, and Performance by Bill Treasurer.
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