It’s no secret that organisational leaders in the 21st century need to cope with and respond to increasingly complex organisational issues.
Sometimes, these issues and problems can be solved by applying a standard formula or set of actions: rigorously analysing the circumstances and drivers, applying logic to determine a course of action or following what’s been done before. Other times, particularly when the issue is something the organisation hasn’t faced before, genuine innovation is needed to solve problems and satisfy stakeholders.
In most organisational settings, leaders are expected to be able to think creatively and come up with innovative solutions to work-based problems. And they often do. But fostering and harnessing the creative abilities of a whole team is likely to produce an even richer selection of creative ideas and solutions to work tasks and problems. This is because diverse group members collectively possess knowledge and a variety of perspectives not found in just one person.
Specific benefits of creativity in the workplace include:
- Better teamwork and team bonding;
- Increased workplace engagement and interaction;
- Improved ability to attract and retain quality employees;
- Increased staff morale, fun and happiness; and
- Increased workplace problem solving and productivity.
But in busy workplaces where time is limited, how can a leader establish a climate conducive to creative thinking and problem solving?
For more than two decades, Teresa Amabile (1998) and her associates investigated the link between the work environment and creativity. She identified six leadership and management practices that foster creativity in the workplace. These findings are consistent with the observations of many other researchers and creativity consultants. The six practices are:
Match people with the right problem-solving experiences, that is, experiences that challenge or stretch them intellectually. This enhances creativity because it supports expertise and intrinsic motivation. But, the amount of stretch is critical; too little challenge leads to boredom, but too much challenge leads to feelings of being overwhelmed.
Freedom to choose method
Employees tend to be the most creative when they are granted the freedom to choose which method is best for attaining a particular work goal. In other words, leaders and managers can set the goals, but it should be up to the team members to decide how to achieve them. Stable goals are also important because it is difficult to work creatively towards a moving target.
Supplying the right resources
Time and money are important resources for enhancing creativity. Deciding how much time and money to give to a team or project is a tough judgement call that can either support or stifle creativity. Under some circumstances, setting a time deadline will trigger creative thinking because it represents a favourable challenge. False deadlines or impossibly tight ones can create distrust and burnout. To be creative, groups also need to be adequately funded. But it should be noted that creative activities can be achieved at little to no cost with very few supplies, depending on the activities chosen (see below for some ideas).
Effective design of work groups
Work groups are the most likely to be creative when they are mutually supportive, and when they have a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. Cross-fertilisation occurs and the various points of view often combine to achieve creative solutions to problems. Homogenous teams might argue less but they are often less creative. Getting the mix of team members ‘right’ does require experience and intuition on the leader’s part.
The most influential step a leader can take to bring about creative problem solving is to develop a ‘safe’ atmosphere that encourages people to think freely.
This includes making it okay for people to challenge assumptions and disagree with the leader. If people don’t feel safe, they will only parrot their leader’s ideas.
Praising creative work is important because, for most people to sustain their passion, they must feel that their work matters to the organisation. Whenever possible, a leader should notice and publicly affirm creative thinking. Creative ideas should also be evaluated quickly rather than put through a painfully slow review process.
The entire organisation as well as the immediate leader or manager should support creative effort if creativity is to be enhanced on a large scale. Organisational leaders should encourage information sharing and collaboration, which lead to the development of expertise needed for creativity and to more opportunities for intrinsic motivation. Executives who combat excessive politics can help creative people focus on work instead of fighting political battles. In a highly political environment, an employee would be hesitant to suggest a creative idea that was a political blunder.
Adapted from Dubrin, Dalgleish and Miller (2011)
Other tips and actions to foster creative thinking at the individual level and organisation-wide:
- Encourage a mindset of continuous learning. If you aren’t constantly refilling the creative pool, it will eventually run dry. Encourage staff to seek new information, new knowledge and new ways to do things, constantly. Support team members to attend conferences or other learning and development events. Model habits of curiosity, observation, listening, reading and recording in the workplace.
- Seek multiple options. Don’t be satisfied with one solution. Once the team has a good idea, encourage them to look for another, and then another. Give yourself and the team the opportunity to choose the best from several options.
- Suspend judgment. To encourage new ideas, don’t evaluate them too early. Relax your guard and let the ideas flow.
- Lunchtime brainstorms. Encourage weekly, fortnightly or monthly lunchtime meetings of a small group of staff to engage in creative thinking and share ideas for how those ideas could be applied to the organisation.
- Engage fresh eyes. Provide opportunities for employees who do not normally interact with one another to meet. Invite people from other departments or areas to your brainstorming sessions, and ask them how they would solve your problems.
- Take breaks. The human brain uses more energy than any other part of the body and so needs constant replenishment. Rest is one of the key components to increasing personal energy, productivity and creative thinking. Many people do not take advantage of their breaks (lunch or other) during the day and, as such, are not giving their mind a true break from the stresses of the day. Encourage staff to use break time to walk around the building, sit outside or chat to colleagues about non-work related topics.
- Get the culture right. Research suggests that the most effective group environment for creativity is one in which there is fun, humour, spontaneity, and playfulness. However, creating such a climate in a workplace setting isn’t easy. But, leaders can support this by fostering a permissive atmosphere in which individuality and humour are acceptable and mutual respect, trust, and commitment are the norm.
Some final words on workplace creativity
The general consensus in the research is that the more one engages in creative thinking, the better one becomes at it. Ideas produce even more ideas. But inspiration is only a small part of creative thinking. Commitment and application are also essential ingredients.
Once you and your team know the idea you want to work on, be prepared to work at it, and to work at it some more, to fine-tune it.
In addition, to be worthwhile and effective, a creative idea must also be appropriate, useful and actionable. It must somehow influence or improve the way things get done in the organisation.
And finally, as Harvard Business School Professor, Teresa Amabile, notes: “The final stage of getting creativity to work is deciding how to put an idea into practice.”Ultimately, you can come up with a brilliant creative idea, but if you haven't thought about how to implement it, it will die without seeing the light of day.