Crash Course on Creativity in the Workplace

Now that my presentations are over for the conference season, I thought it might be interesting to share with you a bit about what I talked about during my speaker session on Creativity in the Workplace. I have previously mentioned that I spoke at a conference this month. It was a library conference, but the topic is one that transcends fields. So here is a crash course on Creativity in the Workplace…this have been edited from the actually presentation and I have tried to insert the sources that I used, but honestly, my notes didn’t always have an in-text citation of the source. I kept those as a running list on my last slide.

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When time began, it was believed that creativity was a gift from the gods and therefore divine. Greek philosophers like Plato believed that we were creative only through the grace of the Muses. There was a mysticism about it. It didn’t help that during the early 19th century, Phrenology was used to determine someone’s creative ability. This was based on the study of the sculptures and busts of creative geniuses from fields of music, literature, and the arts. For decades, researchers turned their backs on the study of creativity. That is until the 1950s when American Psychological Association president Guilford proposed in his presidential address that creativity was an aspect of psychology that needed further research and understanding. He was a pioneer in the study and devised psychometric assessments to not only study it but also measure it. His research led the way for Torrance’s study of creativity in Children, and Amabile’s current research on workplace creativity.

While the study of creativity has picked up more traction in popular culture over the years thanks to notable speakers like Sir Ken Robinson who talks about the importance of teaching creativity in schools or Wharton professor Adam Grant with his study on original thinkers and ideas. For many, when we think of creativity, we can’t get past the idea that it is something for the artists or musicians…or if we put it into library terms…our children’s librarians and our marketing people. This perception contributes to a misunderstanding and a devaluing of creativity as a science as well as a business tool. Fostering creativity in business means more than having a foosball table in the breakroom or funky artwork on the walls. As stated on Drexel’s website, an IBM survey of over 1,500 chief executive officers from 33 countries found that creativity is the most important factor in the ability to navigate an increasingly complex world (IBM Global CEO Study, 2010). Creative thinking is part of the foundation that guides our problem solving, our sustainability, and our progress towards the future.

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Before we can delve into the role that creativity plays in our organizations, we must first understand what creativity is and what it is not. According to creativity researcher Chris Bilton, creativity is both everywhere and nowhere. It is the key to unlocking competitive advantages. But what does creativity really mean?

From a psychological and psychometric perspective, creativity means novelty; a deviation from what might be considered conventional. But novelty is not enough to make something creative. It must also be useful or valuable. There is of course context that plays into this as what is novel or new to the individual might not necessarily be new to the world. Then comes meaning…who determines if something holds value?

Have you ever purchased a movie ticket? The opera? A musical? A play? Have you attended an art gallery? This one is an easy one (in the session, we all worked with libraries)…have you purchased a book (or checked it out) and then talked about it with others? Well, then you have contributed to determining if something was creative.

It is those already within the field, society, and culture that determine if an idea is creative. There is no value unless the group or society assigns value. Many an idea had been proposed well before its time, such as the tablet computer, but if the world is not ready, then the idea will not move forward. Sternberg & Lubart relate this to their investment theory in that a creative must also be able to communicate their idea so it can gain traction in the market. If an idea is original, but not useful then it is not necessarily creative. Steve Jobs was very capable when it came to communication which is part of why Apple was so successful when they introduced the tablet computer. They weren’t the first and not necessarily the best.

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We often think of creatives as not only being those with an artistic bent, but also a bit of a mad genius. In truth, creatives are just people who see the world a little differently and genius is the result of fine tuning abilities within a certain domain like music. According to Runco, everyone has creative potential. This means that you can fine hone your skills to improve your creative ability. Someone who has moderate potential when provided with the right strategies and skills can outperform someone with more potential but who is disinterested in honing those skills. If a person does not find a domain that they are interested in, then their potential may go unfulfilled. The key is intention.

Have you ever heard the idea that people who are left-handed are more creative? My son is left handed, I am right handed. We are both artistic and draw. We also both lean towards being very logical when asked to answer or explain something. So where does the left-handed artistic thing come from? Well, in a way that is another misconception.

