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Thinking creatively and fostering creativity in others is no longer an optional skill for leaders. It’s not just something we need if we are in certain industries like arts, entertainment, and advertising. Or when we are in certain stages of an organization’s life. And it’s not something we can always delegate to our more right-brained lieutenants.  

In a world of high-speed change and constant innovation, fostering creativity has become an essential leadership capability. Leaders who want great ideas from themselves and others have to muster the courage to take risks themselves and create an environment for others to follow suit. Otherwise, their status quo culture will grow stale, they won’t be able to hire or keep the best and brightest employees, and their competition will soon pass them like a broken-down clunker on the Interstate. 

The challenge for today’s leader is to create what I call “a culture of try” – a culture that gives people encouragement and support for trying new things without the fear of punishment or embarrassment if it doesn’t work out. It’s a culture that doesn’t fear failure, but fears not trying. It’s a culture that asks: “What if we try this?” so that it never has to ask, “What if we had only given that a shot?” 

This sort of culture is heavily dependent upon how YOU as the leader model creativity and what you do to encourage others to think big. I know that can be a challenge when you feel the pressures of time and high expectations to deliver game-changing stuff. But it’s worth considering some ways you can foster a more creative environment, so you can get the best ideas from yourself and others.  

Let me share with you four things I’ve found that can help you develop “a culture of try.” 

1. Create Space for Sparks 

Too often leaders jump straight to the “how” stage in the creative process and smother the flame of a great idea before it has time to spark. When someone proposes an idea, these leaders jump to momentum-killing questions like, “How will we get that done?” Or, worse yet, “We could never do that.” Moving immediately to an execution mindset, instead of fully exploring the concept itself, squelches creativity because it doesn’t give an idea enough time to form or to be used as a springboard for something else.  

Creative thinking and executional thinking happen in different parts of the brain, and it’s difficult to engage both parts at the same time. The execution thought process can also be self-limiting, because we tend to default to what has worked in the past and lose sight of the possibilities that are beyond our personal experiences. Allowing time and space for creative thinking to fully occur involves a conscious effort to postpone the questions about execution so that progress can precede perfection. 

One way to create time and space for ideation without limits is by asking “blue sky” questions like, “What would you do if you could do anything?” or “How might we…?”  

These types of questions allow our minds to go further than normal to consider new ideas and make new connections, but only if we take time to explore the answers without shifting to a spark-killing execution mentality. 

2. View Failure Differently 

You’re probably familiar with the Silicon Valley view of failure that says fail fast and cheap. This doesn’t just apply to high-tech companies or start-up ventures. It’s a mantra any leader should embrace, personally and organizationally.
Failure is one of the most common fears among leaders, particularly results-oriented leaders who thrive on reaching goals. When we think differently and take risks, we willingly put ourselves in a state of uncertainty that is uncomfortable. We don’t have an assurance of success, and we don’t have as much control as we would like. We also risk looking foolish in the eyes of others if our ideas don’t seem to work in the early going.  

These fears not only hold us back from putting forward game-changing ideas, but they can be contagious. Before we know it, our fears have been adopted by everyone around us. If we fear failure, that becomes part of our culture. Before long, the only employees who are taking risks and innovating are former employees who have sought greener, more creative, pastures.  

To minimize fears and maximize creativity, you have to reframe failure. Think of it as a normal part of an iterative process that comes from a growth mindset. Very rarely does any idea come out of the gate in perfect form. Almost always we must test and refine as we go. So failure can be incredibly valuable and should come without judgment so that it produces useful feedback and continuous learning.  

 To underscore this approach, instead of saying, “No, we can’t” in the creative process, say “Let’s try it and see.” Empower your team to put their best ideas to the test in a pilot program to discover what works and what doesn’t. To aid continuous improvement, ask three questions: 

• What do we observe?
• What are we learning?
• What should we try now? 


Viewing failure as a part of the process, rather than a result of the process, helps turn it into a tool for success rather than an end-game metric to fear. 

3. Praise the Effort, Not Just the Win 

Harold Korell, former CEO of Southwestern Energy Company and a longtime mentor and client, established a rather unusual award during the early stages of growth at his company. He called it “Best Try.” The award was designed to recognize an employee or team who generated an idea that sounded great in theory but didn’t work out when tried. The hope was that by praising their efforts, it would encourage a continuous generation of ideas throughout the company and empower employees to act on these ideas.  

It worked. Winning “Best Try” became a prestigious honor year after year. Winners were honored at the annual awards banquet and in companywide communication. Not surprisingly, many of the ideas and learnings gained through these tries led to major breakthroughs later on.  

The lesson is clear: It’s one thing to tell people it’s OK to fail and quite another to praise them for their effort even if something doesn’t quite work out. Praising the effort, publicly or privately, encourages resiliency in others when things get bumpy. As we now know from growth mindset research, praise also keeps attention on the creative process rather than the short-term results. It demonstrates your belief as the leader that others can grow and improve, and it helps them stay focused on possibilities rather than wallowing in guilt or self-doubt. 

Outcomes matter, of course, but the process of creating and trying helps people stretch and grow. And while it might result in a few failures along the way, it ultimately will lead to some of your team’s biggest wins.  

4. Enable Success 

Along with praise, however, you also must offer support. If something didn’t work or isn’t working, more effort will just result in sustained failure. Leaders must constantly encourage the discovery of fresh ideas and new strategies by asking empowering questions like: “What do you need to think about next to find success?” or “How can you build on what you’ve learned so far?” 

You can also offer insights and feedback. You can provide resources (time, money, equipment, headspace), remove roadblocks like bureaucracy. You can check in with others to see how things are going. Make asking for help just another part of the process that creates fresh ideas.  

Like any aspect of setting culture, creating a culture of try isn’t something that happens overnight. And it isn’t something that survives without daily care. It’s an ongoing effort that requires creativity from you as a leader, and that might not always make you comfortable.  

But when you take the risk, others will take risks with you. Your organization will experience the type of sustained creativity we all dream of and that keeps it competitive in a market that demands innovation.
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