Management skills 108: How to foster creativity at work

Creativity is the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality. Creativity is characterized by the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena, and to generate solutions. And while we all know the importance of it, how to foster creativity at work still remains a question for most senior managers.

How to foster creativity at work

A 2012 Adobe study on creativity shows 8 in 10 people feel that unlocking creativity is critical to economic growth and nearly two-thirds of respondents feel creativity is valuable to society, yet a striking minority – only one in four people – believe they are living up to their own creative potential.

So can creativity be learned? A study by George Land reveals that we are naturally creative and as we grow up we learn to be uncreative. In other words, creativity is a skill that can be developed and a process that can be managed.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
– Aristotle

Creativity begins with a foundation of knowledge, learning a discipline, and mastering a way of thinking. You learn to be creative by experimenting, exploring, questioning assumptions, using imagination, and synthesizing information. Learning to be creative is akin to learning a sport. It requires practice to develop the right muscles, and a supportive environment in which to flourish.

In his bestselling book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell talks about the “10,000-Hour Rule,” which he considers the key to success in any field. By studying the lives of extremely successful people, Gladwell found that that it takes an average person roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field. Richard Branson too has a formula for creativity called A-B-C-D (Always Be Connecting the Dots).

Studies by Clayton M. Christensen and his researchers uncovered the “innovators DNA”: One’s ability to generate innovative ideas is not merely a function of the mind, but also a function of five key behaviors that optimize one’s brain for discovery:

  1. Associating: Drawing connections between questions, problems, or ideas from unrelated fields
  2. Questioning: Posing queries that challenge common wisdom
  3. Observing: Scrutinizing the behavior of customers, suppliers, and competitors to identify new ways of doing things
  4. Networking: Meeting people with different ideas and perspectives
  5. Experimenting: Constructing interactive experiences and provoking unorthodox responses to see what insights emerge.

Business mojo is a company’s internal magic that creates external success. It is the direct by-product of a company’s culture and the “secret recipe” for its success.

An organization’s culture embodies all its thoughts, feelings, and voices – in other words, its very essence. It’s also something that’s organic and grows over a period of time – As you hire more people into your system, the culture will change.

Higher levels of engagement are strongly related to higher levels of innovation. 59% of engaged employees say that their job brings out their most creative ideas against only 3% of disengaged employees (Gallup).

To stay alive today, companies need a constant stream of fresh ideas. So how can organizations foster a culture of creativity?

Tips on how to foster creativity at work

  1. Hire candidates that match your organization’s ‘cultural fit’: A candidates whose values, beliefs, outlook, and behavior is compatible with your organizational culture will work well within the company’s environment.
  2. Encourage in-person relationships: Some of the best discussions and thinking comes from sharing a thought with somebody live, rather than virtually through email.
  3. Offer structured freedom: If you want employees to come up with bright ideas, they need to know that their voices will be heard, they can make a difference, and they won’t be shot down.
  4. Encourage employees to leverage non-company contacts: Employees can tap into their talented family members, neighbors, or friends for advice, resources, or connections.
  5. Plug creative thinking throughout the organization: Critical thinking should pervade the forefront of everyone’s minds throughout the organization, including functions like finance and IT. By evaluating the context of several standpoints in reaching a final decision, organizations can encourage a spirit of reflective and divergent thinking. Organizations can inculcate critical problem-solving skills by helping employees approach challenges in imaginative and innovative ways. This will enable employees to come up with breakthrough ideas and solutions. Companies can also periodically conduct workshops and exercises in various techniques like inductive, deductive, and structured reasoning. Such efforts will surely translate into some out-of-the-box ideas at work.

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