Building a climate for creativity takes 360 degree focus.
By Sharon de Korte
Creativity became a key development focus area for businesses ever since the 2010 IBM study. The study among over 1,500 CEOs across 60 countries and 33 industries found that creativity is considered the most important leadership quality for business success. However, for an organization to be creative, it needs not only creative leaders, it also requires an organizational climate that fosters creativity.
So why are leaders saying that creativity is so important?
As Gerard Puccio, chair of the International Center for Studies in Creativity, said at TEDx Gramercy last December, “because things change, we have to try new things.” Between globalization and the rapid pace of technological change, organizations need to do things differently.
Rita McGrath, in her forthcoming book The End of Competitive Advantage, posits that the new path to business success is quickly grasping short-term opportunities. She believes that it is irresponsible for an executive not to make innovation a strategic priority and ensure there is investment for it.
How to encourage organizational creativity?
The best way to prioritize innovation and encourage doing new things is to have a climate that is open to creative thinking. (To clarify, organizational climate is not to be confused with corporate culture. Organizational climate is the employee perceptions that influence and characterize life in the organization, whereas culture describes corporate beliefs and values.) In addition to communicating the desire for innovation, organizations need to create a climate conducive to fostering the creative thinking that is necessary to power innovation.
The benefit of having a climate conducive to creative thinking is that it not only enables innovation, it also increase employees’ productivity, job satisfaction, and well-being.
What is the right climate for organizational creativity to grow?
Creativity is like a plant; it needs the right environment to grow. We know that plants need the right temperature, water, light, oxygen and nutrients. With creativity, however, it’s not that simple. To cultivate the right climate for creativity to flourish, the organization needs to have a clear purpose, an independent and collaborative process, and people who constructively work together.
Purpose – In order to inspire and engage employees, organizations first need to clearly communicate their purpose and set clear achievement goals. When employees understand the larger purpose of the organization, they are better able to see the value they provide to the organization. When employees believe and accept the organizations’ challenges as their own, they will be inspired to put in the effort to help achieve success. The clearer the organizational goals, the more likely employees will find meaning in their work, which in turn leads to being more personally challenged and more dedicated and committed to the outcome. This personalization of the larger organizational purpose challenges employees and ignites their personal creativity.
Process – For creativity to be maximized, a balance of the employees’ personal independence and team collaboration is needed. Allowing employees the freedom to take initiative along with the time to have and build on ideas is important to fostering a creative climate. It is also necessary for managers to support new ideas by paying attention and encouraging alternatives. Managers also need to have tolerance for the uncertainty inherent in risk taking.
For employees to feel a sense of independence in their work, they need to be encouraged to explore new ways of doing things to overcome challenges to achieving the organizational purpose. By engaging curious thinking, employees can delve deeply and get at the root cause of a challenge. Using a ‘why chain’ discussion to enrich understanding. Take each aspect of the situation and ask why is that happening and then why is that happening. This gets to the root cause of the problem. After crafting some ideas of what needs to be done, asking a ‘what’s stopping us chain’. These two tools will jumpstart the problem solving thinking.
Open, honest discussion of planning such as described should be a standard part of meetings. When a diversity of perspectives are encouraged in the development of new approaches to situations, employees’ creativity is awakened and new possibilities can arise.
Encouraging new thinking isn’t enough. Employees should be allowed to take advantage of opportunities - even potentially risky ones, without fear. It can be difficult for managers to be comfortable with uncertainty inherent in allowing employees to try new things. Experimenting on a small scale will encourage employees. Managers should quickly respond to decisions and new ideas with positive and constructive feedback.
Mistakes are critical for learning. Rather than punishing risk taking, which fosters doing the same old same old, have ‘no blame’ debriefing sessions where everyone involved shares experiences. Probing fully around the following three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What did we learn? to fully explore the situation. Then develop new solutions based on the new learning.
To balance personal independence and team collaboration, when I managed a team, we had quarterly strategic planning meetings. Each meeting started with a creative exercise to get our minds out of the everyday challenge of our email and most urgent problems. After that we had an open dialog about what’s working well and what do we or our clients wished was different. We went through each one diagnosing the situation (using why? and what’s stopping us? chains) and setting up action steps to overcome the issue. Each person volunteered to lead different initiatives. In order to be sure that we implemented these (or improved ideas), we also added them to our regular staff meetings.
It is critical to balance the desire for big wins with the value of small failures. I like to say, ‘fail small to win big.’ Small experiments are learning opportunities (aka mistakes) can build momentum to achieving the big wins.
People – The best intentions of having a climate that engages employees in the creative process will only be as successful as the people involved. To give employees the courage to pursue possibilities, employees must feel emotionally safe. While emotional safety is generally important in the workplace, it is paramount for creativity. The fundamental principles for creative interaction are trust/openness and lack of conflict.
When asking people to be creative, we are encouraging them to use their imagination and do things differently. Using our imagination is likely to make people to feel vulnerable. Each idea should be treated as a gift – with acknowledgement and appreciation for what they can bring in a positive and productive way.
Another aspect is that employees need to be willing to give their ideas and make suggestions without conflict. One simple way to do this is to not say the word ‘but.’ Every mention of the word ‘but’ in creative discussions, not only kills that idea but often limits the persons desire to participate. Have a conversation with someone where every time they say something you say ‘yes, but’ and then try the same exact conversation and say ‘yes, and’. It is a profound difference. In one they don’t want to speak and in the other they feel their contribution was valuable and are energized and having fun.
Environment – Even with all the above an organization may not be reaching its full creative potential. The last critical component for creative flourishing is that the energy needs to be dynamic, lively with a sense of playfulness and humor. Organizations are like animals – they can either energized or sleepy and tired. The environment should engage people’s curiosity through the acceptance of experimentation and new things happening. A relaxed atmosphere where people are having fun and engaged brings out the creative sparks.
One challenge in establishing a creative environment today is that teams are increasingly more virtual. While there are an increasing number of online collaboration tools, these are often enablers but not encouragers. One way to overcome this challenge is to build playfulness into the tool – the gamification of collaboration. Rather than just installing the software and hoping that employees use it, make it fun and engaging with challenges, points, rewards etc.
How is the creative climate of your organization or group? Here are some questions to ask yourself about the organization or group you are part of. A low score is holding back creativity.
- How clear is the organizations’ purpose?
- How personally meaningful do employees feel that their work is?
- How willing are employees to put in extra effort?
- Are employees fearful of what will happen if they try something new and it is not successful?
- Are employees encouraged to experiment and try things rather than spending a long time analyzing?
- Do employees have the time to explore new ways of doing things?
- Do employees take initiative in discussing problems and developing alternatives?
- Do employees have a positive attitude towards trying new things?
- Are ideas listened to and encouraged?
- Are different perspectives put forward and explored?
- Are people encouraged to have and discuss their ideas?
- Is there open and direct communication about issues and ideas?
- Are employees worried about how others will judge their ideas?
- Are people positive and mature rather than gossiping?
- To what extent are new things happening in the organization?
- How much do people feel that it is acceptable to do things/handle situations differently?
- Is the atmosphere relaxed and casual?
- How much are people having fun and laughing together?