Most executives will not be surprised by the results of recent global surveys on creativity: Business success in the 21st century depends on the ability to create and innovate. The problem is, very few business leaders know how to develop creativity and innovation within themselves or within the workplace.
According to Adobe’s 2012 State of Create study, only 1 in 4 people believe they are living up to their own creative potential and 75 percent of respondents said they are under growing pressure to be productive rather than creative, despite the fact that they are increasingly expected to think creatively on the job. Worse, only 39 percent of global respondents described themselves as creative.
A report on IBM’s 2010 Global CEO study stated that: “The effects of rising complexity call for CEOs and their teams to lead with bold creativity, connect with customers in imaginative ways and design their operations for speed and flexibility to position their organizations for twenty-first century success.”
Being a leader in the 21st century requires creativity, artistry, empathy and the ability to cope with complexity. Relying solely on logic, analysis and problem-solving skills is insufficient if the goal is to compete globally based on value rather than price.
How do you close the creativity gap?
It takes imagination and creativity to discover opportunities for growth and turn ideas into action. For innovation to flourish, organizations must create an environment that fosters creativity, bringing together multi-talented groups of people who work in close collaboration together, exchanging knowledge and ideas. To keep people engaged and motivated means finding ways to overcome the constraints imposed by traditional ways of leading and managing.
Creativity is not a mystical attribute reserved for the lucky few. Creativity is a process that can be developed and managed.
Researchers have determined that our ability to generate innovative ideas is not merely a function of the mind, but also a function of behaviors. According to the authors of The Innovators DNA, the most creative people in business are adept at the following five behaviors:
Associating: drawing connections between questions, problems, or ideas from unrelated fields
Questioning: posing queries that challenge common wisdom
Observing: scrutinizing the behavior of customers, suppliers, and competitors to identify new ways of doing things
Networking: meeting people with different ideas and perspectives
Experimenting: constructing interactive experiences and provoking unorthodox responses to see what insights emerge.”
Learning to be creative is akin to learning a sport. It requires practice to develop the right muscles, and a supportive environment in which to flourish.
Cultivating creativity at work
Productivity and creativity should not be mutually exclusive. Innovative companies like Google, Procter & Gamble, and 3M, recognize that innovative ideas can come from anyone, anywhere in the organization. If you take the time, you will find creative ways to improve your productivity.
Carve out time to get into the creative flow and do your best thinking. The Gen X and Gen Y innovators who come to me for coaching don’t want to be stuck in a corporate cubicle. They do their best thinking on the run, or at home. As long as they deliver results, they should be allowed the flexibility to do their work where, and when they want.
Practice the art of creative leadership
One way for leaders to encourage more creativity in the workplace is by studying the arts. Artists and business leaders have many similarities. Both have a guiding vision and a potent point of view, and can formulate an ideal, navigating chaos and the unknown to produce a new creation. Since all great art pushes boundaries beyond established norms, it can teach us about leadership, change, ambiguity, chaos, courage and creativity. The arts (painting, poetry, improvisation and storytelling) take us on adventures in creative expression that help us safely explore unknown territory, overcome fear and take risks.
As an article for The Economist's Schumpeter blog, “The Art of Management,” points out, “Business has much to learn from the arts.... Studying the arts can help business people communicate more eloquently.... Studying the arts can also help companies learn how to manage bright people.... Studying the art world might even hold out the biggest prize of all—helping business become more innovative."
You can easily incorporate the arts in your workplace by asking people for stories about their best customer experience, or best boss, or best team experience. When envisioning the future, ask people to sketch what it looks like to them, and tell a story about the picture.
The purpose of arts-based learning is not to develop artists in your organization, but to use the arts as a catalyst for developing skills in creativity, communication and collaborative leadership. Engaging in the arts facilitates meaningful dialogue, and helps us remember who we are as human beings. When we are in touch with our humanity, we envision better futures, make wiser decisions, and create sustainable enterprises.
Learn to listen—really listen
The best leaders are excellent listeners. Not only do they call upon the expertise of their employees (that’s why they got hired, right?), they also acknowledge input and consider employee suggestions. Practice the art of listening by being present in the moment, and giving people your full attention. Listen for the brilliance in others, not just for what is wrong with the idea. Get in the habit of responding with a “Yes and…” rather than a “Yes, but…”
In cultures where it is the norm for managers to tell people what to do and how to do it, I challenge people to lead by asking questions. I’ve had young managers resist this idea because they believed asking questions would make them sound stupid. Not true. It’s much harder to ask a compelling question than to give an answer. What is a powerful question? It’s one that causes you to consider a perspective outside the norm, and one you don’t know the answer to.
Teach and learn
Who are the emerging leaders in your organization? Who are the people with a passion for innovation? What can your new hires teach you about creativity and innovation? What do your star performers know that would benefit others? What is new and exciting in one department that another can learn from? These are some of the questions you can ask to create interactive learning events featuring your most talented employees. There is no better way to learn and grow than to teach what you know.
Want to get Gen X and Y engaged and excited? Invite them to design, plan and host a start-up event in the spirit of movements like Startup Weekend. Provide teams with an innovation challenge your company needs to solve, then hand over the assignment to your innovators and provide sufficient resources to help them create a successful two-day event. These events can be used to seed new ideas that lead to innovation, or to find ways to turn existing ideas into action.
In my experience from working with specific business units of global organizations over the past few years, I have observed that these are in fact centers of excellence with an entrepreneurial appetite for creativity, innovation and the willingness to try something new. The leaders who run these business units track what’s on the leading edge, and learn from the best and brightest in the organization. This approach, combined with sufficient resources and sound management practices, contributes to creating a culture that fosters innovation as well as excellence in business performance.
Closing the creativity gap
Make it safe for people in your organization to experiment, dive into the unknown, have conversations that matter, and generate creative solutions through learning labs and the crucible of transformation that occurs when engaging in the arts.
Developing and harnessing the creativity and ingenuity of your workforce will enable your enterprise to become more productive and more innovative. Creativity is the best way to add value to technology and enhance your competitive advantage.