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Getting creative in federal government

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How can federal managers foster innovative, creative environments? Tom Fox talked with leadership expert and author Leigh Thompson about her latest research on negotiation, team creativity and learning. Thompson is a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and also the author of six books on management and leadership. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Based on your work, what can federal managers do to create a culture of teamwork?

The key to nurturing the culture of teamwork within an agency is making teams the exception, not the rule. If you can get a job done or a piece of work done with one smart dedicated person, do it. Every time we create a team for the sake of teamwork, it undervalues the team. Whenever a single person can’t accomplish a goal or a mission and you need the talent of other people, bring together a team and then you’ve already set the stage for something meaningful.

When can leaders do to motivate employees?

The most important thing is that people want to feel fairly treated. You also need to make the work personal by connecting to the passions and the calling of the people involved, talking about why they do what you do and how it’s going to make a difference. This is where I actually think government people have the edge, because they know that they’re on a noble mission, that they are making the world a better and safer place. I also think leaders need to be really conscious about how they are leading, by conveying the message that “I care very much about you guys, this is my leadership style, this is what you can expect from me,” as opposed to just kind of getting down to work.

You have written a book titled “Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration.” What do you mean by creative conspiracy?

Let’s face it, the word conspiracy does not have a positive connotation, and maybe it’s suggesting you are doing something you shouldn’t, but we wanted to be edgy. The way I think about creative conspiracy is teams of people who are consciously planning how to engage in creative and innovative acts for the purpose of reaching a lofty goal. Often times they have to be working against a tidal wave of business practices that are not conducive to creativity.

Teams who are engaged in creative conspiracy are going to have rules and focus on quantity, not quality. They’re not doing what we call self-centering. That’s what happens when you give people a quality goal. They think, “Well I’m not going to open my mouth.” So they sit there and the ideas do not flow. The teams with the quantity goal are coming up with more and better ideas because they’re not prejudging themselves and the quality of their contribution.

Describe ways to create a collaborative and innovative environment.

The classic brainstorming rules are these: be expressive, don’t criticize others, focus on quantity and build on the edges of others. But there are some new rules that will also increase creativity. Don’t tell stories or explain ideas, encourage people who aren’t making a contribution, have a facilitator (either an insider or an outsider), and use a hybrid structure of having people work individually and then move into a group. Learn how to have healthy conflicts. Groups that work under time pressure are actually more creative, too. Something like 75 percent of a group’s ideas will come out in the first 15 minutes, so shorten the time period. On a more macro level, there are some companies that are known for their innovation that give out prizes for the best stupid mistakes. It’s sort of funny, but it sends the message that leadership recognizes the experimental.

Is there a passion outside your research that influences the work you do?

I am a cyclist. To put this in perspective, I couldn’t have even called myself an athlete until about five years ago. I started riding a bike. I got tested, so to speak, and someone said I had potential. Now I’m a USA cycling national time trial champion, and I won a masters time trial championship at the world level in 2010. My whole life has changed as a result of that, but not because I won. It was the training. I had to understand what it means to be very intent, taking myself to the point of failure, recovering and learning to come back and try to perfect that particular discipline.

When people are trying to achieve other things extracurricular, they’re on a mission, they have a goal. And you have to have discipline that moves you closer to your goal. There needs to be passion and community. I have this whole outside life that I used to keep totally separate, and finally I’m fusing those two together by applying some of these lessons from cycling to my work.

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