How To Foster Team Creativity

June 3, 2012


Pixar: For the birds

Pixar: For the Birds (Photo credit: Colin ZHU)

Over the last couple of months, we have had quite a few conversations about how to create an innovative, creative environment for our team and in our company.

It all started when the Creative Director for our project circulated a 2008 Harvard Business Review article on How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity.  This article has circulated around the blogosphere since it was first published.  If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.

When I initially read the article, I was excited about the many aspects of Pixar’s culture that can also be found in Agile, such as:

1. Power to the Creatives

When creating software, the creatives are your programmers.  No matter what product you are making, the team creating it needs to have ownership over how they do that.  The business provides the high level challenges, but the team owns how to meet that challenge.  It’s one of the core values of Scrum.

2. Regular Review and Feedback

At Pixar, work is reviewed daily.  Agile encourages regular, frequent reviews as well.  At a minimum, it is demonstrated and reviewed at the end of each sprint (every two to six weeks).  A healthy daily stand-up, though, involves the team talking with each other, not just reporting status.  When done well, it is a way to get daily feedback.  If programmers are checking in work frequently, peer code reviews are another way to get regular feedback.

3. Post-mortems

I learned long ago that the first rule of project management is: “If you do nothing else, learn from your successes and failures”.  Pixar learns from every film they do.  Agile teams should be doing retrospectives after every sprint and using what they learned to improve the next one.

On further reflection, there are a few other points you need at the company level to help foster creativity:

a. A Clear, Real Business Need

There is truth to the cliché: necessity is the mother of invention.  The more clear and authentic the “need”, the more inspiring it will be.  While selling millions of units is often the end goal, it is usually only inspiring to sales people. Contributing to something more meaningful for clients or the business will tend to engage the team to contribute. Creative people like to solve problems, make products people love and be the best. If the business need meets one or more of those desires, innovation will follow.

b. Transparency

Do you contribute your thoughts and ideas if you don’t know what will be done with them?  The company needs to be transparent about its business.  If the team knows the company keeps information from them, they will hesitate to share. In addition, if ideas are suggested and go nowhere, there is no motivation to offer more ideas.

c. Don’t Forget about the WIIFM

We live in the age of knowledge, so everyone knows that thoughts and ideas are the source of wealth for companies. People will be reluctant to share their big ideas if the company can’t clearly answer the question: “What’s in it for me?” The next big innovation needs to be recognized and rewarded, either through a recognition or bonus program or through career progression. At the very least, let people see their ideas through from start to ship. They will learn a lot more and will have the satisfaction of seeing their ideas become reality.

What things do your companies do to encourage innovation?  Have your companies ever tried to introduce an innovation program and got it completely wrong?  What would encourage you to be more creative?

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About Liza Wood

After a dozen years leading video game development projects in a variety of roles, I decided to pursue a Master of Data Science at the University of British Columbia. Studying data science doesn’t mean I’m moving away from leading people. Growing data science teams need collaborative, pragmatic, Agile leadership to connect data to all areas of the business. I would like to share that point of view, along with my experiences, on this blog.

View all posts by Liza Wood

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