How to take an agile approach to creativity

Creativity can flourish when teams move fast. Here’s what you need to ensure your team is set up for creative success

Some people think that in business, creativity is a fluffy, abstract concept. But creativity comes when something is done outside of the common expectation or boundary. It is borne out of tension, discomfort, out of something not working. Without some pain point, there’s no creativity. 

Fostering creativity among all teams is extremely important for agile companies that move quickly. Without it, there’s no innovation that drives a company forward. 

One way to draw creativity out of employees is to create boundaries. This is something I do on my growth team at WeWork. Our team uses a design-thinking approach to help others around the world, including sales and community teams, run more efficiently while positively impacting the business. We also work under tight time constraints—three-week sprints—which forces collaboration and quick prototyping. 

The value of time constraints

We impose a tight, three-week time line on each project for two reasons. First, it forces the team to get something out the door to see how it works rather than doing so much research that the project becomes lost in the planning. Second, it forces collaboration. Each team member needs to work with partners and colleagues (specialists, in other words) from other departments in order to complete a project. 

Our team is purposely made up of many people with different functional roles—designers, engineers, and business strategists—from various backgrounds. They come from different educational backgrounds, grew up in different places, and have different past experiences. This diversity is key. When we all come into a room, we find there are fortuitous moments of cross-pollination, where one shares a problem they have and another replies that they solved a similar issue last week. 

At times when constraints exist, when it’s necessary for teams to move fast, the existence of different viewpoints is even more necessary. Each teammate must help others see around corners they wouldn’t otherwise. If you’re doing things right, team members with different expertise and functional roles will argue about how best to tackle a project. That is important. Argument between collaborators working toward one common goal allows each individual to see blind spots they wouldn’t otherwise see—a huge value when teams move fast and may overlook something.

How our team mitigates the risk that comes from being creative

Being creative under time constraints necessarily involves a level of risk. Because we are often bringing to life something new, whether it’s assets or a streamlined process, we can’t be completely sure whether the end product will achieve its goals. On top of that, our diverse team of varying perspectives makes it slightly more laborious to achieve consensus. That means we have to be as sure as we possibly can that the project we’re tackling is worth the effort and will generate positive returns on investment for the business.

In order to be creative but also mitigate the risk involved in every project, my team uses a similar process for each one. We take on high-risk activities but do so in a way that is strategic. We always ask whether the project we are undertaking is desirable for the user, viable for the business, and feasible—can we do it, should we do it, and will it help our business become more profitable?

The process we take to tackling these problems is this:

1. Size up the business opportunity

What will be the impact of this work? Who will it impact? (Our members? Our sales teams?)

2. Pull in stakeholders from other areas of the company

We pull in as many as 20 different experts from other departments so we’re drawing on expertise across functions.

3. Identify previous research and efforts

Knowing what’s been done in the past and what could work animates our process.

4. Undertake the design process

We do discovery with the team in question and design solutions based on what we gather to be the main pain points.

5. Bring to market a solution and iterate

Finally, we bring to the field a product, tool kit, or other assets that can be tested with members, employees, or whomever is the target audience. We listen closely to their feedback and iterate on the finished product to make it optimally helpful. 

For creativity to flourish, diversification of viewpoints and collaboration toward a single goal will always reduce the team’s overall risk. The work my team does is highly cross-functional, global, and fast-moving. For those reasons, it’s essential that we have the optimal process in place to mitigate risk and promote healthy discussion. That ensures there can be creativity that can lead to great new ideas.

Graham Tuttle is a director of growth innovation at WeWork. He has more than a decade of experience in design and new product development. Prior to WeWork, Tuttle worked at frog in design strategy, helping global enterprises and startups take a user-centered approach to product development, innovation, and investment strategy. He has an M.B.A. and a masters of design from the Illinois Institute of Technology and contributed to the development of 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organization, a step-by-step guidebook for innovation planning.

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