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InfoQ Homepage Articles Advice for Engineering Managers: Enabling Developers to Become (More) Creative

Advice for Engineering Managers: Enabling Developers to Become (More) Creative

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Key Takeaways

  • As an engineering manager, be mindful of social debt in your team, which will severely hamper creative potential.
  • When facing problems, try to approach these by adding more constraints, or by taking a few away.
  • Give developers a break by allowing them to tackle problems their way, not your way.
  • Shield your team from unnecessary interruptions and agree on how interruptions should be tackled.
  • Stimulate or introduce other knowledge domains that might generate original ideas nobody thought of regarding the current problem at hand.
  • Remind developers that creativity is an attainable skill: it can be learned by anyone.


Software engineering is anything but just an act of programming: it requires analysis, continuous delivery, API integration, maintenance, collaboration, and above all: a creative endeavor.

As an engineering manager, it is your responsibility to help facilitate creative thinking skills among the development team, but that's easier said than done. How exactly can you help amplify the creative thinking skills of your software development colleagues, while still keeping an eye on that tight deadline that always seems to creep up on you? In this article, we'll examine how different levels of creativity influence the individual, the team, and the company, which strategies can support creative problem-solving, and when to be and not to be creative as a programmer.

What exactly is creativity?

What, exactly, does it mean to be creative as a software engineer? Something could be called creative when it's (1) original work, (2) of high quality, and (3) relevant to the task at hand. However, this view is quite incomplete: if I, as a junior C# programmer, employ reflection for the first time, it could be viewed as original to me, but not at all to the seasoned developer next to me.

Then, who determines the quality? A static code analysis tool? A colleague? Which one? Same for relevance; that topic alone could be the start of endless bickering in technical code sessions. The biggest problem with this view of creativity is the explicit (and partially wrong) emphasis on the creative individual instead of the environment (team, [company] culture, society, ...).

Fortunately, we can also take context into account when looking at creativity, which evolves creativity into a social verdict: your peers decide whether or not your programming efforts are to be called creative.

I know that sounds like a very vague theory: what exactly does this mean for software engineering? When it comes to creativity, seven distinct themes play a major role: technical knowledge, collaboration, constraints, critical thinking, curiosity, a creative state of mind, and the usage of specific creative techniques. For this article, we will zoom in on the team-based contextual properties of these themes, and what a manager can do to help facilitate the seven themes.

Let's dive in.

Creativity and technicality

First up is technical knowledge: how to gather, internalize, and act on knowledge. Many different Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) techniques exist to help manage the ever-increasing flow of (mis)information.

When asked, one interviewee perfectly summarized this theme: "No input, no output: creativity is the brew of different inputs".  

Most of these techniques revolve around efficiently gathering these "inputs" to eventually produce original "outputs" by acting on knowledge. The question then becomes: what can a manager do here to help put these on track? The first step is helping draw attention to the existence of PKM tools and showing how these can be used to help master the many technicalities programmers nowadays are required to possess. Setting up internal wikis, helping reach for alternative sources of information, and promoting cross-pollination of ideas through the organization of hackathons and knowledge-sharing sessions are other examples.

Successfully collaborating creatively

What influence does collaboration have on creativity? Now we are starting to firmly tread into management territory! Since software engineering happens in teams, the question becomes how to build a great team that's greater than the sum of its parts. There are more than just a few factors that influence the making of so-called "dream teams". We could use the term "collective creativity" since, without a collective, the creativity of each genius would not reach as far. The creative power of the individual is more negligible than we dare to admit. We should not aim to recruit the lone creative genius, but instead try to build collectives of heterogeneous groups with different opinions that manage to push creativity to its limits. We should build environments that facilitate and attract creativity.

Easier said than done.

Managers can start taking simple actions towards that grand goal. For instance, by helping facilitate decision-making, as once communication goes awry in teams, the creative flow is severely impeded. Researcher Damian Tamburri calls this problem "social debt." Just like technical debt, when there's a lot of social debt, don't expect anything creative to happen. Managers should act as community shepherds to help reduce that debt.

A few lovely community smells Tamburri and his team identified are: "Priggish Members," demanding and pointlessly precise people who can cause unneeded delays and frustrations. "Hyper-Community", is a too-volatile thinking environment where everything constantly changes. "Newbie Free-Riding," when newcomers are completely left to themselves, causing irritation and high work pressure. Keeping social debt low keeps developers and teams happy, and research proves that happy developers are more creative developers!

Constraint-based and critical creative thinking

The next creative theme is the advantages of constraint-based thinking. Contrary to popular belief, the right amount of constraints does not hamper creativity, but rather fuels it! Emphasis on the right amount, of course.

