Embracing Creativity In The Workplace
The moment you set foot into a creative workplace – you can sense it. There is a unique and compelling buzz in the air; individual work spaces are often playfully unorthodox, and people are energetic, engaged, and eager to interact and share ideas. Some organizations and executives think that buying colorful and playful furniture and instituting a casual dress-code constitutes as “creativity”, this is so not true…
All organizations – hopefully – invite and welcome creative people to join their team. Those people and their minds should be encouraged. But there is an important distinction between acting on the occasional “out-of-the-box” idea and cultivating creativity as a business strategy.
THREE TYPES OF CREATIVITY
Most people have a limited scope of creativity and what exactly that means. When you speak with most people they will easily default to speaking about the arts; musicians, bands, chefs, painters, sculptors, etc.. However, creativity comes in a few different forms that support organizational growth and health in the workplace:
- Problem Solving: Organizations that are transparent and open in their communication and status – and who embrace creativity – invite solutions and different perspectives into their business strategy and vision of sustainability. Creativity in problem solving works well because this type of culture adopts the approach of looking at each problem as a unique situation rather than applying the same [and probably outdated] principles to every similar problem.
- Divergent Thinking: I love discussing this topic with various teams and seeing their eyes widen and you can almost see thought and collaboration start to take place. Divergent thinking is powerful because it evolves teams from the traditional “convergent thinking” process which is linear and analytical to something more creative. Divergent thinking is the innovative process of looking for the right answer without boundaries or a “…but this is how we’ve always done it” approach. Divergent thinking is nonlinear and spontaneous. Rather than finding a single correct answer, divergent thinkers surface multiple options for addressing problems. Brainstorming, predicting, and imagination activities are all examples of divergent thinking. It is possible to increase divergent thinking by implementing open idea or solution-focused strategy sessions. Moving toward divergent thinking may not be comfortable for analytical thinkers, but immersing them in these sessions with creatives will soon help boost their creative confidence.
- Inspiration & Imagination: Inspiration and imagination are essential for creativity. Merriam-Webster defines imagination as:
In the workplace, it is easy to ignore the development and encouragement of the imagination [after all, we are super busy], but this is done to the detriment of the business. Exercising the imagination is necessary to improve creativity. When a culture that stimulates creativity is built, a work space is created that boosts collaboration, resourcefulness, interest, inspiration, and engagement. Inspiration is what prompts and propels creativity. Inspiration provides the motivation that helps people believe that they can or should do something creative; or inspiration can be an idea that comes suddenly. Inspiration is found differently for different people.
I can always see panic on executives faces when I bring up the word “creativity” and ask how they cultivate it within their organization. Most are unable to provide me with an answer which is very eye-opening to both of us. Most rely on the tools and resources that exist in the business today to identify solutions to issues. The idea of creating something out of nothing and creating something new or original is terrifying to most organizational executives. To this my mantra is… “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There“. True creativity does more than take from the creativity of others and adapt it, which is why we should value and embolden originality. Although, it is possible to find creative ways to improve on what already exists.
Promoting a culture of creativity requires sharpening the skills of observation, communication, and invention throughout your organization and aligning core systems to reinforce and support the creative process.
Creativity Brings Vitality & Innovation
I started working in New York City in 1999 – it was a beautiful city then but it has evolved into a mecca of wonder and magic [at least for me] in the last 19 years. One of my favorite places to be is in Bryant Park which sits behind the New York Public Library. Bryant Park Grill & Café is one of my absolute favorite places to grab drink and enjoy the relaxing, but energizing, space in the city. During my first work trip there in 1999, I remember telling my father I was going to meet colleagues at that park and he was TERRIFIED for me. Back in the early 80’s my family owned a knitting mill that produced RTW garments for various retailers so my father spent a lot of time in NYC. I explained it was fine and that is was probably significantly different from his last impression. In the mid to late-80’s the Project For Public Spaces transformed this area into an hub of activity and robust urban space. This evolution has a fabulous learning story to it that is worth sharing…
The Project for Public Spaces has seriously perfected the ability of looking at an issue without bias or a pre-planned solution, thus, it can see potential in a many ways. They worked to transform this previously skeevy, scary, drug-infested place into a vibrant urban oasis by first observing how people used the park. This entailed a disciplined, rigorous, and logical approach to looking, listening and learning about the environment both on a granular and broad scale. It wiped the slate clean of past attempted solutions and let fresh observations fuel creativity and possibility.
