A New Approach to Organisational Creativity
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
I've been thinking that maybe we are doing organisational creativity wrong. In most companies where there is a desire for increased creativity, three things happen: creativity training is provided to employees, managers are made innovation managers while still retaining their previous responsibilities and an effort is made to hire people who use the word "creative" in the LinkedIn profiles. Nevertheless, no employee is given the exclusive task of being creative. Rather everyone is expected to be creative.
On the surface, this seems fine and dandy. If everyone is creative, they will provide creative input to the company, they will find ways to do their own work better and they will have outstanding ideas that lead to super-profitable innovation. What more could a CEO want?
The flaw, of course, is that it is not actually working out. I reckon a better approach is for organisations to hire highly creative people with the exclusive remit to solve problems and help colleagues achieve goals through creative input. These people could be employees or they could be creative consultants on retainer − but note, in this case I mean a consultant who is super creative and not a consultant who teaches you how to be creative, these are two very different things.
First, let us look at why the current approach to creativity is not working.
Creativity Is Not a Simple Thing
As with intelligence, memory, physical strength and most human characteristics, one's creativity sits on a spectrum that ranges from seldom having original ideas to overflowing with ideas and, probably, on to schizophrenia and being unable to distinguish between imagination and reality. Moreover, one's mental abilities are presumably interconnected and define your personality, strengths and more. Let us imagine a highly numerate and moderately creative financial analyst with an exceptional eye for detail. If you could somehow give her a massive creativity boost, it would adversely affect her other mental strengths and weaknesses in ways we cannot guess. The creative boost might affect her numerate and analytical abilities. It might encourage her to play with numbers and seek unique patterns which might make her a better theoretical mathematician, but would probably reduce her ability as a financial analyst. If this woman has been a financial analyst for years, enjoys her work and has a great reputation, changing her mind to make her more creative would be doing her no favours. It would likely make her unhappy. Arguably, it could turn her into an entirely different person.
In her line of work, moderate creativity is ideal. It enables her to visualise various outcomes and put together various financial actions that benefit her employer. Nevertheless, she has the discipline to avoid risky solutions. In other words, her mind and its creative level is well suited to her work. Yes, she could benefit from learning some creative thinking techniques that enable her to be a bit more creative. But, it is probably not possible to supercharge her creativity and, if you could, it would be at best unkind and at worst inhumane to do so.
Boosting Employee Creativity Is Good in Lots of Small Ways
Giving employees creativity training and tools that help them think more creatively is a good thing provided you are realistic about it. You will not radically change anyone's creativity, but you could help everybody moderately improve their creative thinking skills. The result is that creativity training is unlikely to unleash a flood of radical new product ideas that will make your company the most innovative company in the world; but it will enable everyone to work better by working more creatively. People will have lots of smaller creative ideas that translate into incremental improvements that reduce costs, increase income and make your organisation a better place. Individually, these ideas may not seem like a lot, but collectively, they do good things to your bottom line.
Of course, these people are not limited to having incremental improvement ideas. They will also have occasional big ideas that benefit the company too. But, they will have these ideas irrespective of whether or not you give them creativity training − everyone has big ideas from time to time. What matters more is that you take those big ideas seriously and develop them if they have merit.
Hire Creatives to Be Creative
If you really want to boost the creativity of your organisation, hire people especially to be creative. These might be full time employees whose job description focuses on creativity exclusively. They might be consultants hired especially to help you solve problems and achieve goals through creativity. These people must be naturally highly creative people. Their greatest skills are their unique thinking, original way of looking at situations and alternative perspectives. Most likely, they would not fit comfortably in your corporate culture. But that's okay. They see things differently, do things differently and find different solutions to your problems. In short, they add creativity, whether you want it or not.
Hiring highly creative people like this to be accounting, IT, HR or administrative employees is unlikely to work if most people in these divisions are like everyone else in their divisions in terms of background, education and experience. Moreover, promoting them into managers is simply unlikely to happen, according to research at Cornell University.
Let People Do What They Do Best
So, why make employees unhappy? Why try to push moderately creative people out of their comfort zones in hopes that they can become creative geniuses? Why hire creative people to fill largely non-creative positions? It makes more sense to hire people to do the things they do best. Moderately creative accountants, HR staff, IT team members, marketers and managers can all do excellent work and will feel less stressed if they are not being pressured to be more creative than they feel comfortable being.
Instead, hire creative people to be creative, marketing people to do marketing, HR people to do HR and so on. Doing so gives management more control over the level of creativity in the organisation. If you want a lot of creativity, you hire a lot of creative people and give them a lot of freedom and authority. If you do not want a lot of creativity, just hire one consultant to be creative sometimes.
So, what would such creative people do? In my experience, highly creative people tend to be on the outside of multiple social groups, but seldom entirely integrated into any one group. So, do the same with teams. Encourage creative people to be on the edge of multiple teams, attend meetings, help solve problems and make suggestions, but do not expect them to be deeply involved in team activities or performing tasks. Their remit should be to advise and support with creative input. And, by being on the edge of multiple teams, they can be expected to see and exploit potential connections between different teams' activities.
Invite your creatives to help solve problems even when those problems seem to be outside of their areas of expertise. Invite them to planning sessions and encourage their input.
Problem Solvers for All
More importantly, invite everyone else to bring their problems, challenges and goals to your creative people. Because if there is one thing a creatively supercharged mind loves, it is solving problems, especially seemingly intractable problems.
A Little Self Promotion
Indeed, solving unusual problems with unusual advice is something I love to do and have done for ages. I co-wrote an advice column in The Nation in the late 1980s, wrote a business advice column for Business Review magazine in the 1990s and created Dr Ecommerce to provide ebusiness advice from 1999-2001. I also have an over-active imagination and a knack for coming up with unusual, but effective solutions to all kinds of problems.
If you feel your company would benefit from creative advice and support, give me a try. Contact me and tell me about the challenges you are facing.