In today’s highly competitive business climate, creativity can no longer be limited to artists and inventors. The marketplace is changing rapidly, and all companies must think creatively or risk going under.

To remain strong, firms must be made up of people who can bring fresh ideas to the table. In retail, especially, it’s essential to come up with innovative strategies to attract and keep customers; better techniques to close sales; and, in this era of downsizing and cost-cutting, new ways to do more with less.

The good news is that ingenuity is not a gift, but a skill that can be cultivated. The trick is flexing those creative muscles and promoting an environment where sharing ideas is a top priority. Here are steps you can take to foster creativity, and encourage a free-flowing exchange of ideas in your company.

Get your creative juices flowing

The key to coming up with creative solutions is to look at things in different ways — that is, to get other perspectives.

One way to do this is to observe creative people and emulate their characteristics. Most creative thinkers share three primary traits:

First, they have the belief that they are creative. Ninety percent of being creative is thinking you are. With that comes the confidence that you’ll come up with the right answer when the need arises.

Second, innovative people tend to be flexible in their thinking. They readily abandon traditional ways of viewing things and go off in new directions.

Third, and most important, creative thinkers expose themselves to new experiences and different viewpoints. By opening their minds to new stimuli, they literally lay down new neural pathways in their brains — opening new channels of thought. Then, when they are confronted by problems, they have all that extra brainpower ready to assist them.

Sometimes, however, we have to force ourselves to try something new. Why is it that we’ll exercise our muscles, but let our brains languish? It’s because most of us have worked hard to learn and establish the comfortable patterns of life we follow.

For example, can you imagine reinventing your morning routine every day? No way. You’d never get anything done. Many of these patterns are shortcuts that reflect previous efforts of creativity on our parts. But, there still could be an even better way just waiting to be discovered.

Will you be ready when opportunity knocks? You can be if you’re expanding your brainpower by experiencing as many new things as possible. Expose yourself to new stimuli: Read a variety of books, magazines and Web sites. Listen to a mix of radio stations. Select a different one each week. Make it a point to acquire new tastes.

Unleash your creativity

Living a creative lifestyle is great, but occasionally you need answers now, yet no solution is forthcoming. A fun and constructive way to generate ideas — and get your staff involved — is to use brainstorming. This is when a group gets together, and everyone throws out ideas until a workable option is found. For brainstorming to be effective, however, a few rules must be followed:

  • Declare that all ideas are valid.
  • This encourages  people to take risks and offer outrageous ideas, without censoring themselves.

  • Treat all participants equally. 
  • All participants — and their ideas — should be given the same courteous treatment. Brilliance can come from unexpected sources. 

    Also, no one should be allowed to critique or evaluate another’s idea immediately. Your staff should not fear being shot down when offering suggestions.

  • Think quantity over quality.
  • During the idea-generation process, go for as many solutions as possible. Save sorting through them for the best one at a later time.

  • Branch out and expand upon ideas as they are offered.
  • Build on it or morph it to take the brainstorming process to a new level.

    Developing your ability to think creatively prepares you to handle difficult situations as they arise, and think faster on your feet. You’ll also find that you’re getting more out of life. Because your mind is open to new stimuli, you’ll be discovering exciting new things to do.

    So start taking the less obvious choices you’re offered and see what new thoughts you begin to have. You may be pleasantly surprised. n