  • Too few constraints and little to nothing gets done: (who cares, let's play with a few more frameworks before making any decision.)
  • Too many constraints and little to nothing gets done: (very strict deadlines together with hardware and existing legacy software constraints end up strangling the project and mentally draining your developers.)

The manager's role here is clear: guide your devs to leverage self-imposed constraints to reach that creative sweet spot when there's too much freedom, or help reduce or bend constraints when there are too many. Admittedly, not many constraints can easily be bent or (partially) ignored.

Then we have critical thinking as an essential part of the five steps of a typical creative process: Participate (your 90% transpiration), Incubate (interrupting the process by taking a distance), Illuminate (the other 10% of the work), Verify (does it work?), and finally Present/Accept.

The task of the manager here is to help guide programmers through this never-ending feedback loop, for example, by now and then helping slam on the breaks or asking the right critical question to invoke that much-needed self-reflection. Another important aspect is the difference between diffuse and focused thinking modes. Just think about putting on different hats when developing: refactoring, redesigning ... However, not everyone thinks as fast or as slow as you do, and not everyone is locked in the same focused mode as you are. Being wary of the thinking modes of your peers (and the team as a whole), and better adjusting these to each other, will more than likely yield more creative results. Managers should pay extra attention to this mental oscillation and make sure everyone switches gears on time: prolonged periods of focused thinking will result in exhaustion, not more creative ideas. Give your developers a break!

How to grow a creative mindset

Speaking of taking a break, next up is cultivating a curious mindset. This mindset will not likely be stimulated if the office environment is nothing but boring grey concrete slabs. Getting out of your comfort zone does wonders for your (creative) mindset. For example, by leaving your desk, going for a walk, and not explicitly thinking about that nasty problem, your chances of solving it once you get back will likely double.

Another way to cultivate curiousness is by programming silly things for fun. Openness to experience and serendipitous discoveries while browsing around might just make that connection you need to solve that problem at work. Fooling around (in code, of course) is often frowned upon by managers and seen as time-wasting, while in reality, it keeps the team motivated and curious, which is very much needed as a creative programmer. Another thing to take into account is the classic specialist vs generalist debate. Both have their merits, of course, but your task as a manager is to watch out for signs of overspecialization (or exhaustion). In that case, you might be able to stimulate developers to pick up another skill, ideally via pair programming. Keep on motivating your team to stay curious.

The next theme is exploiting your creative state of mind to arrive at original and sustainable solutions: The popular "flow" state, how to get in a creative mood, deep work vs. shallow work, and dealing with interruptions, and how to trigger creative insights.

As a manager, it is important to help facilitate the right state of mind. This means making sure that your team members are more or less protected from unnecessary interruptions: both external as well as internal (including your own!) To aid with this, several practical tools for preparing and dealing with interruptions can be deployed, such as introducing "do-not-disturb" moments or migrating away from open landscape offices. Also, when thinking about triggering creative insights, is this something you do alone or together? As always, this depends on the context and situation.

A corporate culture that encourages a creative state of mind and where creativity is stimulated will no doubt help as well. By the way, open workplaces are detrimental to creativity, but so are small closed-off desks. Instead, offices should be designed like clusters of closed sub-environments, where bumping into people and exchanging ideas can happen without constantly sitting in each other's way. MIT's Building 20 serves as a neat architectural example.

Helping build a creative toolbox

Last but not least, managers can help developers build a toolset of specific creative techniques, such as zooming out and in when stuck and starting at the end instead of the beginning of a problem. The best candidates here are tools borrowed from other domains, like various writing techniques authors use to boost their creativity that can also be applied to the world of programming. When it comes to borrowing ideas, there's what Austin Kleon calls "good theft" and "bad theft".

As Tamburri's community shepherds, managers should be wary of these, as ethical considerations play an increasingly important role in software engineering, especially with the rise of AI-assisted code generation tools like ChatGPT and GitHub Copilot.


This article summarizes what managers can do to help facilitate the seven central themes of a creative programmer: creativity and technicality, successfully collaborating creatively, constraint-based and critical creative thinking, how to grow a creative mindset, and helping build a creative toolbox.

There's one thing that perhaps is most important of all: helping your colleagues become aware that creativity is a skill that can be trained and learned! Just like any other muscle.

Many junior programmers think they're either creative or they're not, when in fact, they might not YET be creative. If there's one thing that managers can do, it is this: the empowerment of creativity as an attainable skill, that, with patience, can be cultivated! Of course, creativity levels will likely vary from project to project and from person to person. On top of that, it constantly evolves, and it is contextual. But if there's just one thing you need to take away, it's that everyone can become a creative programmer.

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