How to Build More Innovative Teams


April 22, 2021

In one of the episodes of the US version of the comedy series The Office, Michael Scott rushes into the scene, demanding everyone give him ideas. As the regional manager of the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, he has a reputation for his narcissistic behavior as a supervisor.

On his way into the building that day, Michael saw wet cement in front of the building. He magnifies the situation, telling his employees that one of his lifelong dreams is to leave a legacy in cement. Time is of the essence, he insists, the cement’s drying. He needs ideas, lots of them—and good ones—about what imprint to leave that uniquely and memorably represents him.

Kevin, the slow, dim-witted accountant, surprisingly comes up with the first suggestion. “Write your initials,” he says with a smug smile to the rest of the staff before Michael shoots down his idea. “No, some idiot named Mark Greg Sputnik will claim credit for it.”

Next up is Phyllis from sales. She remembers something from her childhood and tries to connect the dots. She thinks out loud but takes too much time and Michael loses patience. His annoyance makes her forget what she was thinking about, and she emotionally withdraws.

Then, eager-to-please Andy comes up with a twist by suggesting Michael draw something. “It says more than words,” before Michael cuts him off with “Nooooo…NNNNNOOOOO! Give me something good.”

Flighty Kelly goes off on a tangent trying to tell her idea. Pam the receptionist has to translate it into something relevant for the challenge at hand—leave his handprints in the cement like celebrities do outside the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles.

That peaks Michael’s interest. “I love it!”

Then Jim, the office prankster, throws out the most radical idea—a real celebrity would leave an imprint of his face in the cement. This works beautifully because not only is it a unique idea, Jim knows he can get Michael to do something outrageous by stroking his ego.

At this point, Oscar—the only rational one in the group—tries to point out that submerging one’s face in wet cement isn’t safe. But Michael will hear none of it because he’s already sold on the idea. The more dangerous it sounds, the more he loves it.

In the midst of all of this is Michael’s toady, Dwight. He doesn’t offer up any ideas, but he’s engaged with excitement, a smile spread across his face. He’s the first one to run after his idol when they go downstairs. In the next scene, Michael has a straw taped to his face, presumably to allow him to breathe, and plastic wrap covers his hair. Dwight applies Vaseline to Michael’s face, so the cement doesn’t stick to it.

Michael leans forward as Dwight applies pressure to the back of his head to make a good imprint into the wet cement. After a few seconds, Dwight needs help to get Michael’s face out, and the group lends a hand.

At the end of the scene we see Michael’s faceprint in the cement—an unrecognizable pit at the intersection of four squares in the sidewalk. Yet another failed attempt for Michael to leave a brilliant legacy. (Watch the full, painful scene here.)

What Michael put his employees through is the same experience that you’ve been put through a thousand times—a boss or a client has a deadline and demands brilliant ideas on a moment’s notice. As idea after idea is thrown out, they’re rejected. Deep down, people decide to keep their mouth shut next time, they resent the person in charge, trust tanks, and egos drive decision making. A voice of reason gets dismissed as too conservative, and the end result is ridiculous.

The battle for brilliance

Companies need ideas. A lot of ideas. You need them for strategic plans. For campaigns. For products. Services. Meeting themes. Growth strategies. Customer retention. The list is endless.

Team innovation is the backbone of every successful company. It’s what sets a business apart from the competition and helps it grow and prosper. Getting your staff to think creatively isn’t always easy, though. In a survey by Robert Half, 35 percent of chief financial officers said the greatest roadblock to organizational breakthroughs is a lack of innovative ideas. Executives polled also cited excessive bureaucracy (24 percent) and being bogged down with daily tasks or putting out fires (20 percent) as other major barriers.

When we need an idea, the situation isn’t much different from that of Michael Scott in The Office. Someone in a leadership position circles the wagons, and there’s a mass gathering in which coming up with something “fresh, new, and different” is the point of it all. People at every level have experienced the pain of pursuing new ideas through brainstorming sessions. One of the most soul-crushing things a person can get in their inbox is a meeting invitation for a brainstorming session. People know they’re cesspools of inefficiency filled with egocentric ladder climbers delighted to have a captive audience.

The result? Some attendees remain stone-faced throughout the entire session. Others contribute sporadically. And there are those few but mighty who loudly dominate with their pet ideas and not-so-hidden agendas. Ideas pop up randomly—some are intriguing, but most are ridiculous—but because the session doesn’t have any process or rules, little momentum builds around any of them.