The observation process – generally – leads to the invention stage. Invention starts with a noisy and chaotic assortment of ideas gathered from multiple, engaged sources. This is disciplined chaos. Invention requires freedom to run in multiple directions, surface really rough and kooky ideas, toss out the part that won’t work, and shape and polish the ideas that might, can, and will. Then comes the action portion where everyone contributes to the solution and result.
In this case, PPS had to capture the “buy-in” of the city’s public space managers who were, at that time, known to to say “no” to outside users. However, it was a few brave souls, on both sides, who had a vision as to what this parcel of land could become. The revival of Bryant Park was born from the management’s flexibility in allowing outside users and creatives access to the park. This resulted not only in a range of interesting events at the park, but also a major source of income. Today, Bryant Park annually hosts over 1000 events and activities and is a destination for both the city’s residents and tourists from around the globe. It is a brilliant example of possibilities, collaboration, and action.
People at every level of the organization must be supported as they develop and apply the tools of observation, invention, and activity in their jobs. With every level of leadership in the organization committed to transparency we will involve and deliver to every employee in the business, from part-time/hourly employees up to the CEO, the tools, education, impetus, and information they need to think and act like “stakeholders” – this inspires alignment. This is reflected in how employees engage in annual strategy, how they develop targets and benchmarks, and how they solve problems of every size together. Creativity is rapidly evolving from a “nice to have” to a “need to have” quality for all successful organizations.
One of my favorite nuggets from the story of the Bryant Park reinvention is known as the “placemaking” principle. This guiding principle states: “You are never finished” – which I love and bring into my work ethic & principles. It is an exciting abstract|creative concept used to consistently evolve and adapt good to great and great to greater. Innovation at it’s finest.
Creativity Self-Reporting & Assessment
From time to time, I test my creativity as it relates to my perspective in the workplace…one of my favorite quick & easy tools for doing this is by taking the Test My Creativity assessment. Even though it take a few minutes, it gives me great personal insight and it gives me the kick in the pants I sometimes need and provides a clear appraisal based on eight important metrics. It communicates where I am strong and where I may be lacking, to maximize my creative process and address a topic that may be impeding my ability to be as creative and innovative as I can be both as an individual and as part of a team. Here is how it is measured:
- Abstraction: The ability to abstract concepts from ideas
- Connection: The ability to make connections between things that don’t initially have an apparent connection
- Perspective: The ability to shift ones perspective on a situation – in terms of space and time, and other people
- Curiosity: The desire to change or improve things that everyone else accepts as the norm
- Boldness: The confidence to push boundaries beyond accepted conventions. Also the ability to eliminate fear of what others think of you
- Paradox: The ability to simultaneously accept and work with statements that are contradictory
- Complexity: The ability to carry large quantities of information and be able to manipulate and manage the relationships between such information
- Persistence: The ability to force oneself to keep trying to derive more and stronger solutions even when good ones have already been generated
After testing this morning, it is clear that I have to place some added self-development effort and time into perspective and complexity. Self-Reporting such as this keeps me grounded in the objective truth about my leadership and my ability to deliver true and complete options, solutions, and suggestions to my colleagues, leadership, and the customer. One of the larger-scope challenges that I have had to work on consistently throughout my career is in managing my creativity. I can become frustrated, annoyed, and brazen when presented with the “status quo” and an inflexible environment. And though I never want to become a person that is content with the status quo, I do actively know that I have to present and express myself so others will understand my style and communication and I have to take additional time to speak to my path of thought. I also have to ensure that I actively connect to, listen to, and learn from the individual(s) in front of me in order to keep an open mind and objectively process what they are saying in the way they are most comfortable communicating. These eight metrics are critical to understanding each how person contributes to a forward-thinking, creative organization.
WORKING WITH CREATIVE PEOPLE
It is an unfortunate fact that creativity gets squashed much more frequently than it gets celebrated in today’s workplaces. For the most part, this isn’t because “managers” have a grudge against creativity. Since organizations don’t hire for creativity but for a job description that is a laundry list of to-dos that need to be executed – people that don’t possess a naturally high-affinity to the creative tend to get nervous or intimidated when it presents as a trait in a candidate.
There is a confusing paradigm in today’s workplaces which is that people/leaderscan articulate the compelling value of new and useful ideas. However, the reality is that these innovative approaches and possibilities are undermined each day in organizations that favor and insist upon operational execution, such as checklists, time-wasting meetings, productivity measured by hours worked, and control. In today’s workplaces we have creative and driven talent bringing their own ways to work and finding new and efficient ways to execute their responsibilities and construct their day or week that no longer fits into a predictable or parochial traditional working relationship. But where I [and others] find value in that, it alarms those who don’t know how to “manage” this personality.
