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Using Virtual Platforms to Spur Creativity

Recently I read a book that explores the premise that software developers are creative by nature. This may surprise those of us who are not coders. Many look at software developers as being super-analytical technicians. Despite that misconception, developers are quite creative and innovative problem solvers. 

“Developers are more of a special breed than those of us employing them may realize,” Christian Owens recently wrote in a recent Forbes article (https://www.forbes.com/sites/christianowens/2019/02/14/move-over-actors-and-artists-software-developers-are-true-creative-heroes/?sh=31dacd517127). “In many businesses, they are seen as the workhorses – robots who can complete assigned tasks: ‘we need this thing built’; ‘this issue needs fixing; make it happen.’ This black-box approach ignores a fundamental fact about software engineering: that it is not functional, but problem-solving – an inherently creative occupation.”

If managers fail to treat techies as creative individuals, they might miss out on some of the best attributes that make them good developers. (The same applies to all types of employees: encouraging creativity pays dividends throughout organizations.) Executives seeking the means to unleash creativity can also use the newly-emerging virtual collaboration platforms to boost those efforts.

Anyone who has visited Silicon Valley or walked into a tech startup has likely noticed that the environment is significantly different from a typical business setting. You might see ping-pong tables, more casual modes of dress, free food, and people coming and going at all hours of the day and night (at least before COVID hit). One might jump to the conclusion that this relaxed atmosphere is what makes creativity happen. 

However, it’s much more than being able to wear shorts and sandals to the office. There are certain conditions managers can create that help boost creativity, both in the physical office and in a virtual collaboration setting. Those include:

  • Giving people discretion and control over how their job is done. We might call this a creative license to explore and do things on their own without being required to follow a tight set of instructions.
  • Providing people the freedom to work at their own pace. That doesn’t mean deadlines vanish; rather that expectations become more flexible and realistic.
  • Challenging people with a compelling problem to work on or to solve.

President John F. Kennedy provided a classic example of the later component for sparking creativity. In a May 1961 speech, Kennedy challenged the United States to put a man on the moon within 10 years and return him safely. He stated. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhgVZLrxiu0)

At the dawn of the Space Age, nobody knew how to send a rocket to the moon and few even thought it was possible. However, Kennedy’s daring goal motivated a generation of engineers, aviators, astronauts, and scientists to put everything they had into determining whether this problem that was so audacious could be solved – and then solving it. Of course, on June 26, 1969, that goal was realized. 

Kennedy’s approach illustrates this vital ingredient in the formula to spur creativity: put an additional problem out there for people to try and solve beyond their daily duties. Leaders should consider a similar approach to encourage creativity as we implement more virtual collaboration platforms.

In the age of remote working, we could develop a virtual collaboration space where people can come together to explore options of what can or cannot be done. They would have the freedom to tackle problems and propose solutions. They could collaborate with others and solicit feedback to keep them on the right track. 

Under this scenario, an insightful leader can put forth an audacious problem or two for their organization to tackle or to solve. Using virtual collaboration tools to trigger creativity could potentially become a powerful new way for organizations to come up with exciting new products, services, and solutions.

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