15 Foundations for Facilitating Creativity in the Workplace

Here are lessons learned from 12 years of creative facilitation in business, from creativity expert Michelle James.

For the past several years, I’ve offered an annual creative facilitation program based on universal principles of creativity, education, research and application of creative process and, most significantly, lessons learned and insights gleaned from the trial and error of facilitating creative process with hundreds of individuals and organizations over the past 12 years (an ongoing exploration, with each iteration I refine the program). It requires a different focus, skill set, way of being and “container creation” than facilitating analytical processes. Below are a few of the many principles and practices I’ve learned or discovered.

1. Set intention and embody purpose.

Get clear on your intention – not only from a business perspective, (i.e., leave with a strategic plan), but also from the human element. Creative process in human beings is organic, and contains emotional energy. In fact, the more passion and inspiration, the deeper and more coherent the creativity that emerges. If you intend to support the growth, creativity and awareness of those you serve, you facilitate from a more meaningful place than if focused only on the business goal. If you take time, both in the program design and in the room when facilitating, to think about what is the service you are providing – the gift you are offering – it frees up your own creativity more to support that in your facilitation. Focusing solely on the task limits the creative potential. By genuinely focusing on what is yours to give, (not how you come across doing it), participants pick that up – either consciously or unconsciously – and are more receptive to trying new things with you. Creative facilitation adds some new “yes-ands” to what already works.

2. Focus on awareness in addition to what happens.

Focusing on the awareness aspect allows it to be transformative. In all facilitation, the debrief can be one of the most powerful parts. It integrates the learnings and serves as a bridge to what’s next. In debriefing creative process, focus on what was going on inside of the participants as well as what actually was created outside in the room. This leads to self-awareness, which increases the chances of continued creativity and co-creativity after the workshop, program, or process is over. The more aware participants become of what emerges within themselves as they create – both what was most alive as well as what was most challenging – the easier it is to continue to navigate and cultivate their creativity beyond the workshop setting.

3. Understand the normal resistance that occurs with navigating the unfamiliar.

Resistance is a healthy, natural part of the creative process. It only becomes unhealthy when it is allowed to block the process (by overemphasizing it and spending too much time engaging it, or by not acknowledging it all and trying to barrel past it). Be prepared for resistance to show up. It’s usually a result of fear of entering the new territory, and it can show up in a myriad of forms – deflection, sarcasm, distraction, disengagement or, most often and most subtly, talking about what is already known. It’s not something to be pushed down or avoided, but rather something to be acknowledged and moved through if it shows up. Acknowledgment ahead of time gives it permission to follow it natural course when and if it emerges. It is the natural “contraction” to balance the creative expansion. You find this in all of nature’s creativity. The flower feels the resistance of the bud most just before it blossoms.

4. “Fail” gracefully.

Be comfortable with messing up. This is a great lesson from improv theater. Improvisers do not see mistakes as static failures. Instead, we see them as dynamic invitations to learn in real time and an opportunity to create something new. To authentically learn how to deepen your experience in facilitating a transformational creative process requires you to be the explorer as well. Unlike facilitation that relies on what is known, creativity depends elements of the unknown. You can better facilitate that which you’re willing to experience for yourself. Applied creativity has vulnerability attached to it as being experimental means being vulnerable. And, that means something you try may not work, or may work differently than you had anticipated. Go with it. Use that information as feedback to either refine for the future, or, in that moment, to take the group to another place. The facilitator’s discomfort with the challenges of creativity can inhibit the group’s creative process. (If you can take an improv class, do it! It’s the quickest way I know to free yourself of the “the fear of failure” and develop a comfort with thinking on your feet.)

5. Adapt in real time.

There’s always a dynamic balance between creating enough structure and releasing. If you as a facilitator need to control the process, do whatever you can on your free time to get comfortable with letting go, shifting gears, and modifying the agenda in real time. Use the real-time feedback loop: engage, get feedback, modify; engage, get feedback, modify, etc. It’s an ongoing process, and like with all things, takes practice to embody. Do this enough and it becomes comfortable and easy…and alive! In fact, you will get to a point where it takes more energy to try to stick to the exact plans than to follow the creative aliveness of what is trying to emerge in the room. Be ready to adjust your “agenda” at any time for what is really going in the room. Otherwise, you can get engagement, and even expanded perspectives, but generally no real novelty. Novelty contains an unpredictability within it, and to facilitate creative process means adapting to that unpredictability in real time. May as well have fun with it!

