10 Ways to Create a Team Environment That Fosters Creative Thinking

creative team environmentCreative blocks happen. Writing blocks, design blocks, innovation blocks – a slowdown or standstill of new creative thoughts that inhibits ones ability to access creating feelings, thoughts, solutions, ideas, or work. The problem expands when the creative block is happening to a team of people working on creative solutions to complex problems. When team members don’t feel creative, how do you create an environment that fosters creative thinking? And what causes creative blocks in the first place?

The lack of creative ideas and problem solving could be short- or long-term, and the root cause for a team is likely multi-factorial since multiple players are involved. Factors may include boredom, perfectionism, overwhelm, fear, distraction, or otherwise. And while it’s true that teams tend to be more creative than individuals (after all, they have access to a greater amount of perspectives), when a team has been working together for a while, particularly on the same brand or product or mission, it’s easy for them to get stuck in a creative rut – together. No matter the cause, leaders of these teams always ask the same questions:

How can we get over the creative block hump as a team? What might catalyze creativity when innovation seems stagnant? What can I do to spark creativity with my team?

There are many ways to answer these questions. In this article (Part I), I’ll address these questions by sharing some practical tips on what you can do as the leader to set the right context for creativity. When the environment and energy in the room (or virtual room) is light, relaxed, and playful, creativity can more readily and freely emerge. So as the leader, make sure you prepare for brainstorms and problem-solving meetings by inviting in creativity — and making sure your team works in an environment that fosters creative thinking.

In Part II in this series, I share six activities to spark creativity and innovation on your team.

The Energy of Creativity

In order to encourage your team to get into a mode of thinking more innovatively, you have to ensure you set the right context and environment – so it is highly conducive for creative thinking.

Creativity requires a lot of energy – and a certain type of energy, one that is lighthearted, curious, and open-minded. This is a very different type of energy than you would bring to a budget-planning meeting, where you want people to show up with focus, decisiveness, and assertiveness. The following tips are meant to invite people into a mood that is light, curious, open, fun, and of course creative.

10 Ways to Set a Context for Creative Thinking

The first way to answer the question, What can I do to spark creativity with my team? is to focus on ensuring that team members have the right energy for creative thinking. These ideas can be used as you plan specific creative meetings and brainstorming sessions, and they can also be applied to day-to-day operations to ensure they are working in an environment that fosters creative thinking.

The solution to overcoming creative blocks involves much more than what you will find below, but these quick tips offer an ideal starting point to ensure all team members’ basic needs are taken care of – so they can free their minds to open up to creative possibilities.

1. Create Ground Rules to Encourage Psychological Safety

Make sure your team members feel like they can speak their mind and share their ideas without the threat of being judged by others on the team. Whether or not team members have creative ideas won’t matter if they don’t feel like they trust and respect one another enough to speak them out loud and share them.

Creating ground rules as a team encourages the respect and candor needed for creativity to emerge. Start by tossing the judgment out the window – judgmental comments have no place in a creative room and will bring the entire energy of the room down – make this rule #1. This will discourage negativity and encourage connections. Enroll your team to collaborate on writing the remainder of the ground rules.

Read this article about building psychological safety on your team to learn more, as psychological safety really is foundational in creative and innovative work.

2. Prioritize Wellbeing

Have you ever had a brilliant idea when you are exhausted and running on an empty gas tank? Me either. Proper rest and nutrition are foundational to creativity.

For this important pillar, check in with your team to ensure there are no signs of burnout – it will be nearly impossible to cultivate creativity on a team that is overworked and overstressed. Read more about the common signs of burnout here. Encourage everyone to get proper rest, eat well, and practice self-care regularly – and particularly before a team creative thinking session. That goes for you, too!

3. Make it Comfortable

If you are planning a big brainstorm, leadership retreat, or simply trying to upgrade your weekly team meetings, know that space matters. Sitting in a stiff boardroom doesn’t exactly inspire creativity. Find a space that has couches, floor cushions, or other relaxed seating arrangements. Make sure there are plenty of flexible writing surfaces so that people can capture whatever creativity emerges. An environment that fosters creative thinking is one that has multiple seating options and an assortment of writing options – i.e. notepads, whiteboards, post-its, etc.

4. Set Time Blocks

It sounds counter-intuitive to put time limits on creative ideas, but certain types of time pressure actually work really well to generate a larger quantity of ideas in a short amount of time.

Time drains can happen when you are filtering or editing ideas along the way. Make it clear that there will be a time to be practical, realistic, and to filter out ideas that won’t work … later. For now, encourage ideas to flow uncensored and quickly. You won’t have time to judge ideas if your goal is volume, and the time limit is short!

5. Preempt Hunger

Make sure no one is hungry or thirsty by ensuring getting catered meals and ensuring there are plenty of snacks on hand.

6. Stave Off the Mid-Day Slump

It’s hard to be creative when you need a cup of coffee. Make sure to get ahead of the slump by ensuring there is plenty of coffee and tea accessible. On the opposite side of the spectrum, some research suggests that alcohol can facilitate creative problem solving, so consider having some wine available as well!

7. Incorporate Movement and Breaks

Give people time and space to move around and take breaks. Whether giving them free time or planning 10-minute yoga, meditation, walking, or humor breaks throughout the day, make sure to allow time to rest their minds.

8. Make it New

Consider relocating outdoors or to a new location that the team is unfamiliar with from time to time to spark new ideas. Meet in a park, rent out an Airbnb, swap offices with another team … perhaps getting creative with your space will spark creativity for your team!

9. Preach Quantity Before Quality

Ensure the team understands the “no idea is a bad idea” notion for brainstorming sessions. This is where the non-judgment ground rule becomes necessary, both in terms of withholding judgment of your own ideas and the ideas of others. If everyone knows that even silly ideas can spark brilliant ones, this will encourage more voices to be heard and promote courage and connection on the team.

10. Lead Fun Activities

Warm ups and icebreakers are fun ways to build connection on a team, which can help get the creative juices flowing. Whether the activities involve improv, music, art, or simply off-the-wall questions, plan to incorporate these into team meetings and brainstorms to lift the energy of the team.

Embody a Mood of Creativity and Curiosity as the Leader

This may be the most important idea among them, which is why I singled it out at the end of this article. One thing about being in a playful and creative mood is that it is contagious, and one way to ensure that the mood of creativity is present in a meeting is if you bring it with you as the leader. Pay close attention to tip #2 above, as it will be difficult to bring the creative fuel if your own fuel tank is empty.

What do you need to do before the meeting to ensure that you show up in a mood that is energetic, light, curious, and fun? Do what you have to do to bring it, and your team will surely follow.

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.

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Melissa is the founder and executive coach at Wide Lens Leadership and a Partner at Evolution. As an ICF Certified Executive Coach with a Master's degree in organizational leadership, Melissa has coached hundreds of leaders ranging from C-suite to entrepreneur, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, and across diverse industries. Her work focuses on helping high-performing senior leaders and their teams magnify impact by building trust, collaboration, accountability, and healthy communication skills.