Instead of searching for creativity, we should be fostering it in people we already work with—and redefining what it is
I recently asked a room of 40 executives to raise their hands if they thought of themselves as creative. This was a group who had been hand selected from their corporation as the future of the company, the big up-and-comers. Only three hands went up.
It feels as if just about everyone is looking to bring creativity into his or her organization. The theory seems to go that hiring creative people could bring much needed innovation, new thinking, and organizational revitalization. A recent study by IBM demonstrates CEOs' belief that "creativity" is the key to success for their companies in the coming years—more than "rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision." So, if creativity is the key to the future of business, then why aren't more executives raising their hands?
One reason creativity is hard to claim as a personal trait might the popular image of the creative genius: a lone figure, someone who was born to create and is driven by an inexplicable compulsion to make art. While these creative people inspire us, they aren't necessarily the ones corporate America is looking to stock up on. Then there is the equally popular counterargument to the creative genius theory, spearheaded by Ken Robinson, that we are all born creative and the educational system sucks it out of us by the time we're a few years into school.
This second theory is a little more compelling to those of us who aren't tortured artists and/or have bills to pay, because it implies that we could be creative again. However, many of us don't need to be re-taught to be creative, we just need to be supported creatively, especially at work. Creativity in the workplace requires context. At work creativity is not a personality trait. It arises out of an ecosystem.
Creative thinkers are not the rare commodities that we tend to make them out to be. If you are running a business and want the innovation, flexibility, and problem-solving power of creativity, you don't necessarily have to hire creative people. You probably already employ them. I define a creative person as someone who has the ability to identify and deeply understand a problem, and then solve that problem by breaking the conventions of the status quo. By this definition, tortured artist or not, all of us can probably think of plenty of individuals we know who are creative.
The best teachers are usually the ones who don't do things "by the book." The same goes for great doctors, entrepreneurs, mail carriers, and even tax accountants. All of them are in a position to know the problem well and, when given enough leeway, can find a successful solution. Even at our frog office in Austin—a veritable shrine to creative thinking—one of most creative staff members is the receptionist, Elena, who is an intensely skilled problem-solver. The fact that these professions may be overlooked as creative is in part because only certain fields are labeled "creative" (design and advertising, for example) and others aren't. This is a symptom of the larger problem, and a dangerous notion if we are relying on creativity to bolster the business world.
So what can you do? First, find the clever, original thinkers who want to do things a little differently and then give them the tools and the rules they need to do just that. Here are some tips for finding the creative people who already work with you:
- Creative people are empathic. In design we formalize this through design research, but in other fields you might find that the people who are always thinking of the human point of view (either of your customers or your other employees) are very creative.
- Creative people ask for help. Creative problem-solving requires collaboration and the understanding that solutions will emerge while working with a team rather than alone in a cubicle. Creativity rarely thrives in an environment where colleagues are pitted against one another.
Creative people ask questions (and question the status quo). Some of the most creative folks you already employ could be the ones who have been pestering you about making a change in the way you are currently working. Listen to them.
- They might be hiding. Remember that the creative people in your organization might not be the current top performers. If your culture doesn't support them, they might be feeling stifled or underappreciated.
We say we want these creative people to challenge the status quo and drive innovation, but this often requires behavior that most business cultures don't support: occasionally breaking rules, pushing things through without "permission," and not "making numbers." In many corporate cultures, those behaviors are considered risky. So, now that you've identified them, how do you support these newly found creatives in your workplace?
Redefine success. Find performance measures that reward creative thinking. This could mean rewarding teams as a group, or having prizes for the most fringe idea. It definitely does not mean sticking to traditional performance measures like quotas or number of billable hours.
- Get physical. Provide physical space that supports sharing and "cross pollination" of ideas. Bonus points for physical space that supports building, drawing, and thinking with your hands.
- Encourage wild ideas and ideas that are backed by human need. This has to happen at the leadership level. Don't ask "How big is the market?" before you ask "What need are we answering with this idea?"
- Get in the habit of presenting ideas before they are baked. Allow for more ideas to be presented sooner and in rougher form. It's a lot easier to kill something mediocre before you've invested in it (financially and emotionally).
- Let team members really get to know each other as humans. We are much more likely to collaborate with people we know (i.e. have empathy for) than those who are just "That guy from marketing."
- Support qualitative research activities. Let people within your organization get in "the field" to learn about your customers or your customers' customers.
For those of you who are the hidden creative in an organization, be known. Take a few risks, find the like minds, and keep asking questions. And for heaven's sake, if someone asks you to raise your hand if you think of yourself as creative: Proudly claim it!
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.