The importance (and methods) of fostering creativity in the workplace
This feature first appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Experts have suggested that creativity is an important element of every modern workplace. It seems natural to question, on the other hand, whether that observation truly applies to the information technology (IT) industry. What place is there for creativity in a realm that is rooted in the laws of science, steeped in the language of mathematics, built on a foundation of logic, reason, structured code, and so forth?
Would it surprise you to learn that the success and survival of an IT organization correlates directly with the ingenuity of its teams and players? Companies that foster a healthful, supportive, creative IT workplace engender an environment where solidarity of purpose exists. It is a permissive environment of development and creation, where advancement and progression are not just executed, but expected.
These are organizational settings where teams employ imagination to solve problems and innovate future goals. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and colleagues investigated the link between creativity and the work environment (3). Her findings were consistent with many other researchers and creativity consultants.
Amabile identified six best practices that nurture creativity in the workplace:
Match people with an intellectual challenge that supports their expertise and intrinsic motivation.
One method to enact this practice is to employ transformational leadership (5). In its most authentic and sincere form, this is a leadership style which inspires team members to identify the needed change(s) to create a vision, as well as the processes to guide that change (5). There is an emotional relationship between the team leader and the team.
A successful transformational leader looks to support the creativity of an individual and, in turn, in an organic way, receives the commitment of that individual. The transformational leader “enhances the motivation, morale and performance” of the team (6). Transformational leaders must identify team members’ strengths and apply them to stimulate intellectual challenge.
Team members should experience a sense of identity within the team, within the overarching mission of their department, and within “the collective identity of the organization” (6).
Give employees the freedom to choose which method is best for attaining a stable goal set by leaders and managers.
Steve Jobs once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do” (4). It is perhaps one of the greatest challenges all of us face — certainly managers are no exception — to unburden ourselves of ego and trust in the work and collective wisdom of our colleagues.
An organization’s grand objectives may be set forth by stakeholders. Often, however, it is those with their ears closest to the ground who have a real impending sense of what business needs are, and what the customer wants. At the outset, this trust alone helps to alleviate costly organizational drag.
Team leaders who adopt this principle, and who give their team members autonomy, inspire trust to imaginatively proceed with the mechanistic details. This is a facet of the permissive environment earlier mentioned. To wit, trust is the foundation for all relationships.
Supply the right resources, like time and money, in the right amounts for enhancing creativity.
This may seem apparent to anyone who has had to prepare, supply, and manage meetings, but according to a report by Atlassian, $37 billion is wasted each year in salary costs of unnecessary meetings for U.S. businesses (7, 8). All meetings come with expectations and nothing is more cliché than the expectation to think outside the box.
How best to prepare, on the other hand, a venue that stimulates the mind? Consider the box that is the cubicle, the office space, the boardroom or corporate auditorium, that frames us. Can those environments hinder creativity? What is for certain is that they are part of the habituation of corporate culture.
There is no arguing that traditional office spaces offer the convenience of air conditioning, projectors and monitors, posh chairs, and the power outlets in the walls — but these presumed locations are the first targets for a revolution in how we think about meetings. What about open-air meetings? Maybe or maybe not. It’s not about expensive venues — it’s about expansive ones.
How does the setting for a meeting effect your mental geography? The venues will vary, and I offer no solution, but this lends itself to shifting the paradigm. When considering resources for a meeting, time and money are heavily favored. I would argue that time is more so. Deciding how much time to devote under given circumstances may be a boon or a bane.
One thing is for certain, false deadlines or unobtainable ones will seed distrust and hasten burnout. What matters most is the fertility of the discussions and the implementation of a plan with actionable processes in place. These can come at little to no cost.
Design effective and mutually supportive workgroups, with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, to promote cross-pollination of ideas for creative solutions.
