Need Your Team to Be More Innovative? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine

I am fairly new director in a large global organisation. We are a liaison team designed to work in tandem with product development and marketing.

I have a great team—all inherited and all very skilled and experienced. Their former boss (who was let go) was very rigid and very focused on process and details. He was not able to accomplish what the organization needed his team to accomplish.

I appreciate that the department runs like a well-oiled machine but I have been tasked with getting this team to innovate, try new things, and experiment. How can I get them to loosen the reigns and stop being so wedded to “the way we do things”? They were all initially hired because of their creativity, but it seems to have been beaten out them. How can I bring them back to life and help them get their spark back?



Dear Catalyst,

My first thought is that it has to be easier to get people to loosen up than try to corral a bunch of creatives to stay in their lanes. But I guess we’ll see if that’s true. Somehow the former director managed to create order and compliance, but he left the critical deliverable for the team on the cutting room floor. He probably used fear and intimidation to do it. So the first thing you need to do is make sure your people feel safe. They spent years trying to figure out how to make their last boss happy and therefore retain their jobs, and now here you are telling them that none of that matters anymore. It is bound to fill them with fear. So remember to tell them that you know the transition will be messy, you are committed to helping, and no one is at risk. Be ready to repeat it. A Lot. Don’t assume they will remember, because they won’t. Once the adrenaline and cortisol released in the face of big change stops pumping through their systems, they will calm down.

You might want to start with context. Explain where things went off the rails and what all of you, as a team, need to do to get yourselves back on track. Simply tell the truth without criticizing anyone or badmouthing the former boss. Just state the facts and clarify your mandate.

Then, so you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, ask the group what they think works really well about their current processes. Managing the chaos that innovation and creativity invariably causes will be easier if you can maintain some of the well-oiled-machine aspects of the team.

Take some time to meet one on one with each member of the team so you can ascertain what each person’s strengths are and what they love to do most. You will be able to use your insights to put small groups together to work on projects.

From our research, we know a team leader’s role is to:

  • set clear goals for the team;
  • ensure the team’s purpose is clear;
  • communicate how the team’s purpose is aligned with the organization’s vision, values, and strategies;
  • track progress on deliverables; and
  • hold team members accountable for their commitments.

For more detail on this, click here.

You might think about working as a team to create a team charter. This is defined as a set of agreements, developed through a collaborative team effort, that provides a framework for what the team wants to accomplish and how the team will work together to achieve results. A charter will help establish the team purpose, the team’s goals, who plays what roles, and the agreed upon behavioral norms. If you create the charter together, you will have a lot of buy-in from the team as they try on new ways of operating.

This covers all the basics—but I know you also want to find a way to encourage everyone to find their way back to their creative selves. Consider leading your team through a twelve-week program laid out in the book The Artist’s Way at Work. It is based on Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, now almost 30 years old and, honestly, as fresh as ever. I have been using concepts from these books with clients for decades. I’ve also used them myself when I have lost my mojo, so I can attest that they always make a difference and provide powerful results. Working through the program as a team will help everyone to bond—but, more important, it will help your square pegs find their way back to who they were before they were jammed into round holes. If it feels like too much to do the whole program, maybe choose a couple of chapters to work through. Or do the whole program over a longer period of time. It can only help—and will definitely get the wheels turning!

Tell the truth. Be crystal clear about how the expectations have changed. Keep the stuff that works. Help your people reconnect with themselves.

It is a lot—and it sounds like there is a lot riding on your being successful. Your team is vulnerable, but if you can earn their trust and make them feel safe, they will blow you away.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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