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You may have heard before about left brain vs right brain. Logic and sequential processing are assigned to the left hemisphere and creative logic on the right. Creativity on a neuroanatomical level is actually quite complex. When it comes to creativity, different parts of both sides of the brain are actually engaged depending on the task at hand. There have also been recent studies suggesting that the presence of certain dopamine receptors raise the individual’s potential towards creativity. However, those initial studies have shown the correlation to lean more towards the support of ideation and productivity and not originality. (Runco, 2014).

So now we have a definition and know a little bit of how the brain is involved. But what about innovation? What makes creativity different from innovation?

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I found this quote on the internet (though I can’t remember where anymore) and I love that definition for innovation. Many times when we think of innovations, we think of inventions or technology. But that is only partially true. Innovation is the act of putting creative ideas into reality. So really innovation is acting on any idea that is new to the organization or field.

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Now let’s focus on creativity in organizations. Much of the creativity in organizations has to do with the culture of the organization.

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According to Maslow’s definition of creativity, it is part of a process that can be used in problem-solving (Bilton, 2007).  So when it comes to defining creativity in an organization, it depends on the culture of the organization and the goals that motivate the people in that organization. Maslow’s belief was that creativity was something that happened at the top of the Hierarchy of Needs in the areas of self-actualization and purpose. If a person was struggling to have their needs met in the areas of shelter and security or even belonging, then they will have trouble reaching their potential.

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Rogers also states that the organizational culture has an effect on the whether creative ideas will be accepted or rejected by the organization. Ideas are accepted based on previous experiences that can be related to the idea, but also the personalities of those in the organization. How will the idea affect the organizational image? What are the advantages? Even “What’s In It For Me?”. Carson Block states that it is not only important to convince the decision makers to the benefits of an idea, but also their circle of influence.

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So what does the creative organization look like? Ekvall has created a questionnaire that measures key dimensions of the creative environment.

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The Creative Climates as described by Ekvall are the structures that exist around us and determine how we will react to our environment. It is our preconscious assumptions that have been created by what we have observed around us (Kaufman & Sternberg, 2006). The first nine dimensions on the chart are seen as positive dimensions; therefore if taking the questionnaire, a high rank is preferred. The last dimension of Conflict is seen as a negative dimension and the organization would, therefore, want to score on the low end for that dimension rather than high. While the climate dimensions are best utilized in an organizational environment, people do not live in a bubble. According to Kotter (1996), most of our development takes place in the workplace because that is where we spend most of our time. Therefore, there is a thin line between our professional and personal selves. The environments that we spend most of our time in have an impact on our creative behaviors and the lens through which we view our experiences.

In a creative environment, people are also engaged in the work they are doing. According to Csikszentmihalyi, when people are in a flow state, they are completely engaged in what they are working on (Collins & Amabile, 1999). Many organizations follow traditional hierarchies and bureaucratic methods of management where everything is regimented and specialized (Williams & Yang, 1999). However, as Csikszentmihalyi (1990) states, engagement is very much part of individual creation and cannot be found simply by following checklists and recipes for success. Variety, challenge to skills, creativity, and opportunities to set own goals are part of what can lead to an employee’s flow state. However, according to the Gallup’s (2017) Employee Engagement Survey, only 40% of employees feel that they are given the opportunity to use their talents and do what they do best. So what can we do about it?

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As I mentioned earlier, creativity can be an important business tool. Creative thinking can help in problem-solving and generating new ideas. Successful and sustainable organizations are the ones that recognize the potential of creativity and not only seek it out but also invest in it. As organizational leaders, there are some things that can be done to provide the right environment for creativity to flourish.

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When an employee comes to their supervisor or organizational leader with an idea and the supervisor immediately says “That will never work” this creates an environment where employees become afraid to voice their ideas. In such an environment, when there is a fear of failure, it is hard for creativity to flourish. Employees want to know that what they say and what they do matters; not just to the organization, but also to the world. Employees also want to feel supported not just in what they are doing right but also knowing that it is okay to make mistakes.

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Learning from our mistakes is necessary for the growth of the organization just as much as it is to the growth of the individual. Fullan (2011) states that mistakes are not always a bad thing. Sometimes mistakes should be celebrated just as much as the successes. This is especially important in a learning organization because much can be learned from mistakes. If an organization is too scared to make mistakes, then they will never take risks and strive towards innovation because they are afraid of failure.