How can any IT worker, in whatever capacity they are part of the industry, become more creative, be of greater value, give better service to their company and the customers they serve? Let’s begin by stating that intelligence is not a prerequisite for creativity. Intelligence will only take you so far. What matters far more is the number of diverse experiences and the introspection of those experiences.
Not to rely too much on the wit and wisdom of Steve Jobs, but in a 1996 interview with Wired magazine, Jobs quipped, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people” (9).
So it’s experiences we need — but what kinds of experiences? All kinds. Start with contemplating your own senses. Begin the process of self-awareness by practicing mindfulness, and approach people, places, and things in a state of “shoshin,” or the beginner’s mind. The experience is as much the subject as are those who experience it with you.
Investigate by asking good questions. More importantly, listen to the answers. Embrace the moment and write it down. Force your mind to distill into words what you are sensing and learning. Read it sometime in the future. Use metaphor in an effort to meld the reinterpretation.
Think of it this way: All experiences are valid, although when you experience things with others there is a special dynamism amongst people. We are unable to predict what will be shared with us and what we, in turn, will share with others. It is exactly this interplay, however, that primes us for the breakout sessions and project meetings of our corporate life.
Implement supervisory encouragement to promote a ‘safe’ atmosphere where assumptions can be challenged and leaders can be disagreed with. Encourage people to freely share their thoughts.
What may be the most critical step an organization can take in the direction of sustaining a productive and creative environment is to recognize the correlation between happy employees and the organization’s bottom line. Managerial practices directly influence the conditions that foster creativity.
This is true for all industries across the board. Yet, in a study commissioned by Adobe, concerning the impact that results from a creative environment, 61 percent of participating companies did not perceive themselves as creative. Only 11 percent stated their practices were in alignment with firms known as creative (10).
To the point, the 58 percent of respondents who said their firms foster creativity, experienced a minimum of 10 percent revenue growth over the previous year of 2012. Contrast that with only 20 percent of less creative companies performing similarly. In fact, other key indicators like market share and talent acquisition surpassed their peers (10).
Executives and supervisors who cultivate these principles in their IT workplace will see clear benefits for both employees and company revenue. Less obvious is the positive impact it has on the perception of the buying public and ultimately on brand loyalty.
The study also found that the same creative companies, 69 percent in fact, were named a “best place to work” while winning awards and national recognition.
Adoption, support and backing must be done at the organizational level.
Creativity must come from the top down to encourage collaboration and the sharing of information. This provides the necessary structure for a corporate culture “which leads to the development of expertise needed for creativity and to more opportunities for intrinsic motivation” (3).
Employee development should involve a comprehensive approach to maintaining and retaining valuable employees, while helping to ensure an organization’s prosperous growth. Creating a strategy with practical considerations and predictive benefits, of course, brings its own challenges.
This is why the encouragement to think and act creatively must come from the organization, the entity. It is not enough to have a small cadre of employees churning out creativity.
The next step is up to you
Many of the concepts, methods and principles I’ve described may appear self-evident. This hasn’t always been so: There have been many contentious arguments on what is the best way to run a business, handle its employees, and make money. Passions can be especially hot when someone on the outside looking in is telling you how to run your business.
Only upon reflection, when enough time has passed and the compiling of data bears out statistical facts, will the needle swing to a stronger cardinal point. Thomas H. Huxley, the 19th-century English biologist, upon reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, said, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” (11)
You have to get creative to realize the benefits of creativity. New ideas often make sense only when we are able to see them in practice.
3) https://www.bestpracticeconsulting.com.au/_blog/Articles/post/Fostering_creativity_in_ the_workplace/
4) https://www.inc.com/marcel-schwantes/ this-classic-quote-from-steve-jobs-about-hiringemployees-describes-what-great-leadershiplooks-like.html
6) https://www.langston.edu/sites/default/files/ basic-content-files/TransformationalLeadership.pdf
10) https://landing.adobe.com/dam/downloads/ whitepapers/55563.en.creative-dividends.pdf