6. Work from your own creative edges, not your comfort zone.

This creates a palpable dynamic aliveness in the room. You are all in it together. This may seem antithetical to our “expertise” culture. The paradox is that you must still deeply know and understand what you are doing before you enter the room, but then once in the room, hold it loosely and respond in real time. Be in your own unknown – a co-discoverer instead of the expert on their creativity. Allow yourself to be surprised. Don’t limit them, or yourself, by your creativity experience or pre-existing assumptions. While you are the one creating the container and holding the space, this role is balanced with your own openness to what emerges. Creative facilitation is an open system.

7. Respect creative style diversity.

To further expound on #6, one size, approach, method, technique, or even paradigm does not fit all. One creativity model definitely does not fit all. Understand that each person in that room is at a different comfort level, and will have a unique relationship with the creative process. Each carries unique and different stories of creativity in his or her consciousness. You give them tools and techniques as entry points, but be ready to let their creativity show you ways of creating that you can’t imagine. This expands your own Creative Practices repertoire.

8. Understand patterns found in the creative process.

This allows you to facilitate during times of resistance. Another paradox: While each person has different creating styles and approaches that work for them, there are also re-occurring universal patterns that tend to emerge in a creative process. The deepest understanding comes from your own experimentation and learning, and will most likely be refined over time. Start with what you know, and open up to being “yes-anded” all the time. Look for patterns, not just techniques. Techniques only get you so far…patterns and principles allow you to create new techniques on and ongoing basis. Start where you are, be gentle with yourself as you learn, and learn from direct experience. Insights that emerge from experience and observation are give you a real-time agility that book learning alone cannot offer.

9. Embrace dynamic balance.

Divergence and convergence. Left and right brain. Structure and flow. Reflection and action. That is one of the re-occurring themes in this post because it permeates all of creative process…and the complexity of being human. Creativity is filled with paradox. Setting up conditions for creativity is as well. Like with all natural systems, every situation, project, and group has a dynamic balance that will allow the most amount of creativity to emerge in that situation. Too rigid keeps the creativity bound; too loose, it gets unfocused. There is a balance between structure and flow. This is why whole brain practices are needed – the right brain to access new levels of ideas and information, and the left to discern and organize it.

10. Allow for self-organization when facilitating a group project.

Inherent in the creative process is a self-organization found in all of nature. You see this all the time in improvised jazz or improv theater…something larger than the sum of the parts emerges and it is a coherent whole and unexpected.  It is similar to the experience you have in those moments when everything just seems to effortlessly come together in a brilliant, yet totally unexpected, way. This possibility always exists in any group. One key is to not over-control the experience and allow enough space for the next level of creativity to emerge in the room. This takes some trust in the creative process itself…and practices recognizing, like in an improv performance, when you need to step up and lead, or step back and follow. Without question, groups have the capacity to self-organize around a creative task – a collective creative intelligence can take over that is larger than any one person’s idea. You have nature on your side. We are natural meaning-makers, and creativity is naturally self-organizing. By balancing both directing and following in real time, you can more naturally moving to higher levels of coherence, meaning, and sense. (All “a-ha’s” are deeply grounded in common sense at their new level). We have simply been socialized, educated, and trained to over-plan. Instead, we can learn how to work with the natural creative process.

11. Seek to make it safe, not comfortable.

Safety will allow people to open up and move into unknown territory without the fear of criticism, failure. Too much stability, and nothing new emerges. Asking people to share what they already know is different than guiding them into their unknown. On the other side, without doing the “container creating” to make it safe, taking people in too deep too soon can throw them into chaos and they will shut down – and they lose trust in you. In either case, nothing new emerges. Find the balance of the Creative Zone – the place of creative potential between stability and chaos. Create a safe space and guide your participants into new territory, which can be uncomfortable.  Discomfort is a normal part of the creative process. In fact, if everyone is the room is entirely comfortable the whole time, chances are you did more of an information gathering process than a creative one.