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Instead of immediately saying no to an idea, look instead towards design thinking processes and think of ways to scale down the idea so as to be able to trial it on a scale that will not be detrimental to the organization if it should fail. Such as testing out a new library programming idea once a month to gauge the interest of the community rather than implementing it as a regular weekly session. Or trialing a new service at one branch before implementing it systemwide. Remember to review and evaluate!

It may also be helpful for the organization to identify who their innovation champions are. According to Tanner and Reisman (2014), it is imperative to give freedom and space for innovation champions in organizations. The roles of these innovation champions are to identify high priority needs within the organization. Tanner and Reisman (2014) give a list of eight characteristics that creative innovation champions exhibit. The first is discontent with the status quo. This means questioning the way things have always been done. The second characteristic is to have an open mind. As stated above, this would not mean jumping on the first idea but instead investigating alternative solutions to solve problems. The third is a prepared mind; always searching out the trends, new research, and facts. Fourth is positive thinking; it important to keep a positive mindset and keep looking forward. Failure does not mean the end; it means an opportunity to make changes and find something better. Fifth is willing to take risks. Sixth is being action-oriented. When someone is action-oriented, he or she does what he or she says he or she is going to do. The seventh is persistence. The eighth is that a creative innovation champion must be hard working. Tanner and Reisman (2014) mention that this is the one characteristic that is common to all creative innovation champions as without being willing to engage in hard work, none of the other characteristics will carry an idea very far.

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The job of fostering creativity and innovation is not just the job of the innovation champions. Certainly, they can help an idea move forward, but everyone has a role when it comes to creativity. Sharing Ideas at work is something that should be highly encouraged. In fact, not only should discussing ideas formally be encouraged, but also less formal ways as well. Many an idea has sprung from those ah-ha moments to be had in conversations. These types of conversations should take place between departments and even between different organizations. A fresh set of eyes can often recognize problems that are difficult to see at first. One of my favorite stories comes from silicon valley where a group of engineers were trying to solve a difficult problem. They worked long into the night and could not see the solution. Upon taking a pizza break, it was while the delivery man was waiting for his payment that he saw their whiteboard and asked a question. He did not have an engineering background, but what he did have was a different perspective. This question was the ah-ha moment that the group needed and the solution was easily found.

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Organizations that foster competitiveness among staff instead of collaboration rarely see these ah-ha moments from the sharing of another perspective. When people see generating creative ideas as part of a competition, then they are more unlikely to share those ideas with each other. They don’t talk to each other, they hide their work from each other or horde resources. When there is no sharing, there is no collaboration, no new perspectives, and creativity becomes stifled. One of the problems with extrinsic motivation, such as monetary reward programs, is that it can cause competition which can cause creativity and innovation to falter. Let’s take a look at an example of a creative system in place in many organizations.

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The simple suggestion box is a creative system that has existed since the late 1800s when it was implemented by a Scottish Shipbuilder for his company. Almost simultaneously in the US, it was put in place by John Patterson, founder of the company National Cash Register. Patterson had discovered that his own employees were sabotaging his products. Upon investigation, he discovered that working conditions were horrible supervisors did not listen to the ideas of the workers, if the employees even brought the suggestion up in the first place. NCR had a culture where workers were afraid of reprisal from management, of supervisors taking credit for their ideas, or that anyone who made a suggestion was out for their job. The workers felt like they had no voice, so why would it matter if they worked hard for the benefit of the organization.  So Paterson devised a system where every employee could share suggestions or concerns without fear of reprisal. In fact, ideas were celebrated companywide. Many organizations still use the system today, but there are also several organizations that have discontinued their use.

One of the problems with Paterson’s system is that it relied on cash rewards. This type of extrinsic motivation does not truly motivate staff. For companies in the US who still use suggestion boxes, the adoption rate of ideas implemented from suggestion boxes is less than 40% and the participation rate is less than 11% in companies that use the system. Because they are based on extrinsic motivation. However, in Japan, they use a system called Kaizen which means good change for really any creative endeavor is really a change endeavor. The Japanese approach to the suggestion box is based more on intrinsic motivation. If an employee offers a suggestion that would cost the organization more money in the long run, then the company sees this as an opportunity to find out where there are information gaps in an employee’s knowledge and educate them. There are no bad ideas because they are all opportunities. The employees see this as there chance to make changes for the better in their organization. This different perspective yields an 89% adoption rate of ideas and a 74% participation rate.

