“There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.”Edward de Bono
Organizations operate in increasingly volatile, uncertain, and competitive environments. The proliferation of competitors, the shortening product life cycle, and especially the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies across all industries are finding novel ways to serve customers in record time. For example, drones delivering urgent medicines, tiny sensors embedded in face masks to track coronavirus symptoms, or museums creating and streaming digital content to reach viewers from the comfort and safety of their homes.
Historically, companies that invested in innovation adapt faster during crises and performed better than their counterparts postcrisis. According to McKinsey Insights, organizations that prioritized innovation during the 2008 financial meltdown emerged stronger, outperforming the market by over 30 percent and maintaining their momentum for a staggering five years. Those examples highlight the importance of innovation as the key to adaptability, resilience, and growth during and after a disaster.
For companies to innovate, they need to invest in employee creativity. By definition, innovation is the implementation of novel ideas, whereas creativity is the creation of those ideas. Creativity represents the “raw material” of innovation, they are inextricably linked. Creativity has transitioned from an intellectual interest to an urgent concern for many corporations. The following five practical and proven techniques aren’t exhaustive, but they’re an effective starting point for any business that includes workplace creativity as a top management goal.
Make Employee Creativity an Organizational Objective
Companies must stop relying on a “selected few” for their innovation efforts to bear fruits. Instead, they should foster a culture in which every employee is encouraged to create. Involving everyone in the innovation process will allow organizations to leverage the skills, talents, and experience of thousands of individuals. Given their familiarity with the intricacies of their job, front-line workers are more likely to generate incremental novel ideas that span processes, products, and services. Leaders should also enable employees to think creatively beyond the confines of brainstorming sessions by placing “Idea Boxes” around the company where they can contribute anytime.
“People want guidance, not rhetoric. They need to know what the plan of action is and how it will be implemented. They want to be given responsibility to help solve the problem and the authority to act on it.”Howard Schultz, Starbucks
Empower Employee to Make Their Own Decisions
When employees are empowered to decide independently, they engage in focused work, which is conducive to creativity. Leaders, especially a Chief Innovation Officer, or CINO, must ensure workers understand the scope of their responsibilities and the kinds of decisions they can and should carry out single-handedly. CINOs are also responsible for providing employees with the resources, support, and autonomy they need to ideate. Chief Innovation Officers were practically non-existent until two decades ago. According to Egon Zehnder, as of 2017, one-third of Fortune 500 enterprises had an innovation executive. This clearly shows that companies recognize the importance of innovation and employee creativity as a competitive advantage.
“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”Voltaire
Encourage Exploration through Effective Questioning
Any employee would agree it’s more acceptable to go to your managers with answers rather than questions. That’s understandable. Leaders deal with a slew of problems daily and the last thing they want is having their subordinates bring them more inquiries. While this low-hanging fruit seems attractive, it may stifle employee creativity. The Socrates method pioneered millennia ago, provides ample evidence of how questions can trigger creative thinking by allowing us to challenge our biases, eliminate circular reasoning, and unexamined assumptions. Questions such as “What if we cut costs down by 50%?” “How can we increase customer satisfaction?” are great open questions that invite employees to consider new ways to solve problems.
For leaders’ efforts to succeed, they must show vulnerability by questioning their own judgment and encouraging employees to do the same. They must see themselves as Socrates described himself: “a midwife whose questions must assist others in giving birth to their ideas.” Instead of providing answers, engaging in fruitless debates, they must start asking questions that spark the imagination. After all, how can a leader motivate employees to think creatively when they convey the impression they’re omniscient?
Acknowledge Efforts and Reward Results
Teresa M. Amabile and Mukti Khaire purport leaders can’t manage creativity but manage for creativity. One way for leaders to manage for creativity is to acknowledge employee contributions. Leaders must recognize colleagues who try fresh approaches, even if they’re not perfect. Not only does recognition motivate, provide employees with a sense of accomplishment and make them feel valued, it also boosts engagement. Employee engagement leads to increase productivity, which opens doors for the creation of breakthrough ideas. Leaders can create a “Creativity and Innovation” category in their annual performance reviews to honor workers’ efforts and results.
“A company in which anyone is afraid to speak up, to differ, to be daring and original, is closing the coffin door on itself.”Leo Burnett
Ensure Employees Are Psychologically Safe
Turning ideas into reality involves taking risks. And for employees to experiment, they must feel psychologically safe. Psychological safety is often defined as an employee’s ability to express themselves without fear of retribution. A recent MIT Sloan Management study reveals companies waste $100 billion a year in innovation efforts. Such statistics suffice to discourage employees from bringing their ideas to the table, much less exploring them. Managers, especially Chief Innovation Officers, must facilitate controlled risk-taking behaviors and emphasize that it’s OK to err. When colleagues make a bad call, instead of chastising them, leaders should bring their attention to lessons learned. That way, they’ll recognize the importance of experimentation and learning from failures.
It takes concerted efforts from all stakeholders in organizations to facilitate the acceleration of employee creativity and innovation. While this article won’t provide definitive answers, it will help leaders focus their energy on where it matters most.