John C. Maxwell: 5 Tips to Spark Creativity in Others

UPDATED: June 15, 2016
PUBLISHED: June 15, 2016

A few months back, I met with my team to kick off a big project, my next book. I started by asking everyone to share their ideas and saying we’d run with the best ones.

We had a concept at that point but not much else. So what I needed were ideas—lots of them. Practical ideas, crazy ideas, ideas that we knew were a sure bet, ideas that were way out on a limb. What I didn’t want was to pitch and defend my ideas. I wanted to hear the best and most innovative concepts from every team member.

Related: John C. Maxwell: How to Become an Idea Catalyst

My team tossed out dozens of suggestions. By the end of the day, we had come up with a fantastic outline for the book, one that I was excited to write.

Saying “The best idea wins”—and meaning it—is a great way to encourage creativity in your organization. But that’s just the start. Here are a few other strategies that allow good ideas to flourish. Let’s look at five principles for cultivating creativity anywhere.

1. Develop a creative culture.

You can’t have creativity if you don’t have a creative culture. And you won’t have a creative culture unless you, the leader, first embrace it. Show that you value this trait by letting the best idea, rather than your idea, win. Acknowledge and reward creativity every day.

Next, surround yourself with creative people. You need team members who can regularly bring unique ideas to the table. This doesn’t mean you hire only artistic people. Creativity comes in many forms, and you’re better off hiring team members with different ways of expressing innovation. Some people possess abstract creativity: Hand them a piece of paper, and they can invent something amazing from nothing. Others think in more concrete ways. They may not excel at envisioning something new, but you can count on them to make existing ideas better. A strong team has representatives from both creative camps.

Once you have the right people, continue to provide an environment that rewards their creative output, acknowledges their contributions and gives them a vision that inspires them to break new ground. They’ll respond positively, and you’re likely to see amazing results.

2. Eliminate negativity.

Two things crush innovation faster than anything else: negative talk and negative attitudes.

Negative talk includes statements such as “I’m not a creative person,” “That’s not how we do things here,” “Be practical,” “It’s never been/can’t be done,” “That’s too much work,” “We can’t afford to make a mistake” and “We don’t have the time/money/people.” Start removing these and other negative comments with your own words. When you’re positive and encouraging, your people will follow your lead.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll never hear anything negative—it’s going to happen. And when it does, you simply redirect the person toward a positive thought by saying something such as, “We do face challenges, but our goal is to find the opportunities within those challenges. How can we use this situation to develop something positive?” The words may vary, but by addressing the negative talk and pivoting toward a positive outlook, you can completely revamp your organization’s vocabulary and culture.

Battling negative attitudes begins with you, too. Let your enthusiasm be apparent to everyone, and you’ll see positivity spread throughout the ranks. Sometimes difficult situations such as a budget shortfall or a failed venture can bring people down. Acknowledge that and then challenge your pessimistic employees to list possible positive outcomes along with innovative strategies they could use to make them happen. You might even have them write out the list and post it in their work areas as a reminder.

If someone’s gloomy outlook persists despite your best efforts to improve it, you might have to send the employee packing. One sourpuss can bring down an entire team.

3. Embrace the need for questions.

Comfortable people make statements. Creative people ask questions. Questions open the door for new ideas, new perspectives and new possibilities. The more your team members can ask and answer questions about the work they’re doing, the more likely you are to see creative results.

A quick word of caution, though: Creative people can be abstract and far-reaching, and you might find their questions and conversations veer too sharply from the mission at hand. These innovators need someone to help maintain the organization’s vision, and that often means redirecting their questions back to the big-picture goal. As a leader, don’t be afraid to harness their minds and channel their energy toward achieving your vision.

4. Don’t ranch sacred cows.

That’s a funnier way of saying, “Don’t cling to the status quo.” Instead embrace an openness to innovation, even before it’s necessary. There’s a shelf life on many ideas, so before a practice becomes stale or obsolete, you might need to tear down what’s working in order to build something better in its place.

Be prepared to make mistakes along the way. Failure will come with innovation, so it’s best to brace for it in advance. As Dilbert comic creator Scott Adams says, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

5. Keep the toolbox full.

This final principle is the simplest: Give your people the tools necessary to do their best work. You don’t want designers working on 10-year-old computers. Filmmakers shouldn’t shoot in standard definition. Cutting-edge technicians can’t rely on obsolete manuals. Do what it takes for people to have the best tools for their jobs. Put them in position to win.

Ready to light the spark in your workplace? Make sure you are embracing a creative mindset, displaying a can-do attitude and creating an atmosphere that encourages employees to ask questions and share their thoughts—even off-the-wall ones. Insist on letting the best idea win, and then close your mouth and open your mind to the suggestions that pour forth. You’ll be astonished at how the ideas start to flow and keep gushing day after day.

Related: A 4-Question Guide to Unlock Your Creativity


This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.