Home & Office

5 ways to unlock creative thinking and produce great results at work

It's no good thinking up innovative solutions to intractable challenges if people can't surface their ideas. Five business leaders share how to get creative concepts out into the open.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
Person using tablet to create
We Are/Getty Images

Great ideas can change your business for the better, but research suggests too many professionals don't feel confident sharing their ideas. Five business leaders explain how you can unlock creative thinking.

1. Empower people to make smart decisions

Neill Smith, head of infrastructure at The Scottish Government, says creative thinking comes from a great internal culture.

"There's often a perception that the higher up you are, the more of a leader you are -- and that's not right," he says. "Everybody's a leader. You empower everybody. Anybody can be a leader."

Also: The future of work is more human than you'd think, say these business experts

Smith says it's crucial to differentiate between the attributes of each member of staff. "Everyone's unique," he says. 

"I could ask three people in my team to do the same job, but I would ask each of them in a specific way because everyone's different. Yes, work is about getting the best results, but success relies on understanding the individual."

Speaking to ZDNET at the recent VMware Explore event in Barcelona, Smith says he wants to create a culture that encourages people to learn and be confident to make decisions.

"What I'm trying to do is build a brand. A person doesn't have to come in with lots of previous experience or certifications. If they've got desire, they'll excel in the right cultural environment," he says.

"I want people to start thinking, 'I'll start my career there because they do cool stuff. They give us the space to learn and be innovative and creative. And they give us the training to do that kind of work.'"

2. Brainstorm great ideas regularly

Cathrine Levandowski, global head of operations at lifestyle management company Quintessentially, says her team has been extremely creative during the past year -- and that's due to their agile approach to meetings.

"We have standups every day, but we're not strict on what the standups mean," she says to ZDNET on a video chat.

"I think that's helped us to be creative instead of just saying, 'What did you do yesterday, and what are you doing today?'"

Also: The promise and peril of AI at work in 2024, according to Deloitte's Tech Trends report

Rather than focusing on day-to-day operational concerns, Levandowski's team thinks about innovative solutions to what might previously have been seen as intractable challenges.

"The standups are more about, 'What are the challenges that you're facing?', and we have daily meetings that are quite short among our entire team, where we talk about the challenges that are brought up by users and different stakeholders, and we brainstorm ideas."

Levandowski says this agile approach to meetings also extends beyond the IT and operations teams and out across the wider business.

"We meet with every single department on a weekly basis -- we listen to their challenges. I think our approach helps to keep us creative."

3. Guide people to their development goals

Roy Ben David, group director of data and analytics at finance firm Solaris, says the best way to unlock creative thinking is to give people interesting projects as part of a career journey.

"You need to give people the right challenge and not just leave them to the daily routine that sometimes can demotivate them," he says to ZDNET on a video call.

Also: Managing and leading aren't the same thing. Here's why it matters

"Always provide a route, so that they can find innovation and move toward their development goals. You also need to focus on understanding their starting point, so you can identify the potential areas that they can go into."

Sometimes, the stopping-off points along the way might not be the ones that staff expected or wanted, especially if they're looking to climb the career ladder.

"I've had cases where I've seen people who want to be leaders," he says. "In some of those situations, I've had to help them understand that it will better for their career if they focus right now on developing their expertise."  

As a result, Ben David says the key to long-term success for managers and their staff is being able to focus on creative projects at the right time.

"You need to care about people, understand their starting point, and think about where they want to go," he says. "Get that right and you can help them shape their career in a better way."

4. Find ways to foster a co-creative approach

Cynthia Stoddard, CIO at Adobe, says managing people to produce creative results involves ensuring everyone feels part of the success story.

"The thing I've been upfront with my group about is that my style isn't to dictate orders in a top-down manner," she says to ZDNET in a video interview.

Stoddard says creative solutions come from a team of people who work in combination and not from individuals who hog the limelight.

Also: New job? Here are 5 ways to make a great first impression

"Innovation is about co-creation because we all have to share in the success of the organization," she says.

"The success is not mine, it's everybody's. And my only success as a leader is how successful my people are as individuals and how they're able to deliver."

Stoddard says her role is to understand her staff and to eliminate the roadblocks they encounter. "It's really about building that tight connection with people."

5. Ensure everyone makes the most of technology

Kavin Mistry, head of digital marketing and personalization at TSB Bank, says the key to fostering creativity is giving people around the business access to the right technology.

"That's about removing the shackles of just hitting the bottom line, and actually focusing much more on delivery for the customer and bringing colleagues along on the transformation journey with you, so they feel like they are shaping it," he says to ZDNET in a video call.

Also: Two breakthroughs made 2023 tech's most innovative year in over a decade

Mistry says TSB's transformation program includes a people plan, which enables staff to shape what the bank's technology looks like and how these tools are used in the organization.

"Gone are the days where IT procures the technology, embeds it, and then just swivels the chair around and hands it over to their business colleagues, who then come up with a bunch of bugbears that inhibit them and frustrate them."

Mistry says you get creative solutions to business challenges when you give as many people as possible a voice to shape the use of enterprise technology.

"That's one of the things that's made us really successful -- getting colleagues involved as early as possible," he says. "Because then people are invested in what you are trying to transform, and they feel empowered to deliver for customers."

Editorial standards