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Here’s how to foster creativity at work

Can anyone be creative?

Creativity is a high priority for businesses – and not only in traditional ‘creative’ industries. As new competitors from different industries increasingly enter new markets, organisations are re-thinking traditional business models to see how they can position their people as a competitive strength.  

Studies shows the presence of creativity in a workforce is a major influence on the commercial value of end products; many of the top global companies generate revenue from products and services that did not exist even five years ago. As innovation is the conscious effort of bringing new ideas together in a way that creates a valuable outcome or impact, creativity in a workforce is an important precursor for innovation in organisations.

Are all of our employees capable of being creative?

It’s a myth that people are ‘born’ creative – that we are either creative or not. Studies show that all people have creative potential. Creativity can be demonstrated in any job and at any level of an organisation. In businesses, the work environment is the dominant factor in transforming an employee’s creative potential into performance. That is, the work environment acts as a lever to promote and hinder creative performance by employees.

What should we focus on in the work environment?

Being creative requires extra effort. It is easier to not be creative and maintain the status quo in our work. Therefore, deliberate strategies to support and encourage employees to be more creative are essential.

What can HR do to foster creativity?

When we’re asking employees to be creative, we’re asking them to use extra effort and essentially to make a choice to ‘opt in’ to perform creative work. For HR practitioners, as creativity involves discretionary effort, implementation of HR strategies that support higher levels of engagement are crucial. Role autonomy, immediate supervisor and co-worker support, the ability to participate in formal and informal learning, and recognition for creative work have been shown as universally important strategies across all types of jobs and industries to increase creative performance.

It’s the question as much as the solution

Additionally, while it’s often thought that creativity at work involves spending a lot of time brainstorming ideas for potential solutions, the time spent on understanding the problem is just as important as the time spent on trying to solve it. Methodologies such as design thinking, creative problem solving and appreciative inquiry are important as they provide a deliberate and structured way for employees to understand problems differently, and therefore help to stimulate the development of different solutions and remove the ‘chance’ component that appropriate new solutions are developed.  

Overall, whether it’s a specific job or a project, if a creative solution is desired, asking employees to be more creative and actively constructing the conditions for this is necessary.   

How can we tell where our gaps are?

Barriers to creativity and innovation can exist in any part of an organisation: within teams, organisational structures, processes, cultures and leadership behaviours. As each organisation is unique, understanding the barriers and strengths specific to your organisation is important to ensure that your specific needs can be targeted and that things currently working are not inadvertently changed. Data driven approaches and continuous listening strategies that reliably and repeatedly capture employee perceptions of barriers and strengths are important tools for HR managers to keep their fingers on the ‘creative pulse’ of the business.

Reliably assessing how the conditions that support creativity and innovation are changing over time or between business units means HR managers can make decisions based on evidence to select and target interventions only to those that will have the greatest impact on their organisations performance.    

Natalie Francis, PhD

Natalie is an executive consultant in the Smarter Workforce Consulting team and Australian

Leader for IBM’s Thought Leader Centre of Excellence.

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