How to Stimulate Creative Flow


How to Stimulate Creative Flow

As a leader and manager, how do you spark creative flow in other people? I think there are four keys.


First, be clear about the goal.

What does “winning” look like? Is it a certain initiative completed by a certain time? Is it a specific increase in sales? Is it successful reorganization? Define the goal well and you’ve provided people backdrop to engage in creative thinking. It’s important to make the goal achievable. If it’s outside people’s control, if it’s beyond their capabilities, if they don’t have the resources to get it done, then you’ve not set them up to achieve flow. Ask what resources they need and keep asking these questions: “Do you have the resources you need?” “Do you think you can get this done?” “Can you overcome the challenges?” If you hear a “no” to any of these questions, recalibrate the goal. Don’t expect to get the best out of people in the quest of the impossible—or even the improbable.


Second, provide people the freedom to figure it out.

Let’s talk about this for a moment. One of the myths of management is that good managers vigilantly track what people are doing. In fact, good managers set clear goals and expectations and then let people figure out how to get it done. As General George Patton put it: “Don’t tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” For example, at our leadership academy, we assign leadership projects to teams of five to seven people. We explain what each team needs to do—that all teams need to scope their project, do the necessary research, and present their recommendations to their CEO. We provide them leadership coaching as they request it, but we don’t track their progress. We assume that these are adults who fully understand the consequences should they fail to make a good presentation to their CEO.


Third, put people together who truly enjoy each other’s company.

I’ve stressed before about the importance of hiring people who mesh well and who uphold your company’s core values. Your job as a leader and manager is to get the right players on the court, people who look forward to seeing each other every day and who want to work together collaboratively. This is a case where one bad apple truly will spoil the barrel. If you do nothing else, pay attention to the chemistry, and if you see it’s not working, figure out a new way to mix people together. This is a problem that won’t fix itself.


Fourth, make people feel good about what they’re doing.

Criticism comes easy; praise comes hard. But it’s the praise that works magic—especially praise for the actual work people do. To express appreciation for specific things that another person has done takes all of five minutes. But those five minutes are remembered for days, even weeks. My rule of thumb is this: give ten times as much praise as criticism. When you do, people will hear your criticism as a genuine desire to help them improve. Be particularly attentive to the people you work with most often, because you will tend to take them for granted. Moreover, count to ten before saying no to their ideas. Being too quick on the trigger will kill innovation.

Coaching and empowerment inspire flow. Praise inspires flow. Good teamwork inspires flow. Micromanagement kills flow. Good managers invest the time to get to know people, find out what’s important to them, and discover what they enjoy doing. They provide a work environment in which experimentation is encouraged and communication is strong. As people do well, they get positive feedback, both from within themselves and from others. This feeling of excellence helps spark further feelings of innovation and flow. That virtuous cycle is what you’re aiming for.


Examples of Companies that Stimulate Creative Flow

  • At the outset of Southwest Airlines’ remarkable growth, CEO Herb Kelleher focused on finding people who excelled at being “people” people. As a result, flying on Southwest became fun. Flight attendants telling jokes, singing songs, and engaging passengers in mid-air trivia contests—this became part of the Southwest experience. Southwest’s investment in its people paid off when it came time to negotiate with the airline’s unions. Southwest had invested heavily in a ratio of one supervisor for every ten employees, a tight ratio in an industry where the norm was one to twenty. When Southwest needed to negotiate a new compensation agreement with its unions, the investment paid off: Southwest experienced no work stoppages.
  • Technology companies in Silicon Valley invest heavily in helping their employees experience creative flow. At Apple, software engineers pick their own projects to work on. Apple sees this as paying a double dividend: first, it helps the company retain its corps of talented engineers; second, it results in innovations that can further catalyze the company’s growth. Facebook is another company that puts a premium on providing employees the freedom to work on projects they choose. Engineers get a regular day off to pursue whatever project they feel like.
  • One of the operations managers at GlaxoSmithKline’s research facility in Palo Alto spends a day each year with each of his employees. “I want to discover what you like to do,” he tells them, “and what you want to get out of life and your work.” People spend the day with him, talking about life and career goals. He then tries to find new projects that tap into what people like to do. Needless to say, his employees feel highly supported. The company’s track record of retaining key employees backs it up.

When we survey leaders, however, many of them say they spend too little time helping employees tap their creative energies. So ask yourself: ” When do I experience flow? What could I do to make my work more fulfilling to me? And what could I do to inspire flow in others more often?”


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