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How to Foster Business Creativity & Innovation

Jan 21 2016

In today's increasingly innovation-driven economy, creativity has never been more important. In a 2010 survey of 1,500 CEOs, creativity was deemed the top priority for spurring future business growth.

But creativity often seems like a complicated, even mysterious thing, as elusive as smoke. Can leaders and organizations take actions that will foster a climate where creativity will thrive? The simple answer is yes. But before we discuss how organizations can support creativity to spur new business ideas, let's examine what creativity is.

What is creativity?

In a workplace setting, creativity usually means developing new ways of doing things, adding value through new business ideas that result in differentiated offerings (products and services). There's a common misconception that creativity is a lonely struggle against some intractable technical problem. Although history celebrates the "lone inventor," people like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, most creativity today happens in a highly-collaborative climate, in multidisciplinary teams working together to create new business ideas.

Creativity expert Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, studied how creativity worked at Xerox's famous Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC). Over the course of a few years in the 1970s, a small team at PARC created several revolutionary innovations that would pave the way for the entire digital age we now live in, developing the laser printer, the mouse-based graphical user interface (GUI), basic networking, and more.

Amabile identified three key factors driving the unprecedented surge in creativity at PARC:

  • Talented people. The innovators at PARC didn't just have technical know-how in computer science, but also had creative smarts: "they voraciously consumed new information and combined it in ways no one had previously imagined," Amabile says
  • People passionately engaged in work they deemed meaningful and intrinsically motivating. The PARC innovators didn't just work for financial incentives, but for the pure satisfaction gained from solving difficult, fascinating challenges
  • A creative work environment that encouraged PARC employees to pursue their passions in a supportive, collaborative way

Fostering workplace creativity: 5 do's and 2 don'ts

Having studied creativity in organizations for over three decades, Professor Amabile has identified several factors that can either stimulate or inhibit workplace creativity

5 stimulants to creativity:

  • An organizational culture and managers who encourage, recognize and incentivize creativity
  • A diverse workforce that communicates and collaborates well in creative endeavors. Diversity here can have multiple dimensions, from age to gender to disciplines and departments
  • Offering employees a sense of freedom and control over the creative projects they're engaged in
  • Providing sufficient resources of time, money, and information to support creativity
  • Providing challenging work that engages people around meaningful goals

2 inhibitors to creativity:

  • All the obstacles companies put in the way of employee immersion in meaningful work, from time-consuming, ineffective meetings, to initiative-killing bureaucratic processes, to risk-averse leaders with a preference against changing the status quo
  • Creativity-killing workload pressure and stress on employees emanating from organizational demands for more productivity with less resources

The takeaway

Perhaps the single best way to enhance your organization's creative capabilities is to gauge how well you're currently stimulating or inhibiting creativity according to these factors listed above. Where you don't measure up, you can make positive changes. Amabile strongly suggests that organizations work closely with their people in order to define priorities. Employees should be spending their time on work that matters to both the organization and themselves.

After priorities are set, organizations and managers can best support their employees by removing obstacles (such as constant interruptions and busywork) that inhibit creativity. Organizational creativity, then, is largely about facilitating intrinsic motivation in people who want to engage in meaningful, creative work while removing obstacles that get in the way of such work.

 

Boston-based Chuck Leddy has been producing engaging content since 1995. He's been a business writer and digital content provider for big-name clients like General Electric, ADP, the National Center for the Middle Market, smartShift, and many more. He's also been published in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, and San Francisco Chronicle.

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