If your team could get more than one hundred creative new ideas, ranging from revenue-generating market expansions to ways to improve the health of your employees and reduce insurance costs, would you ask for them? What if virtually all those ideas could be executed and positively impact the bottom line… for a measly $2 million? Isn’t this what every management team wants? Of course it is.
“Most leaders try to scope creativity by defining the path rather than defining the goal and asking for anyone to contribute.”
Creativity matters, but how best to enable it? Generating creativity is, in itself, a creative act. Yet most leaders try to scope creativity by defining the path — who should contribute and how — rather than defining the goal and asking for anyone to contribute.
This is evidenced by current job structures. Richard Florida’s Creative Class work categorized jobs by those which require independent judgment, decision making, and idea generation, and found nearly 60% of US jobs (77% worldwide) require little to none of these three creative acts. This doesn’t mean that 60% of American workers are not creative but instead that their creativity is not being tapped.
For many leaders, seeing each employee as a potentially creative contributor is difficult. At one company I worked with, executives told me that they thought opening the aperture to access everyone’s creative potential could be chaotic.
Here’s how they overcame that concern: The company had an unexpected windfall of $2 million, which they wanted to allocate proportionately to existing budgets, as in “peanut butter spread across the organization,” or preferentially to projects already deemed key to the company’s future. As their innovation consultant, I proposed an alternative: a hack-a-thon for creative ideas, or an idea-a-thon. We would ask anyone — quite possibly everyone — in the firm to surface a new idea and tell management how it could work.
At first, the leadership team thought the only result would be a big mess. They seemed to believe they already knew who could or should be creative and what strategic opportunities were possible. A defined path was far more efficient. Opening up the gates would lead to a lot of dead ends, costing the company everyone’s time, they argued. My job was to show them otherwise.
We sent a company-wide email explaining that we had an unexpected opportunity to invest in new things, we wanted to learn what ideas everyone would want to fix/make/solve, and we had to act fast. We asked for three things within three weeks.
First, for people to form teams. Collaboration enhances innovation, so we asked employees to band together to submit ideas. This saved us from having 38 far-too-similar suggestions and made related ideas stronger.
Next, we told them to map out a plan. Ideas could be revenue-generating, market-growing or cost-saving, but it was up to the team to decide how to size it. We had asked all the business analysts spread throughout the organization to put their time into helping where they could, if asked. Rather than assigning roles, we wanted teams to choose to use resources.
Finally, teams had to tell us why their idea mattered to the business. Crew by crew, employees gave their presentations. Chaos did not ensue. Creativity came from the most unexpected corners.
“Many colleagues didn’t think of her as the ‘creative type’.”
One buttoned-up employee in market research — white shirt, khaki pants, Supercuts haircut, and usually carrying an armload of folders — suggested reinventing the cafeteria service. Many colleagues didn’t think of her as the “creative type,” but unbeknownst to nearly all of them, she was a “foodie,” watching nearly every Top Chef, Good Eats, and Samin-Nosrat-type Netflix series. She loved making new recipes every night and presenting tasty and healthy meals to her family. She found others at work with the same hobby, and together they went to the on-site food service team to ask if they could conduct an experiment or two.
Their first suggestion was to flip the cafeteria design so that healthy foods could be presented before less healthy ones. At first, the food services team was worried about margins — pasta is cheap and long-lasting while fresh fruit is more expensive and perishable — but they soon saw that the changes were an improvement without costing too much.
Another employee — inspired by a recent health scare — suggested putting signs near the elevators to encourage people to use the stairs at lunchtime. Combined, these creative ideas would reduce the company’s insurance payments by about 20%, without additional funds. These were just two of the many ideas green-lit as a result of the idea-a-thon.
The senior executives were genuinely surprised that they already had the talent and even the funds to drive big, meaningful change. The likelihood is that your organization is similar.
But how can you — like the company I described —breakthrough? Most leaders have been taught to focus rather than be inclusive. To shift from one mindset to another requires reassessing three myths about creativity:
Myth #1: Not everyone can be creative
Many think creativity requires deep expertise or that you have to hire the “right” people. This filters out all the people whose fresh perspectives — which only they own — are needed and limits the scope of results. Break the barriers of roles, credentials, and qualifications by asking everyone, “What would you like to change for the better?”
Myth #2: Process kills creativity
Many think of process as limiting creativity. This is only true if your process is broken. A good process can serve as guardrails to clarify goals (timeline, resources available, and desired outcomes) yet leave the “how” open. The capacity to direct one’s own work enables teams to share responsibility, self-organize, generate ideas, and collaborate.
Myth #3: Pay drives creativity
Many have long thought that we need to financially reward creativity to get more of it. Money, while necessary, motivates neither the best people, nor the best in people. More than a motivational carrot, finding and fulfilling a purpose is a fundamental human need. Think back to that analyst. Being able to draw on her passion for food and change the cafeteria was reward enough.
Leaders need to abandon and dispel these barriers, all of which come down to trust. To trust is to believe in the core capacity of our people. When leaders define the path rather than define the goal, we aren’t trusting our own people to contribute towards our collective best work.
When we allow more employees to contribute their own ideas and energy at work, companies benefit in both the near- and long-term. The US Department of Education, World Economic Forum, and Bloomberg indicate that tomorrow’s jobs (those still left after the robots and AI take over) will all demand “creative problem-solving skills.” If we’re going to do more meaningful work, or work at all, we’ve got to fix this gap between what we value — creativity — and what we enable.
So we have to start seeing creativity as a capacity that all of us contain. Ideas do not come from specialized skills or because of carrots and sticks. Ideas come from ingenuity, from the Latin ‘ingenuus’ or inborn. Thus creativity is not something just a few of us do or found in certain ranks or created by certain functions like engineering or marketing. Each of us has a unique perspective that needs to be liberated. This can be done by using a process that lets people find their own effective solutions and strategies. Invite people to bring their full selves to work, knowing that every quirky passion or hobby can serve to inspire new ideas.
No matter your position on the org chart, you can bring your creativity to bear at work — including finding new ways to tap the creativity of others.
Since this piece is about unlocking the creativity of your people, that’s where I want to focus the Monday/Month/Metric.
Monday: On a Post-It, track when you give directions: are you directing the plan vs. directing the goal?
Month: Ask your people, “What can I do to better enable your creativity?”
Metric: Even in the most fast-paced environment, your team can figure things out if you share the same goal. How often are you signaling a goal and working on getting alignment on that goal vs. directing a task/plan/action? Decide on a metric and ask them to report back to you on it at regular intervals.
This is tough stuff to change. But we can do it.
When you do, your people will not only do their best work, your organization will become a place where everyone will feel like they can bring the best of themselves.
This piece was published by Harvard Business Review.