When my children were in grade school, I served both as an Odyssey of the Mind and book-writing coach for their school. In both of these endeavors, my role was to facilitate student progress toward a specific outcome while fostering the creativity needed for the students to get there. What I learned from these aspiring writers, engineers, and creative problem-solvers was that when individuals or groups are offered a challenge and given license to solve it in their own way, magical things can happen. Of course, the students had to have some structure in the way of timelines for completion and certain boundaries that complied with safety regulations, but even in the context of these, the outcomes were fabulous. Who’s to say that a monkey can’t run a toy store or that potholders aren’t believable crab claws? When left to their creative interpretations, children as young as 7 or 8 will write, act, and solve problems in ways I could never have dreamed of.
When does that creative problem-solving cease? I’m not sure, but my guess is that it is squelched little by little over the years of having to stay within the lines—literally and figuratively—in school and, later, in the workforce. The greatest danger to our progress is that we stifle innovation slowly over the years and then expect our staff to solve problems when they have had little context or freedom to assess situations and create new solutions to old problems. Formal process improvement models like LEAN and Six Sigma are helping to bring some of that problem-solving back to the rank and file, but don’t hesitate to engage your staff in critical thinking and problem-solving on a day-to-day basis.
We advocate for creative problem-solving in our coaching approach with clients and show managers how to foster it, but I also find that when I give my staff free reign and time to solve a problem, they never disappoint. Twice a year, we have what we call FedEx Days (named this because the solution has to be delivered within 24 hours). Based on an idea from Daniel Pink (author of Drive), staff members identify a problem that they would like solved or a process they would like improved. Working solo or in small teams, they have 24 hours to focus solely on that problem but must produce a viable product or solution. After 24 hours, staff gather and report out on their results. I’m always amazed by what they come up with and am thoroughly humbled by their talent when given free reign. It’s a great reminder that we must create opportunities for staff to engage on a deeper level and be allowed to bring their unique talents to the organization.
In healthcare, this is where some of the best practices originate. When leaders try to be the only idea generators, we miss out on a plethora of rich opportunities. Let your employees unleash their creativity, and you may have the next best practice.