At the end of the day, instead of leaving with an experience that feels fulfilling and productive, people lament how much further behind they are in work. And besides, even if a good idea did come out of a brainstorm, it’s not like it will go anywhere anyway.

Alex Osborn’s rules for brainstorming

Ironically, brainstorming was created to solve the problems we still face today with fresh thinking. In 1941, Madison Avenue advertising executive Alex Osborn found that his employees were having a hard time coming up with new ideas for ad campaigns. He saw that conventional business meetings inhibited the creation of new ideas. Rather than having his people work as solo thinkers, he put them in groups and proposed some rules designed to help stimulate them. These rules gave people the freedom of mind and action to spark off and reveal new ideas.

Alex described brainstorming as a technique that a group uses to find a solution for a specific problem by coming up with as many spontaneous ideas as people can come up with. He had four general rules, and he found that when people followed them, teams created a lot more ideas. They reduced people’s natural inhibitions—inhibitions that kept them from volunteering ideas they felt others would consider “wrong” or “stupid.” Alex also found that generating “silly” ideas could spark off very useful ones because they changed the way people thought—all with these simple rules:

1. Go for quantity

When you go for the numbers, it forces you to think about possibilities from many different directions. When you use divergent thinking, you see connections that aren’t obvious, and random ideas begin popping into your head. This is exactly what you want. The more ideas you have, the better chances that one of them will eventually lead to a great idea—quantity equals quality. This is critical, and Osborne knew from his advertising work that people tend to settle and stop creating ideas when the first good option pops up.

For teams, it’s important to never feel like you’re settling for a concept simply because you can’t think of a better one. And, let’s be honest. When there’s the pressure of a deadline, or you just want to move on to the next step, you get lazy. You don’t push through the couple of good ideas to get to the truly great ones. It’s a numbers game—the more ideas a team generates, the bigger the chance of producing a radical and effective idea.

In the bigger picture, the time that teams spend up front generating as many ideas as possible is minor compared to the time you need to take to move the idea into development and execution.

Here’s an example of why it’s so important to come up with as many ideas as possible.

A pottery teacher split her class into two halves.

To the first half she said, “You will spend the semester studying pottery, planning, designing, and creating your perfect pot. At the end of the semester, we’ll have a competition to see whose pot is the best.”

To the other half she said, “You will spend your semester making lots of pots. Your grade will be based on the number of completed pots you finish. At the end of the semester, you’ll also have the opportunity to enter your best pot into a competition.”

The first half of the class threw themselves into researching, planning, and design. Then they set about creating their one perfect pot for the competition.

The second half of the class immediately grabbed fistfuls of clay and started churning out pots. They made big ones, small ones, simple ones, and intricately detailed ones. Their muscles ached for weeks because of the strength they built by having to throw so many pots.

At the end of class, both groups entered their best work into the competition. Once the votes were tallied, all of the best pots came from the team that was tasked with producing as many pots as they could. What they learned from making so many different samples helped them become significantly better potters than the other students who set out to make the single most perfect pot.

2. Withhold criticism

This might be the hardest one. We all have that inner critic in our heads that tells us whatever we’re doing is wrong. In brainstorming sessions, it’s easy to project that. Instead of the idea, these comments are seen (whether true or not) as judgment about the person, not the idea. That activates the inner critic in other people. In a short amount of time, people’s body language changes and they become defensive, skeptical, or pessimistic. The energy of the group tanks, and new suggestions are met with a death sentence. This is why anything that whiffs of judgment or criticism of the ideas people generate should be put on hold. There’s a time for that later in the vetting process. Instead, people should focus on extending or adding to ideas. By suspending judgment, participants will feel free to talk about the really wacky concepts.

3. Welcome wild ideas

To get a good, long list of suggestions, encourage wild ideas. Interestingly, what can seem like the norm in your day-to-day life can sound kooky to someone else and spark a new thought. Do you play the jug in a backyard band? Maybe that’s just the spark of genius for your next employee recruitment campaign. I worked with a client who started with a wacky observation about men’s facial haircare that turned into a highly successful customer portal. A lot of great ideas can be generated by looking at anything from new perspectives and holding back all your judgy thoughts. Sometimes it takes the crazy to pave the path to the enlightened.

