Creativity in the workplace

Francesco Marcatto17 Jan 17

Over the last few weeks we’ve conducted interviews about creativity in the workplace. We interviewed anyone we came across, from friends to people we met queuing up for street food. The only requirement was that they worked in an organisation of three or more people, and they wanted to be more creative. In psychology, this is called a 'convenience sample'.

We collected more than thirty interviews with people working in small, medium and big organisations and, while we acknowledge that this research isn’t a scientific study, we feel that the results are full of useful insights for anyone working in the creativity and innovation space.

What is creativity?

Not a big surprise, but creativity is a very broad concept that is hard to define.

Most people initially associated creativity with the arts, thinking of painters, architects or musicians. They then thought about creative job roles, such as marketing or design. Digging a little deeper though, it turns out that most people do recognise that there is creativity in their own job. Independent of what they do, almost everybody we interviewed said that they were often faced with problems for which there was no standard solution. They needed to do creative problem solving!

People’s thought patterns went something like this:

“Creativity is something only artists to. Well, maybe also designers. Wait, in marketing they have always to create something new. In my job I am often faced with new problems and I have to find how to solve them… that’s creativity too!”

Creativity is indeed an umbrella term which includes multiple meanings, from the development of art pieces, to the sudden ‘a-ha’ moments that help us solve a critical problem, to the group sessions where we bounce ideas off each other.

Of course, such a definition is too broad to actually be useful. In the beautiful words of James Kaufman, ‘Throwing all these ideas together and labeling them as “creativity” is not much different than using the word “love” to mean your feelings for your mom, your best friend, your significant other, and spicy calamari. It may be technically correct but it’s not terribly useful’.

Take home message: speaking about ‘creativity’ is too vague. It’s better to speak about ‘creative problem solving’ or ‘artistic creativity’.

How do people do creative problem solving?

So, what do these people usually do when faced with problems they don’t know the answer too? The answer is easy: Google. A slight exaggeration, but it is very common. They search the internet for answers, best practices and appropriate literature. They also look at what their competitors are doing for inspiration.

Equally though, they loved talking to other people and getting insights from them. They often talked to colleagues, but also experts in their network and beyond. These people could not only help them with expert knowledge, but also help shift their perspective and give them a fresh look at the problem.

This information sharing usually happened in an unstructured way: talking with colleagues during the breaks, phone conversations and taking notes using the good old pen and paper. Some people also use software for storing and sharing information, such as Google Docs or Trello, but in a fairly haphazard way which leaves them longing for a clearer way to share, discuss and gain consensus for new ideas.

Take home message: Getting the right information is half the battle but finding structured ways to share ideas is a problem.

How do people feel about creativity?

People love creativity. They enjoy finding new ways to improve the way they work and bringing ideas to their organisation. They also like to be involved in solving problems with their colleagues, especially when the climate is friendly and constructive, and enjoy the freedom and energy of ideation sessions.

Creativity is not without its difficulties though. Lots of people feel creativity is not welcomed in their organisation, and even if it is there is no time to work on it. They feel that their managers don’t want them to take personal initiative for improving working practices. Even if they have some great ideas that could benefit the whole organisation, and creativity is broadly encouraged, there are a lot of hoops to jump through.

**Take home message: Creative problem solving is only sometimes supported and almost exclusively expected to be done outside work hours. **

The Future?

It seems a shift towards an organisational climate open to creativity and innovation is needed. Tap ideas from all ranks, encourage and enable collaboration, open the organisation to diverse perspectives: these are just some of the suggestions from Teresa Amabile, professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and one the most renowned researchers on organisational creativity. Read more here.

A similar change in the organisational mindset, however, is very hard to realise fast. You cannot just announce it in a big meeting or in the monthly newsletter to all employees, and expect magic to happen. Some structural changes are needed to make sharing ideas and collaborating a beautiful habit. Think ‘shape the path’ and ‘direct the rider’, for the ones familiar with the metaphor of the rider attempting to direct an elephant by Jonathan Haidt, and with the brilliant Switch framework for change by the Heath brothers.

We think online tools can make the ideation process smoother: employees should be able to submit ideas or problems, bring in the right people, and make quick decisions and enable implementation. Neonce is a great start, for example you can create regular sessions to gather ideas, or let others develop your suggestions to help make them a reality.

The beta version of Neonce is online, and it’s completely FREE. If your team would benefit from this, we would love to hear from you and you can sign up for a free version here.

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