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Practices to Foster Creativity in Your Distributed Team
Andrew Logemann
Andrew Logemann
Head of Marketing
min read

Creativity is an important part of any business.

It is the source of innovative products, effective marketing plans, and engaged communities. It's what helps you stand out in a crowded marketplace. It can make the difference between success and failure for your organization.

But what is creativity? And how can you encourage your team to be more creative?

"Creativity is finding novel, practical ways to address challenges," explained Duncan Wardle, former Vice President of Innovation and Creativity at The Walt Disney Company in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review.

Understood this way, creativity is not just for writers, designers, and other capital "C" creatives. It is essential for anyone who needs to foster growth, achieve success, or find solutions to problems. "As the world around us changes rapidly, those of us with a strong creative bent will be equipped to provide value, even when situations change and resources are limited," said Wardle.

For many, creativity in an organization involves a team brainstorming around a conference table with a whiteboard or an easel holding a giant pad of paper. Crumpled up papers, used coffee cups, and empty pizza boxes are the signs that something creative is going on.

That classic vision of creative work isn't available to teams that have broken free from the office. And that's a good thing!

In fact, it's possible to make asynchronous creativity work just as well — or even better — than the traditional synchronous brainstorming session in the conference room at the end of the hall.

Here's how.

Avoid common myths about creativity

Three myths about creativity hold leaders back recognizing its importance to their organizations.

The first is that creativity is an optional extra. Leaders who buy into this myth focus solely on concrete skills and measurable competencies. If they're not careful, they can end up with teams that are merely carbon copies of themselves.

Why is this a problem? Because teams need to bring fresh thinking to new circumstances as they face them. Without creativity, they're limited to recycling ideas that brought them past successes.

Instead of rising to the challenge of the moment, they play it safe.

Instead of innovating, they stagnate.

“An investment in creativity and design is simply good business. Creativity and productivity go hand in hand, but investing in creativity isn’t on the agenda for enough of today’s leaders,” said Mala Sharma, Vice President & General Manager of Creative Cloud Product, Marketing and Community at Adobe, in a recent report on the State of Create.

The second myth is that async teams can't be creative. For some leaders, working remotely seems to contradict the idea of fostering creativity. How can you be creative without gathering everyone together in the same room?

But the truth is that constraints encourage creativity.

"I challenge people to think about how creativity really thrives with constraints. Async is your constraint and your job is to think of how you can be creative within that constraint," affirmed Tammy Bjelland, Founder and CEO of Workplaceless, a remote work training company.

Async teams can't rely on old ways of doing business. They find creative solutions to the daily challenges of their roles. This means they are ideally positioned to generate fresh ideas while working together, remotely.

The third myth is that creativity is a rare trait possessed by only a few gifted people.

If there are two kinds of people in the world -- creative and not-creative -- trying to develop creativity in your uncreative employees is a waste of time and money. But effective leaders know that anyone can bring creativity to their work.

"Lost in all the noise around us is the proven truth about creativity: it's the result of desire -- the desire to find a new truth, solve an old problem, or serve someone else. Creativity is a choice, it's not a bolt of lightning from somewhere else," explained Seth Godin in The Practice.

Creativity is essential and available to everyone. And async teams are leading the way.

Establish trust, understanding, and safety

Trust and creativity are two sides of the same coin.

You can't have one without the other. People who trust each other share ideas without the fear of being judged. They avoid the self-censorship and group-think that derail creative ideation.

Async teams have an advantage here. They're forced to communicate more clearly with each other than colleagues who can exchange pleasantries over the cubical wall every day.

Some of this clarity comes from a documentation-first culture, which ensures that everyone has access to the information they need to do their work. Instead of allowing institutional knowledge to live solely on one person's hard drive, or worse, in one person's head, async teams are deliberate about sharing information in handbooks and other cloud-based documents.

"Every time we find something that's not in the handbook, our first instinct is to add it. Building up that muscle is really important. It's a skill that all remote workers need," said Betsy Bula, an All-Remote Evangelist at Gitlab, a software development company.

Free access to information removes impediments to creativity.

Async teams also find clarity in sharing more context about their lives than is typical for their office-bound counterparts.

In a good creative environment, "there has to be a level of trust, understanding, and safety," said Kevin Kirkpatrick, CEO of We Work Remotely, a job board for remote employment.

Each member of Kirkpatrick's team writes a personal user guide to help others understand their strengths and preferred ways to collaborate. These user guides help team members share things about themselves that typically go unsaid, especially at work.

Kirkpatrick explained that these user guides are "a practice that we put in place to really help as we go into brainstorming for a new feature or talking about a new campaign or anything that we're working on."

They keep his team on the same page when working creatively, async.

Optimize for both individual and group creativity (no, they're not the same thing.)

Are people more creative alone or in groups?

According to science, the answer is... both. The key to maximizing creativity is alternating between solo brainstorming and collaborative brainstorming. A process that makes room for both encourages more creativity than relying exclusively on either extreme.

The most creative asynchronous teams have processes for both individual and group creativity.

"We need alone time to be able to really think deeply. And we also need time with a group in order to generate those additional ideas that come with different insights," said Bjelland.

In traditional office culture, people struggle with individual creativity because they're trying to do too many things at once and are constantly interrupted.

Async teams have an advantage here. They've already reduced the time people spend in meetings, which frees up more time to focus on deep and creative work. "You're going to have a more creative team because you are encouraging team members to maximize their own individual creativity," said Bjelland.

Async teams can also enjoy a boost to group creativity.

"One of the really great benefits of async work is you actually eliminate a lot of the negatives that come with group brainstorming and creating in groups. Usually you have some voices that are amplified and some voices that are not heard if the only times you're ever creating are 20 people around the table in a meeting room," Bjelland explained.

"And if you do that successfully, you're going to have a better creative process because it's going to be more inclusive. And you're actually going to see a real diversity of perspective and thought."

Generating creative ideas asynchronously allows people more time to process their thoughts than they would in a synchronous meeting. Instead of having ideas only from those who are comfortable speaking up in meetings, you gather ideas from the entire team in a more equitable way.

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