4. Combine and improve ideas

In the Perpetual Innovation process, you learned how to look for dots and then connect them in different ways to create constellations. Alex believed that instead of criticizing ideas, people need to look for ways to improve and evolve them—the 1 + 1 = 3 philosophy. This stimulates building ideas through association. For example, the Scottish organization Dementia Dog was the result of a group of design students from the Glasgow School of Art. They came up with the idea of using trained assistance dogs to help care for people with dementia by combining the services of Alzheimer Scotland, Dogs for the Disabled, and Guide Dogs UK. English inventor Edwin Budding got the idea for the lawnmower after seeing a machine in a cloth mill that used a cutting cylinder. He combined that with how people used a scythe to cut grass and voilà! We now have a machine to make Saturday-morning lawncare that much easier.

Since Alex introduced brainstorming in 1941, it’s spread throughout the world. Most educated managers know it but, sadly, apply it poorly. And that’s why it doesn’t work. While we have the idealized outcomes that will make us look like creative geniuses, we all know it doesn’t actually work like that.

In fact, bad brainstorming is worse than no brainstorming. The whole idea of bringing new ideas to the table in this way is to spark inspiration. But that’s not how things work out. They’re rife with politics, hidden agendas, and favoritism. If you don’t have to subject your team to all of this, why would you?

Bad brainstorming destroys the morale and creative confidence of the people involved. Poor sessions lead to things such as:

– Making teams believe they aren’t creative because they didn’t come up with any radical ideas.
– Destroying people’s faith in the idea-generating process. This could ruin any future chances of making the organization innovative.
– Making staff scared to voice their ideas because they were criticized in a session.
– Alienating staff if their managers pressure them into participating in a poorly supervised session without a friendly, critical-free environment.
– Making brainstorming sessions a time to be dreaded if they focus on the individual performance of people.

Power in the people

The biggest barrier to people’s great ideas is people themselves. When push comes to shove and budgets get cut, what does your boss tell you? You need to do more with less.

This is when building a culture of Citizen Innovators comes into play. As you’ll remember from the last chapter, each of the archetypes—Strategist, Culture Shaper, Psychologist, Orchestrator, Collaborator, and Provocateur—has their zone of genius, a way of looking at the world as well as the Perpetual Innovation process, that’s different from the others. When you’re confident in yourself and what you bring to the table, you not only deliver your best work; you’ll help others on your team do the same. Confidence in your own archetype affects how you look at and interact with the other five. Understanding this is the backbone to building highly aligned teams and consistently coming up with new, great, and reliable ideas, because when you understand this dynamic, you’ll never be forced to do more with less, but you’ll be able to deliver extraordinary things with the people you already have.

You and I probably don’t know each other, and we may never meet. But I do know this about you: You don’t create your best work by yourself. It’s always been when you were part of a highly aligned team. When you were part of this kind of group, you couldn’t wait to get out of bed and get to work. This is because you knew you were going to accomplish great things—together. You were proud of the innovative, high-quality work you did. And you compare every other team you’ve ever been a part of to that one. It takes a great team to deliver extraordinary results.

It’s been true throughout history. It took 39 people to write the United States Declaration of Independence. Walt Disney relied on a team of nine animators to make his visions come true. Three astronauts landed on the moon. There were four Beatles. It took 25 Chicago Cubs to win the World Series after a 108-year dry spell. Heck, even Jesus had 12 disciples.

The strength of bringing people together to innovate as a team is that each person brings their own experiences. They make different observations based on how they see the world and what they notice. You may want more creativity, but your ideas will only stretch as far as your team’s experience.

Teams are more innovative when managers expect people to innovate, support them when their attempts don’t work out the way they planned, and recognize and reward new ideas and the people who implement them. This means encouraging risk and expecting failures. Keep in mind that support for innovation is crucial even if you don’t see results right away. It can’t always be directly tied to revenue. Sometimes its six degrees of separation from the money, but it takes stick-to-itiveness for innovation to take hold and have an impact on teams and how they perform.

No one person has all the capabilities needed to make innovation a success—it’s a team sport. For projects to succeed, they have to be well-constructed with the right combination of talent, not just technical skills but a balance of the six archetypes of the Citizen Innovators.

Photo credit: FeeLoona via Pixabay

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.