Whether we like to admit it or not, most IT managers are slaves to process. After all, we’re usually juggling a number of projects while putting out the daily fires that afflict technical managers. To keep things moving, you have to create good processes and procedures and be able to track progress.

Therefore, we tend to spend a lot of our time improving performance at the margins, making existing workflows and structures more efficient. I’m not knocking that plan. Many projects have stayed on deadline because an IT manager carved out a half day here and there from the schedule to make it happen.

However, what happens when you need to stop trying to get the last five percent out of an existing workflow? What if you need to blow up an existing process and start over? How can you force yourself to look at a problem from a different angle? More importantly, how can you get your people to do the same? In this column, I’m going to offer some suggestions on how to help your team “think outside the box.”

A lesson from the future
Let’s start by making two assumptions. First, we’ll assume that your supervisor and client (whether external or internal) will not object if you trash an existing process in an effort to find a better solution. Second, we’ll assume that no one in your group has an emotional reluctance to embrace the existing practice. In other words, no one is dragging their feet mumbling, “That’s not the way we do things around here.” Those are both real problems that I might deal with in a future column. For now, we’re going to assume that everyone is comfortable with change, even radical change.

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The problem is coming up with a new approach. Unfortunately, expending so much effort trying to make an existing process work more efficiently often makes it hard for us to brainstorm for truly new ideas.

If it’s any comfort, this problem doesn’t plague only IT departments. Not too long ago, my son was reading one of my old books, The Making of Star Trek by Stephen Whitfield. In one chapter, Whitfield relates the difficulty the late Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had getting the people at the studio to think outside the box. Whitfield writes of Roddenberry’s run-ins with the greensman (the person responsible for all plants and shrubbery used on a studio’s sets) regarding the need for alien-looking plants:

No matter how many times Gene carefully explained what he had in mind, this fellow would always come back with an ordinary-looking potted plant. Finally, in desperation, Gene grabbed the plant, pulled it out of the pot, and stuck it back in, upside down. The bare roots of the plant just sort of dangled there in the sunlight, looking nakedly grotesque. “There!” shouted Gene. “Now we’ve got an alien-looking plant!”

Assuming you don’t want to uproot any shrubbery in your office, here are some methods you might use to help your team brainstorm:

  • Give them cover. This may sound a little “touchy-feely,” but people need to feel safe before they are willing to look beyond existing procedures. Make sure they know there won’t be retribution over their ideas, such as a suggestion to outsource a solution even though the plan could mean a reduction in internal staff. You also need to create a professional environment that makes people comfortable with the exercise. In other words, you can’t ridicule an idea, no matter how preposterous it is.
  • Preach the necessity of bad ideas. In fact, if they’re only giving you good ideas, they aren’t really thinking outside the box. True brainstorming involves both bad and good ideas. Granted, you don’t necessarily want to hear about every unexpressed thought but don’t let your staff censor their own thinking.
  • Provide an example. To get his point across, Roddenberry finally had to demonstrate what he was talking about. When asking your team to reexamine a process from the ground up, you need to do more than just say, “Go off and come back with something new.” Give a couple of ideas to prime the pump, making it clear that your ideas aren’t necessarily any good but just examples of the kind of thinking you want to see.
  • Set some limits. If some things are off limits, say so up front. These can be infrastructure limits. (“Assume that we’re not changing the desktop OS this year, but everything else is on the table.”) On the other hand, they could be spending limits. (“Assume that you have $400,000 to spend on hardware and software for the project—how would you redesign?”) Just because you set some boundaries doesn’t mean there isn’t room for real creativity. In fact, setting limits helps some people conceptualize the problem better.

By using these suggestions, you can help your staff come up with some new approaches to perennial problems. While all of these won’t be practical, one good idea can justify the entire exercise.

How do you foster creativity?

What method do you use to help coworkers break out of the box? Post a comment to this discussion and enter our weekly contest.