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The benefit of having such a system in place for suggestions is that employees will feel like they have a voice, that their ideas will not be overlooked, and that they can make a difference in their organization. This is part of a continuous improvement process. However, remember that few employees will submit ideas to a system that does not show strong support or attention. Ideas should also be documented for accountability. But simply asking for input does no good if employees feel like no one is listening.

Forming an idea committee is a great way to problem solve. Here is an example of the idea process:

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It takes places in phases. Such as determining the need. In many cases, it is actually easy to come up with solutions, it is identifying the problem that is the true challenge. Once the Need has been established, a committee can move on to the idea generation phase, this would be where you would apply creative thinking techniques like brainstorming. During the Screening & Development phase, ideas are discussed and either weeded out or improved upon. During the Enrichment phase, ideas are tested on a small scale with mockups or models, or in some cases trial sized programs. The last stage is the results stage where the idea is developed, evaluated, and implemented.

Take a moment to try an experiment. Take out a pen and a piece of paper. It can even be the back of a napkin. Draw a simple coffee cup and saucer. Go ahead.

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Okay, now get a little creative with the cup.

When asked to perform this experiment with a group of executives from Morgan Stanley, researchers received many different styles of coffee mugs. Those who were struggling to come up with a simple cup had no problem when asked to be creative. However, even though there were chalices and dragon mugs, they all had the same thing in common. All the mugs were drawn from the same perspective, from the side (Achor, 2013).

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When problem-solving, we see many different solutions, but they are all usually generated from the same perspective. Just like the silicon valley story, a different perspective is often what you need to solve a problem and generate ideas.

Another idea for fostering creativity borrows on the idea of mindfulness. Seppala (2016) recommends that managers and their staff do nothing. Allowing for time to let the mind wander not only serves as a break from intense workloads, but also for generating creative new ideas. This could be as simple as taking a walk or a “fieldtrip” to a business unlike the one of which currently employed. Runco (2014) also suggests as creative tools the idea of shifting the perspective of a problem so you can see it from another angle or turning it upside down. The benefits of looking at something from a new angle is that it can inspire renewed interest in the problem which can generate new ideas and it also can change the perspective enough that new ideas will be generated because things will no longer be looked at as obstacles. A major way of changing your perspective may be leaving the problem entirely, taking a break and trying something new or even traveling. Runco (2014) states that traveling produces excitement as it can be stimulating. This change in mood can facilitate creativity as well as help people to be more grounded. They may even produce those aha moments because the individual is no longer so focused on the thing that was stressing them that they are finally able to think clearly. Many professional development conferences now feature behind the scenes tour as part of a pre-conference experience. These tours echo the idea proposed by Seppala (2016 September) that a change in scenery might be need to stimulate ideas.

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In order to provide opportunities for flow states to flourish, organizations must create environments that are conducive to these states. This can be accomplished by allowing employees the opportunity to set their own goals and the flexibility in how they will achieve those goals. Additionally, employees should be given the opportunity to utilize their skills in creative ways that not only realistically challenge their abilities but also helps contribute to the purpose or mission of the organization.

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If you have laughed today, then you are well on your way to increasing your creativity. Studies have shown that when we laugh, our creative problem-solving abilities increase. So similar to the field trips that I discussed a moment ago. If you are stuck, take a break. Go look at some silly memes on the internet or cute cat videos. In fact, a Japanese study nicknamed the Kawaii study discovered that when we look pictures of baby animals we increase our productivity. This baby-schema study found that we have a biological urge to become more alert when confronted by the wide eyes of baby animals and yes, human babies too.  Or better yet, turn to YouTube. After watching a brief clip of Robin Williams performing standup, researchers from Drexel and Northwestern found that their study participants were 20% more effective at puzzle solving. (Daisley, 2018)

Researchers have also discovered that when we participate in small “c” creativity endeavors, this can decrease our stress levels which can help to make us more productive. Small “c” creativity consists of everyday creativity such as organizing a book display or bulletin board, writing a press release, or even prepping for a storytime craft activity. —-This blog is an example of a small “c” activity!

Csikszentmihalyi recommends that employees find ways to challenge themselves. Eikenberry suggests emulating creative geniuses by doing the following:

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Don’t stop creating!

