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Creativity at the Workplace – It Is Possible

   /   Jun 17th, 2013Business, Design, Opinion, Tech

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Innovation is an elusive ideal, prized as the secret ingredient in economic growth, social progress, and technological acceleration.  Unlocking American innovation is the first step to “winning the future,” according to President Obama.  The stakes are high.

The cross-sector scramble to out-innovate our rivals has given birth to an entire industry, one that breaks innovation down into its composite elements and analyzes them for clues and patterns.  Countless case studies, TED talks, and biographies point to a single element – individual creativity – as perhaps the most crucial in sparking innovation.

The connection to innovation has helped transform creativity into a commodity.  Soaring demand for creative talent has fueled the growth of the “creativity-promoting sector .” Writer Austin Kleon sums up the sector’s core message in his book Steal Like an Artist:

“Anyone can be creative if they surround themselves with the right influences, play nice, and work hard.”

It’s a philosophy that is appealingly accessible, and it leads to an exciting conclusion: if every individual is born with creative potential, then every individual is an asset in the race for innovation.

Therefore, every company, organization, and institution is doing all that is possible to harness employee creativity.  Right?

No, of course not.

My first job was with a non-profit that billed itself as a creator of innovative environmental solutions.  As a young graduate eager to change the world, I’d go into staff meetings brimming with new program ideas.  Though the higher-ups didn’t quite match my enthusiasm – “sure, feel free to do it on your own” was their standard response – I was determined to bring these ideas to life.

Unfortunately, every attempt I made to do so ended in failure.  With no guidance or feedback, I grew discouraged.  As time passed, my new ideas withered in numbers and ambition until, eventually, there were none left.   In this office, creativity was the private domain of managers and directors.

Why would any organization ignore an asset – the creative potential of its staff – instead of leveraging it?

Sure, you could chalk it up to ignorance.  If a company is unaware of the link between creativity and winning the future, it wouldn’t know the first thing about channeling its team’s innate potential.

But with management sites chock full of articles like “5 TED Talks Every CEO Should Watch,” the ignorance excuse is a shaky one.  And if you think laziness is a factor, there are plenty of consultants eager to transform any business or organization into a place of great creativity.  They’ll do all the hard work for you.

So what really stops a company, especially one that brands itself as innovative, from making staff creativity a top priority?

The answer is fear.  Many people and institutions are afraid of widespread creativity.  After all, creativity subverts the status quo, which makes it seem like a threat.  For a company averse to uncertainty, weaving creativity into the organizational culture might seem futile, distracting, meaningless, or destructive.

Treating creativity as a threat instead of a key to innovation can severely limit profit and impact.  Thankfully, though, for every point of resistance, there’s a logical rebuttal.  Here’s how it all breaks down.

#1.  Only Management Knows Enough to Be Creative

The Fear

When critical decisions are handled exclusively by managers, giving creative leeway to non-managers is pointless.  Only the [CEO, executive director, agency head] understands the operation from every angle; inviting uninformed people to contribute outside of their areas of expertise is not helpful.  Asking junior staff to come up with new ideas would be an exercise in futility.

The Reality

In its book Creative Collaborations, the Helsinki Design Lab explains that, when “you gather together the very best experts in a given field, they are likely to share roughly similar assumptions, methods, and goals—because they will typically share the same training, experience, and social identity. This commonality can be a weakness that blinds the homogenous group to other possibilities.”

However, “a group of diverse individuals—all intelligent, but with different backgrounds, perspectives, and ways of working…will search more expansively for possible solutions, and if the best solution is to be found in an outlying area, one of them is much more likely to discover it there.”

Zahra Ebrahim, founder of think tank archiTEXT, relies on diverse perspectives as a critical part of her work.  “We look for divergence – I want the person whose opinions couldn’t possibly be more different than my own,” says Ebrahim.

