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Great companies are always thinking about what's next

Columnist Dave Conrad says you need to be looking forward to know where you're going.

Ask Dave - Dave Conrad column mug
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Dear Dave,

The employees I manage have many skills and they apply them daily. The problem I see is that we tend to do the same things over and over, and we do not try to come up with fresh ideas to do our work better. We are happy with our ruts, so to speak. How can I develop our ability to think beyond our normal functions and truly be creative and innovative?

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— P

Dear P,

Your question tells me that you are a thinking person, and you should be proud of your desire to motivate your staff to think, too. Research shows that it is ultimately how teams and organizations think together, learn together, and challenge each other that most determines their positive performance and outcomes.

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There are many ways for people and organizations to think. We can learn to think strategically, systemically, critically, creatively, or just plain pragmatically and solve pressing problems. I cannot go into depth about these thinking approaches, except I will state that good leaders model good thinking, and teach and encourage their staff to think. As I always say, it is prudent for managers to hire the best people they can find, train them, give them all of the resources they need, help them appreciate the purpose and goals of the company, and then give them autonomy to get busy and do things – as a team and individually. If you want happy employees, allow them to use their brains. Do I hear a “Duh”?

In your case, you have talented people who are stuck in paradigms of thinking and acting. I can hardly blame people who are caught up in ruts of thinking if they are not given the understanding, latitude, and opportunities to think in the first place. Often, (micromanaging) managers hate creativity because it goes against their desire to completely control their workers.

Approaching problems and opportunities with the same old thinking time and again is a great waste of energy, reasoning capacity, decision-making potential and innovation. To have a “thinking culture” that seeks to come up with fresh, productive ideas, it must be safe for thinking and thinking must be a practice and an expectation and not a buzz word.

Creative thinking can involve many things such as a new approach to a problem, a resolution to a conflict between employees, a new result from research findings, a previously untried approach to earn revenue, a new product or a new product feature — the uses of creativity are endless, and your employees can be taught to think with imagination and wonder.

How to inspire true thinking

Information sharing is crucial. Managers should give employees “dedicated thinking time” to think strategically and provide and share information with each other. Companies thrive on collecting and using relevant business information. A “decision by fact” mode of thinking must be encouraged, and employees should be able to secure and discuss the truth about what is really going on — not what they think it is.

Creativity tools must be shared and used. In its most basic form, creative thinking is the ability to consider something in a new way. Creative thinking includes analysis and understanding of the problem or opportunity, an open-mindedness that is free of bias and stifling rituals, a quest and covet for “whole solution” problem-solving, the organization of people parts, and processes to give ideas legs, and an unbridled passion for teaching and learning.

Reward true thinking. Managers can acknowledge and reward real thinking, not “knee-jerk” reactions, and patterned responses. We cannot continue to throw the same old remedies at new, challenging, and unique problems. I am not against using good and effectively active, reliable systems and responses where appropriate and applicable, but I am against repeatedly using patterned responses to things, simply because they are familiar, low-budget, and comfortable,

Ask more and better questions. I think the best solutions come from asking the best — and often the most uncomfortable and tough — questions. Good managers don’t pounce on their staff with solutions, they ask questions and encourage their teams to think in new ways and come up with untried solutions. Managers, please, don’t assume that your way is the only way of doing things; allow your team the opportunity to figure things out.

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Allow ideas to flow. Nothing squelches creativity more than having to go through “13 layers of hell” to surface and consider ideas. Make it easy for people to present and consider ideas and alternatives. I would hold open discussion forums, or allocate dedicated idea presentation and consideration time in meetings, so employees can talk about what they see and then propose workable solutions.

In summary: we all need to work and think better together; the challenge is actually making it happen. Understanding problem-solving through the lens of thinking, rather than just reacting “the way we have always done things” is a practical and effective first step.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu . Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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