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Culture is a big part of fostering creativity, but here are some creative thinking techniques that can also be applied to problem-solving:

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Brainstorming is a technique popularized by Alex Osborn in the 50s as a way to generate many ideas for solving a problem. It is probably the technique that most organizations are familiar with today. The idea is to generate as many ideas as possible. However, a good brainstorming session should not be a no-holds bar free for all. It is important that you have constraints like a time limit, how will ideas be shared, and who will participate in the session established at the beginning of the session. Also, before even beginning the session, there should be a plan in place for how ideas will be selected to implement.

Brainstorming is perhaps that most commonly known activity associated with creative problem solving, but there are many more ideas to help spur creative thinking. I highly recommend the book Thinkertoys because of the robust list and instructions for many different types of creative thinking techniques.

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Here are some of my favorites from the book:

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This is an idea developed by the Central Intelligence Agency to encourage agents to look at a challenge from many different angles. Dissect the problem in as many ways as possible. Listen to the questions people ask about other problems. Think about how those questions can be applied to your problem.

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The principle behind the Idea Box is similar to a hand of Poker. By discarding cards, you are able to create combinations to increase the odds of having a winning hand. This can also be done when it comes to generating new ideas. You choose the number and parameters for the challenge, the greater the number, the more possibilities you have. The idea box allows us to see the relationships between elements by breaking it down into parts. For example, the challenge could be a new product for a publisher. The publisher decided on four parameters with five variations of each. By connecting these four areas, the publisher could create a scratch n sniff cookbook advertising a company’s product. This same idea can be applied to creating a new library service or program.

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This is another CIA technique. With this technique, you are looking more closely at the idea for critical analysis. This process uses a specially selected group who are brutal to an idea. They look for any way that the idea might not work. They do this because if weakness can be discovered before the idea moves forward, then they can be circumvented before they become a problem. Some questions to ask are is this idea really serve a need in the community, who might resist this idea, what risk factors are acceptable, who should be involved, what is the worst that could happen, what is the best that could happen?

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I wouldn’t be a very good librarian if I didn’t recommend some titles for you to check out for more information on creativity. So here are a few:

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Gamestorming is my go-to book when it comes to group idea generating. There are lots of great activities in here to help you spark new perspectives or new ideas. We have used this book in training sessions before for activities like “Welcome to My World” which puts the staff member in someone else’s shoes to see if the job of the other employee is really what they thought it would be.

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I was fortunate to see Sir Ken Robinson speak at one of the Masie Learning Conferences and what he said about creativity has really stuck with me in regards to how we educate children. The Element gives lots of great stories about the education and childhoods of lots of creative individuals. Highly recommend reading this and watching his TED Talks on YouTube.

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I have already informed my bosses that if Professor Adam Grant was to offer me a job, I would probably not hesitate to turn in my resignation (Are you reading this Adam? Let’s talk.). He has a podcast sponsored by TED, I follow him on LinkedIn, everything I have read by him is amazing. Originals is an interesting book that gives you a different perspective on creativity and taking risks.

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I would probably say the same if Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi came to me too, but I don’t want to move to the West Coast. His work has heavily influenced my perspective of creativity in the workplace. In addition to his book Creativity, you should also check out his book Flow!

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Linda Hill has a fascinating TED talk about leading innovation. She discusses how innovation leaders break down silos to harness the power of collective genius. Everyone in the organization has a voice and shares thoughts with each other. She uses the example of Pixar where even the gaffer’s assistant can approach the director of the film with a suggestion. In fact, Pixar believes that everyone who works on a project serves a vital role right down to the babies that were born during the film. If you look at the closing credits of a Pixar film, you will see that they list every baby born to staff during the project. You can find out more in the book she collaborated on, Collective Genius.

Yes, this may have sounded heavily academic, but hey, I am an academic. Here is a list of most of the resources that went into my presentation:

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I have to say that it was an interesting experience. If you read my Faking it ‘Til You Make It post, then you already have the background on how unnerving it was for me. But I am very passionate about the subject and hope you are enjoying the posts I have been sharing about you in regards to my cooking related small “c” experiments with my instant pots or my “creative” financing posts as I try to balance the family budget on one income. I love writing, so even if no one is reading this, I am still getting the benefits to my stress levels by putting forth this creative endevor…more on that can be found here.

 

 

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