She means it, too.  When the Ontario government contracted archiTEXT to co-create policy on poverty reduction, Ebrahim gathered a group of politicians and at-risk youth to hammer out the legislation together.  “Bringing together the unusual suspects” was a strategic way to build robust policy.

When you treat diversity of opinion and experience as an asset, it becomes one.

#2.  Creativity Is the Enemy of Productivity 

The Fear

Companies and organizations are hard-pressed to be as effective and efficient as possible.  This means doing more with less.  When you’re dedicating all of your limited resources to the (single, double, or triple) bottom line, there’s not a lot of wiggle room for experimentation.  Giving staff space to be creative would only distract them from their targets and muddle everything up in the process. Besides, if you have a proven business model, why deviate from what works?

The Reality

When a company has a system in place for activating the creativity of its staff, its productivity goes through the roof.

Take a look at MyVoice AAC.  The tech start-up makes apps that give people with speech disabilities a customizable voice.  Because the company must deliver innovation in order to survive, it utilizes a straightforward, three-phase system for harnessing staff creativity.

When faced with a creative decision, the entire MyVoice team immerses itself in the subject matter, spending dozens of hours interacting with people who have speech disabilities, pouring through relevant articles, and analyzing competitor’s products.

CEO Alex Levy says, “during the immersion process, it’s important for everyone to capture all new ideas without judging them.  Whenever a new idea comes up, even if it’s on the road or late at night, we note it down without censoring it.”

Ultimately, this triggers what Levy calls “an explosion of ideas.” The team now has access to hundreds of new ideas, which could focus on anything from product design to organizational structure.

“Once we have our explosion of ideas, we begin a process of ruthless distillation and crystallization.  Everyone – the team, collaborators, users – critiques every single idea.  The heartiest ideas survive.” Those are the ones that Levy’s team brings to life.

Creativity, therefore, can be structured – and a company that has a creative system in place is actually able to do more with less.  For proof, look to what the small team at MyVoice has achieved.  With thousands of users around the world, the company has become a major player in assistive technology in less than three years.

#3.  Inspiration is Fickle

The Fear

Ideas are like bolts of lightning; they strike entirely of their own accord.  If, by some divine inspiration, you come up with a great idea, you’re lucky.  You can’t force creativity, so don’t count on it happening again.

The Reality

“Artists don’t have the luxury to wait around for inspiration.  There are bills to pay,” says Toronto-based musician and artist Michele Kaye.  Like any professional artist, Kaye’s career depends on the control of her creative ability.  “People view creativity as something that you turn on and off, but if you’re producing art as your job, you need your creativity to be constant and free-flowing.”

The ability to tap into personal creative potential – instead of passively waiting for inspiration – is a skill accessible to us all.  It requires training and dedication, but it’s something anyone can develop and master.

One of the great barriers to being actively creative is a fear of being vulnerable.  Subjecting something you’ve created to the judgment of others is a frightening endeavor.  That’s why Alex Levy strives for “a hippie commune vibe” during idea generation.  “When people feel like anything goes, they are comfortable channeling creative ideas,” he says.  And fortunately, according to Michele Kaye, the more often you share what you’ve created, “the easier it becomes to be vulnerable.”

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Creativity isn’t a science, but it’s no longer a great mystery, either. There’s enough knowledge and expertise out there to transform any workplace into a creative one.  Too many companies pay lip service to creativity while neglecting the creative potential of their own people.

For a company to be truly innovative, it has to actively translate the creative ideal into reality.  Creativity is fun – let’s take it seriously.

Photo Courtesy of OpenSourceWay (Creative Commons/ Flickr)

10 Responses

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  2. Pious Ali says:

    Ben, this isvery insightful and well written. keep it up

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  4. Amanda says:

    Great article.

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  9. zeina says:

    A new Bayt.com poll on innovation in the MENA shows that the culture of innovation in the MENA workplace is alive and well. Read more http://goo.gl/MWz7xw

  10. creativity is a natural, cant to create