Making the Most of Your Team’s Creativity
Creativity is a basic part of innovation and developing the "right" product. There are a number of strategies you can use to encourage creativity on your team. Humor can make us more creative, for example.
But when people on your team have creative ideas, how do you decide which ones are likely to be successful and worth pursuing? One might think it starts with the team’s manager, but that is not always the case.
Good managers can be hard to find, often because we tend to promote those who are excellent technical performers. But being a great engineer doesn’t necessarily make someone a great leader. We want managers to be able to guide the people on their teams and help evaluate ideas.
However, research from the Stanford Graduate School of Business suggests that neither the creator of an idea nor the creator's manager is the best person to predict whether an idea will be a success. That role goes to peers who are also creators. The reasoning is that creators have a mindset that focuses on novel connections ("divergent thinking"), while those who are not creators tend to evaluate ideas based on previous knowledge and experience ("convergent thinking"). As the professor who conducted the study explains, "What will succeed in the future may not resemble what succeeded in the past."
While the Stanford research points out the risks of placing managers into the role of evaluating ideas, it also suggests some solutions. Companies could create processes that incorporate input from similarly innovative peers, for example.
The study also found that those in a hybrid manager/creator role did the best in evaluating how successful ideas might be. By using their skills in both positions, hybrid managers/creators might enable those who have an aptitude for both technical work and people management to find projects that allow them to use all their skills successfully.
Finding the right balance between technical expertise and management skill can be a challenge when searching for people to manage engineers. By understanding the limits of what a person in an engineering management position can do, you can avoid some common pitfalls and discover some benefits. It just takes an open mind and some divergent thinking.