A while ago, while visiting a friend of mine’s office, I noticed a large, brightly wrapped cardboard box with a slot cut into the top sitting on a table in the lunchroom. Hung above the box was a sign that said ‘Put Your Wild and Crazy Ideas Here!’ Curious, I asked my friend about it, and she told me that it was part of an office-wide initiative to encourage people to be more creative, you know, to ‘think outside the box’. Each Monday employees were given a different topic such as ‘Better Collaboration’, or ‘Over-the-Top Customer Service’, and throughout the week, they could put slips of paper with their ‘Wild and Crazy Ideas’ into the box. Each Friday, management would look through the ideas and decide which to implement. The ‘best’ idea would even win a prize!

My friend told me that this week’s ‘Wild and Crazy Idea’ topic was ‘Improving our Work Environment’. Intrigued, I asked if we could take a look at the suggestions so far. As we unfolded the slips of paper, we found ideas such as: get more plants, have longer lunch hours, and standing desks for all! After we’d read all the slips, I asked my friend if any of these seemed like ‘wild and crazy ideas’ to her, as they didn’t to me. Shaking her head, she agreed. “And it’s been like this every week,” she said. “No matter how many times we tell our employees that we really want them to be creative, to give us their ‘wildest ideas’ this is all we ever seem to get.”

Ever had anything like this happen where you work? You ask your employees to give you their best, and most creative ideas, but all that happens is that you seem to hear the same old things?

If so, I’m not surprised. And here’s why.

Generating ‘wild and crazy ideas’ requires us to use our imagination, or, as we so often call it, to ‘think outside the box’. However, too often, I find that as organizations, although we may ‘say’ that we want people to ‘think outside the box’, in reality, we actually train – and reward – people to, as I will call it – ‘color inside the lines’. Think about your own organization:

  • Look around. How is your office space organized? Do your employees sit in ‘cubicles’, walled off in ‘boxes’? If people have spent years ‘in the box’ is it surprising that that is how they think?
  • When your employees bring questions to their supervisors, or management, what happens? Do managers tell people the ‘one right answer’ and then send them back to their cubicle? Or do they ask open-ended questions to develop their people’s critical thinking and creative-problem solving abilities?
  • When employees bring ideas and suggestions to management, what happens? Does management reply with “we can’t do that here! It’s too expensive…not feasible…too hard to implement…?” Or does management thank the employee and start to work with them to figure out ‘how’ to try their idea to see what happens?
  • Do your teams spend a lot of time in ‘training’? Training in which they are taught – and rewarded – for making the same response each and every time, even if the circumstance is not exactly the same? (And as we all know, in customer service, it’s rarely the same twice!) If so, could it be that you are actually ‘training’ your people out of having ideas?

In many organizations, employees are first trained, and then rewarded, to think in a convergent manner: that is, instead of having many ideas in response to a customer’s service request or problem, they are ‘told’ the one answer or response to use in any and all situations.

Problem with this, though, is that it limits your people’s ability to learn how to think and act ‘creatively’, that is to come up with new ideas – ‘wild and crazy ones’ perhaps – to satisfy the needs of your customers. And as we all know, customer needs change constantly. To keep up with those changing needs, and perhaps, even one step further – to anticipate or create those needs – as a company, you need to generate new and creative service ideas. And in order to do that, you need your employees to be able to think – and act – creatively.

And that means teaching your people to think divergently: instead of narrowing their focus, and concentrating on finding the ‘one right answer’, to broaden it in order to combine information that they already know in new and different ways to generate a lot of different ‘possibilities’. Possibilities that can then be presented to your customers to see which would satisfy them most!

Since many organizations have spent many years training their people to use convergent thinking, in my experience, it takes some time, effort – and practice – to teach people how to use divergent thinking. And until you teach people how to do that, you can’t expect them to just suddenly come up with ‘wild and crazy ideas’. If your organization would like to develop your people’s divergent thinking abilities, here are some suggestions for how to do that:

  1. When your employees bring you their customer service questions and problems, instead of telling them what to do, ask them open-ended questions about what ideas they have to solve the problem and satisfy their customer. Encourage them to come up with as many ideas as they can! Then think about how you can reward them for simply having those ideas! For example: A customer is concerned about their delivery time…work with your service rep to see how many different ideas she can come up with to solve the problem for the customer!
  2. Have your managers use language such as ‘imagine’, ‘dream’ and ‘create’ regularly. Words matter. Regularly engage your people in exercises that practice using their imagination: How about team-meetings that start with a quick ‘imagination session’ in which you ask people questions such as: ‘imagine if you were our customer, what do you wish we helped you with that we don’t now?” Then work with your people to find ways to turn their ideas into reality!
  3. What about putting a ‘divergent thinking’ puzzle on people’s desks each morning? Something that doesn’t have ‘one right answer’ as a solution, but asks for many possibilities? For example, a picture of a camera with the question ‘think of as many ways a camera could help our customers as you can’. Then get together as a group to discuss!

Albert Einstein said, “Problems can’t be solved with the same consciousness that created them.” He also said, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will get you everywhere.” Your customers are counting on you to creatively solve the problems that they bring to you. And in order to solve your customers’ problems, your employees need to have access to the ‘wild and crazy’ ideas that all of us can have!

People are naturally creative, and curious. Think about any time you’ve spent with small children! They certainly have no difficulty dreaming up all sorts of ‘wild and crazy’ things. Just because your employees have spent a lot of their working lives ‘in the box’, in their cubicles, doesn’t mean that they can’t re-learn how to be creative. It’s a natural part of everyone’s humanity. And a wonderful part of what they can learn and practice at work every single day!

Great service – solving the problems your customers bring to you – doesn’t just happen. It’s ‘created’ by your people, each time they do their work and interact with your customers. And in order for them to create that service, you need to nurture their creativity.

My advice: if you want your customers to be truly satisfied, spend the time to teach your people to ‘think outside the box’!