The fact is – managers cannot be expected to ignore business objectives, of course. But in working toward these goals, they may be inadvertently designing organizational hierarchy, processes, communication practices, talent selection criteria, and policies that systematically crush creativity.
For decades, research has found links between creativity and other behaviors that aren’t very desirable to most working relationships. Creatives have been assigned reputations, as outlined in reporting/meta-analysis by Sage Journals, such as – they are more neurotic and less conscientious than others. But, I have found in more cases than not, it’s perfectly possible to be both highly creative as well as an extremely well-adjusted, emotionally intelligent, collaborative colleague who’s fabulous [and super-duper fun] to work with. For organizations and leadership that is willing to give creatives an opportunity here are some things you can do to create some structure and boundaries:
- Hire Talent That Is Aligned With The Company Mission & Values: While we tend to associate creativity with individual performance rather than collective results or collaborative work initiatives, virtually everything that’s innovative and valuable in this world is the result of organized human action and interaction. Interestingly, teams with higher numbers of narcissists have been found to generate more creative ideas, though that doesn’t mean managers should focus on hiring “me-monsters” [there’s definitely a limit] but simply recognizing that confident and creative individuals bring tremendous value to your business and the organization’s vision and will help it get “there” again and again. Regardless of the skill set and competencies your talent brings to your business if they are invited into the organization because they share the purpose of the vision and values of the company they will contribute and support the ideas and action needed to achieve all goals and objectives.
- Recognize Both Individual & Team Contributions: Since executives and organizations find safety in order and predictability, creatives can pose a threat to safe environments: Intellectually, they’re less likely to conform to pedestrian thinking, and behaviorally – as stated earlier – they’re less likely to follow predictable patterns and rules, which creates uncertainty and distress for others. As a Taylor & Francis Onlne report shows shows, creative performance is often driven by two personality traits: (1) A preference and inclination for unconventional thinking, which can sometimes divert work conversations toward unorthodox or even bizarre ideas; (2) Surfacing attention-seeking behaviors, which aren’t always helpful in the workplace. Having a formal [that includes peer-to-peer] recognition platform will help assuage everyone’s bona-fide need to be rewarded for their contributions. Avoid creating a culture where people compete for attention but harvest one in which people can objectively advocate their ideas and innovation both as individual performance and part of a collaborative team.
- Demand and Place Accountability Around Integrity: This philosophy is a cultural anomaly in most organizations where many shades of dishonesty [lack of transparency and other deviant workplace behavior] are the accepted “norm” and cost of doing business. Though I am not the most brilliant and learned person, I wholeheartedly disagree with scientific research that states that creativity enables dishonesty. Some of the most creative people I know are also the most open and honorable. This paints, with a broad brush, that creatives – in general – are irredeemable deceivers. It is unfair to assume creative coworkers are out to deceive their company and coworkers more than non-creative colleagues. It is my opinion that EVERYONE regardless of their level or role should be held accountable for acting with integrity. When people are found to have violated this accountability and trait that reflects simple human decency, they should be dealt with accordingly and swiftly. Nobody should have to tolerate manipulative or deceptive behavior. Nor should anyone be excused from being held to the standard of acting with integrity.
- Build Effective & Complementary Teams [Create Balance]: Research supports the common stereotype of creatives as spontaneous, passionate, and unpredictable. Workplaces see a significant downside to this, since they translate this to potentially poor impulse control when the situation demands structure and results. As a leader, it’s our responsibility to find the best personality and productivity “fits” for the team personality, signature relationship practices, and objectives. Great leaders know the individuals on their team and are unlikely to assign creatives methodical, detail-oriented tasks, and instead allow them tackle the challenges in innovation and solution they hired them for. Ensuring there is a balance that supports the unique habits of a creative employee and the need to have analytical, organized, predictable people who can happily manage projects and execution.
Creatives get a bit of a “bum wrap” sometimes as being difficult to work with, they’re rebels, they’re troublemakers. I say – hogwash – all teams will benefit by including creatives in their ranks, if they want to avoid stagnation and stay competitive. The fact of the matter is that there are some individuals that are much more likely to produce creative ideas. But when it comes to turning unique and fresh ideas into actual results and innovation, it takes a collection of balanced and talented individuals to bring them to life and make them successful.