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3 keys to encourage creative problem solving in small business

Published: Friday, Nov. 9 2012 1:38 p.m. MST

Most small-business owners want their employees to be creative problem solvers. The challenge is creating an environment where they can. Here are three keys that will help you and your employees creatively tackle problems.

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The Japanese say, “There are many ways to climb Mount Fuji.” In other words, there are many ways to accomplish an objective or solve a problem.

Over the last 30 or so years of my career, I’ve come to really appreciate the value of creative problem solving. Coming up with creative solutions to the challenges small businesses face isn’t always easy, but it sometimes makes all the difference between a successful initiative and a flop. But how do you create an environment where your employees are able to be creative in the way they approach their individual responsibilities?

I think it starts with a look at Mount Fuji and the many ways to get to the top.

I wish I could take credit for this, but it was our vice president of marketing, Burke Alder, who suggested the idea in one of our weekly marketing executive team meetings. Like many marketing teams — and any team for that matter — when Friday afternoon rolls around we’re often winding down and ready for the weekend to start.

Burke suggested we initiate what he called a think tank to give us a break from the day-to-day grind and encourage some creative thinking in a fun and energizing environment. It’s no overstatement to suggest that it’s charged up Friday afternoon with fresh energy and almost immediately started producing positive results throughout the rest of the week.

I think the reason it has been so successful is that it taps into three keys to fostering an environment where teams can creatively problem solve. I’m the first to admit there’s probably nothing new here. What is refreshing is an organization willing to invest a few hours in this type of exercise on a weekly basis.

Unless you’re willing to devote some time, nothing happens: Every Friday afternoon from 1 to 3 p.m., everyone on the team devotes time to the think tank. We typically start off with a challenge or objective we’d like to tackle as a team. There are no real rules, there is no mandate to approach the challenge a certain way, but time is devoted to some individual brainwork, investigating and formulating a suggested course of action or creative approach.

We don’t divide up into teams, the goal is to get as many different points of view as we can so we work alone for the first couple of hours. We’re all marketers, so we’re usually addressing marketing issues, but this same approach would work for software developers, sales teams, engineers or any group that has challenges and is looking for a creative solution.

Of course, this idea is nothing new, but Lendio is willing to give us the time to step away from the daily grind and think. Sometimes all it takes is a little permission to stop working and think for a few minutes to come up with some great ideas.

People need a safe environment to be creative: The no-holds-barred approach to what happens during the think tank gives people permission to explore what might otherwise be considered a “stupid” idea (which sometimes even turn out to be the best ideas). Much like a brainstorm, all ideas are on the table and discussed.

From 3 to 4 p.m., everyone on the team has the opportunity to present their idea or approach. Sometimes it’s a PowerPoint, sometimes it might be a storyboard, it might even be a whiteboard discussion — the point is to give everyone the opportunity to present their ideas and encourage discussion. Think tank ideas regularly become part of how we approach work during the rest of the week and have — at least in my mind — proven to be very valuable as we approach the individual projects that fill the rest of the week.

If you don’t capture and implement some of the ideas, you’re missing out on most of the value: One of the things about think tank that has been exciting for everyone on the team has been to see ideas discussed on Friday afternoon implemented in our activities over the following weeks. What’s more, Burke makes it a point to capture the storyboards or PowerPoint presentations so we can refer back to them, creating an environment of learning and sharing that cascades into the work we do every day. The think tank is a huge success in my mind.

Many business leaders talk about the need to foster an environment where people can step up and perform at a higher level, but Burke is facilitating an environment at Lendio where it’s actually happening. What’s more, he’s created an environment where we all realize that there are “many ways to climb Mount Fuji.” We regularly explore different and unique approaches to marketing challenges.

What are you doing to help your employees creatively solve problems?

As a Main Street business evangelist and marketing veteran with more than 25 years in the trenches, Ty Kiisel writes about leading people and small-business issues for Lendio (www.lendio.com).

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