7 proven ways to boost IT staff creativity

7 proven ways to boost IT staff creativity

Information technology can be a major source of profitable innovations in the way the company interacts with its customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. Virtually all business operations now involve IT in some form or another. This puts IT employees in a unique position to identify opportunities to improve or even revolutionize the business.

“... one of their most recurring wishes is for the IT function to become more agile and proactive”

This seems to have been recognized by Nordic business managers. Waagstein Research’s surveys show that one of their most recurring wishes is for the IT function to become more agile and proactive in coming up with innovative solutions to help them better serve their customers and reduce business costs. It’s also one of the areas that shows the largest gap between how important business leaders think it is and how satisfied they actually are with it.

Encouraging creativity and proactivity among IT team members in identifying and defining technology opportunities geared towards improving the business is therefore most likely a very good investment.

Proactivity is linked to creativity. Creative employees are more likely to think ahead on how to improve the business in new ways. At the same time, staff that are proactive are more likely to have original ideas because they are internally driven to seek out creative solutions. They also often feel more accountable for implementing the proposed changes.

“The more proactive IT team members are, the better the organization is able to anticipate future challenges and trends”

The more proactive IT team members are, the better the organization is able to anticipate future challenges and trends – making it more agile. Here are seven effective methods to make IT employees more creative, proactive and engaged:

1. Create a sense of ownership

Engaged employees are more creative and proactive. In order to maximize the chance of them generating creative solutions to challenges, you need to find ways to make them committed to the organization and projects they are involved in. This can best be achieved by empowering them to be more engaged and take ownership of projects which in turn requires you to create a culture of trust and empowerment.

As increased trust is so closely linked with improved employee engagement and thus organizational performance, leaders need to stop micromanaging their staff. Instead, they need to give them enough autonomy and authority to make room for them to be creative.

“Realize that failures and mistakes are the cost of progress”

Giving employees autonomy doesn’t mean letting them feel that they are left on their own however. You need to offer them a secure base from which to operate. This involves availability of leaders for guidance and support and to give the employees encouragement to grow. While you should reward risk taking, at the same time you should not punish team members for mistakes. Realize that failures and mistakes are the cost of progress.

2. Promote learning

Waagstein Research’s surveys among Nordic business leaders show that IT staff often lack knowledge and understanding of the business. This makes it difficult for them to generate innovative ideas that can be practically applied to improve the business.

“IT staff often lack knowledge and understanding of the business”

IT team members have to thoroughly understand an issue in order to be able to find innovative solutions for it that can be realistically implemented. A greater variety of different team members’ unique perspectives can be incredibly beneficial, but their proposed solutions can sometimes be impossible to implement due to factors they haven’t considered. This isn’t their fault. They don’t yet have the necessary knowledge and experience. The company has to invest in providing the employees with the training and context needed to enable them to put their time, effort and ideas into ideas that will work in a real-world scenario.

Closing the knowledge gap can be done in many ways. In order to make the IT team members better understand the business and its challenges, the company could, for example, create focus groups for sharing experiences and knowledge internally between IT and business staff. You could also consider creating more permanent mixed teams where IT and business employees can learn from each other on a day-to-day basis.

In order to promote creativity, the company could offer formal creativity training to the IT employees. This would help them look at challenges in entirely different ways, enabling them to invent and discover solutions that are quicker, cheaper and more effective.

3. Encourage a solution-oriented culture

In order to inspire IT team members to become more innovative, it’s important to develop a solution-oriented culture in the organization. There are several steps that can be taken to achieve this:

  • Encourage independent thought. Managers may profess the need for more innovation and originality, but in practice, they often tend to discourage creativity. This is because nonconforming and creative individuals present more challenges for those who lead them. However, the business will suffer severely from managers’ obsession with conformity and control. You therefore need to go out of your way to encourage independent thought among your IT team members. You can, for example, organize brainstorming meetings and encourage your staff to express their thoughts and opinions without inhibition.

  • Create a framework. Organize IT employees into groups tasked to generate fresh ideas that can be submitted to the management for evaluation. This helps staff members feel that their ideas and suggestions are welcomed, respected, and sought after.

  • Provide autonomy and resources. Employees need to be able to exercise their problem-solution abilities by being given the freedom and resources (such as training and time) to solve problems on their own.

  • Cultivate a solution mindset. Encourage employees that report problems to also suggest potential solutions. When they don't see a direct solution, suggest that they brainstorm with other team members to come up with ideas for solutions.

  • Confront beliefs. The human mind is very good at picking out evidence that supports its deeply ingrained worldviews and maintaining them. IT staff members therefore need to be regularly jolted to think outside the box. You could, for example, set up creativity-boosting activities or idea generation projects outside of the office that are designed to directly challenge the participants’ implicit or explicit beliefs.

4. Challenge them to expand their horizons

Expanding employees’ horizons can train them towards more creative thinking patterns.

Challenging your team members regularly can be an important tool to achieve this. For example, giving your staff members new responsibilities could push them to become more innovative and find new solutions to issues facing the business. Another way to stir creativity is to create an idea challenge where they are given a problem that needs to be solved in a certain time frame.

5. Act on ideas and provide feedback

Collecting feedback and ideas but not acting on them and communicating the result will most likely result in the team members losing their sense of engagement. This in turn will lead to a less innovative organization. In order to make the IT staff more engaged, you have to show them that you actually act on their ideas and give them feedback on past successes based on your team’s innovations. The increased engagement should spur their creativity and proactivity further.

“... you have to show them that you actually act on their ideas”

Some ideas that the IT team members bring forward won’t be great. If you decide not to move forward with an idea or suggestion, clearly explain the reasons and have a discussion with the team member. He or she may have brought this idea forward because of misunderstanding some aspect of the business. If this is the case, use this as an opportunity to identify gaps in the employee’s knowledge and decide on how to reduce or close those gaps.

6. Reward and recognize creative and proactive behavior

The company should recognize and reward staff when they engage in proactive and creative behavior. While employees can be extremely motivated by getting recognition for work well done, neglecting to appreciate those that deserve it can cause issues. It can not only lead to dissatisfaction among the employees not getting their deserved recognition but also to discouragement for others.

When you reward team members with creative ideas that make real contributions to the company, they feel valued and motivated to continue on the same path. It also serves as an inspiration to others in the organization.

7. Set constraints

Necessity is the mother of invention. Lack of resources and compliance restrictions are often seen as the biggest issues that hamper innovation. However, while it may seem counterintuitive; constraints can actually make team members more creative. This is because they can provide direction and a creative challenge to the team.

“Necessity is the mother of invention”

Constraints, in the form of restricted budgets, short deadlines or other limitations can motivate staff to search for and connect information from different sources to come up with innovative ideas. In the absence of constraints, complacency tends to set in.

However, leaders also need to be mindful about setting constraints. If too restrictive, they can instead reduce the employees’ motivation. The key is to find the right balance between freedom and constraints.