12. Fun is functional.

There is more research emerging all the time that shows how fun, play, and “lightening up” have a serious role to play in increasing creative thinking and establishing creative work culture – not just as an outlet to do on your free time, but as a driver to navigating change and working on serious challenges in work and life. It frees the brain to think more creativity, and frees the energy in the room for more effective and safe collaboration. In fact, I have not come across any research anywhere that points to not having fun and not being playful as a more effective way of living and creating. To facilitate creativity requires accessing and being comfortable with having fun yourself. And, knowing how to bring it in purposefully, and in a way it can be accepted (and not shut people down). It’s different for every group and every culture. Once you access your own “deep fun” self, you have more choice on what methods to use and how. As with all facilitation, know your audience.

13. Your inner stories directly impact the container you create for others.

Check out all the stories you carry around creativity, fun and play. Do you hold them as separate from a business bottom line? Most of us grew up with the programming that creativity is something you do on your free time after the “real work” is done. Facilitating applied creativity carries a new story – that it is an essential part of the real work. It is more than something fun to open up a group, but actually something to help transform individuals, groups, teams and organizations; create a thrivable work culture, and feed the bottom line. Do you carry a story that creativity is for the domain of the arts…or do you know it to be present, in infinite abundance, for every person, group and system? What stories do you carry about yourself as a creator? In knowing yourself as a creator, and knowing that you are walking into a room filled with other creators (whether they are aware of it or not) allows you to help facilitate a new story for those in the room.

14. Diverge…and converge with discernment.

Facilitating transformational creativity requires your presence, adaptability, agile thinking…and discernment. Discernment keeps whatever emerges in the room focused on the objectives, relevant, and purposeful…not just random creative expression (unless that is your goal). This means having processes for convergence as well as divergence. Divergence explores, discovers, yes-ands, and accepts to expand the playing field – the increase the field of potential from which to draw. Convergence discerns, focuses, fleshes out, uses what is relevant and leaves the rest. For a visual with more on Divergence and Convergence click here. As with each of these points, the dynamic balance is the key: expand, contract; explore, refine; value logic and intuition; planning and spontaneity. Most people naturally gravitate to more comfort with diverging or converging…find out which is your preference and practice giving more time and attention to the other.

15. Prepare yourself with pre-workshop creativity rituals.

Creativity, by its nature, contains a lot of energy and newness. Facilitating novelty is not “business as usual.” It’s about leading a group into the non-habitual. It requires being resilient, agile, compassionate and an “expedition guide.” Taking some time to do whatever you need to enter your own non-habitual state first can makes a significant difference. One of the best ways to do that is by taking some alone time before the facilitation, to do pattern-breaking exercises to increase your own energy and become present, alert, and responsive. The more of the whole-brain – and whole-body! – you bring in, the better. Like an athlete who warms up by stretching muscles, you’re a creativity facilitator who warms up by stretching beyond your familiar patterns. Try different things, like moving in non-habitual ways around your living room before you leave your house. You’ll be alone, so the more “out there” you can be in the privacy of your own space, the better. Surprise yourself at how “out there” you can get! It will also help you be more comfortable when something “out there” emerges from a participant. Do it until you transform any negative self-judgment or evaluation you have into the joy of exploration. It will increase your energy and aliveness, and help you be more attentive and at ease with what shows up in the room. Creativity is messy. Non-judgment of self and others during the process is essential!

I have covered some of the basics here. They are meant  to be a loose guide for your own exploration and refinement. My hopes is that something in here gives you food for thought,  inspiration or validation. Take what resonates and leave the rest.

Business creativity catalyst Michelle James, is CEO of The Center for Creative Emergence and founder of Quantum Leap Business Improv and the Capitol Creativity Network in Washington, DC.

Image: Diverse People Working and Copy Space from Shutterstock.com