How Product Leaders can act as a sail, not an anchor, to their creative problem solving teams.
Organizations and product teams cannot innovate without creative problem solving. As such, it’s important for leaders to have a framework for how they can support and not hinder their team’s ability to come up with innovative solutions.
Creativity and Creative Problem Solving Defined
Creativity, one of several aspects of design ability, is used to refer to the production of new and novel ideas that are both useful and appropriate. Closely related to the concept of creativity is the act of creative problem solving, which refers to the processes and complex set of skills used to arrive at new and appropriate solutions to a problem.
The stages of creative problem solving, are generally laid out as follows:
Step 1: Problem Construction
Step 2: Information Search
Step 3: Idea Generation
Step 4: Evaluation
Also, much has been written about the influence of leadership on creativity and creative problem solving, with results suggesting that leadership increases creativity when leaders can act as:
Let’s unpack some of these.
1. Conduits: Making the search and transfer of knowledge and information easier and more efficient.
Leaders are uniquely positioned to act as connectors between pockets of knowledge within their organization and in outside professional networks. Because leaders often have the space and status to develop relationships with people in other teams and other companies, they have access to sources their subordinates may not know exist (or at least know to leverage). If you’re a leader, work to strengthen these networks, so that when the time comes, you can connect your team members to the right sources and supercharge the creative problem solving process.
2. Provocateurs: Provoking and encouraging new ways of constructing problems and places to seek out information.
A perhaps misattributed Einstein quote reads:
“If I had 1 hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem, and 5 minutes solving it.”
Leaders will help the creative problem solving process if they can encourage their team to come up with multiple ways of framing the problem. This will provide a springboard for a wider information search and will increase the likelihood of having more novel solutions. It also mitigates the risk of group thinking, which plagues everyone from product teams to governmental organizations.
3. Shepherds: Not staying too central or too removed from the creative problem solving process.
I’ve never tended sheep, but I imagine that if a shepherd were to be up in his (or her) sheep’s business all the time they would not do the things that sheep need to do: eat, make baby sheep and grow their fleece. Lackluster analogies aside, leaders who are not micromanagers, but at the same time readily available for support when needed, will help their teams arrive at more creative solutions.
4. Motivators: Inspiring subordinates to see a greater significance in their work and pushing them to have higher aspirations for themselves and their company., 
Great leaders get their subordinates to identify their work as playing a part in something bigger than themselves. This intrinsic motivation helps build resilience and perseverance in teams to work together, tolerate failure, and push through discomfort and uncertainty.
Whether you are directing a team of 1, or an entire practice, effectively leading the creative process, is difficult, but essential to shipping well-designed products and services. Godspeed.
Does anything else come to mind when considering how to develop a designerly approach to leadership? What other practices could benefit from design thinking? Drop us a message on twitter and let us know!
- Cross, N. (2007). Designerly Ways of Knowing. Springer Science & Business Media.
- T M Amabile, “A Model of Creativity and Innovation in Organizations,” Research in Organizational Behavior, 1988.
- Abraham Carmeli, Roy Gelbard, and Roni Reiter-Palmon, “Leadership, Creative Problem-Solving Capacity, and Creative Performance: the Importance of Knowledge Sharing,” Human Resource Management 52, no. 1 (January 24, 2013): 95–121, doi:10.1002/hrm.21514.
- Roni Reiter-Palmon and Jody J Illies, “Leadership and Creativity: Understanding Leadership From a Creative Problem-Solving Perspective,” The Leadership Quarterly 15, no. 1 (February 2004): 55–77, doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2003.12.005.
- Jan Kratzer, Roger Th A J Leenders, and Jo M L Van Engelen, “The Social Structure of Leadership and Creativity in Engineering Design Teams: an Empirical Analysis,” Journal of Engineering and Technology Management 25, no. 4 (December 2008): 269–86, doi:10.1016/j.jengtecman.2008.10.004.
- Lale Gumusluoğlu and Arzu Ilsev, “Transformational Leadership and Organizational Innovation: the Roles of Internal and External Support for Innovation,” Journal of Product Innovation Management 26, no. 3 (May 2009): 264–77, doi:10.1111/j.1540-5885.2009.00657.x;
- B M Bass, “Two Decades of Research and Development in Transformational Leadership,” European Journal of Work and Organizational … 8, no. 1 (1999): 9–32, doi:10.1080/135943299398410.