Cultivating Creativity: a guide for managers

April 14, 2017


Philosophers from East to West have pondered the question of creativity for millennials. It is one of those recurrent themes in the history of our civilisation.  Since industrialisation, creativity has been the focus of academics in fields ranging from anthropology, to psychology and neuroscience.




We have tended to believe that creativity belongs to the privileged few. To the rich and famous gracing the cover of Vogue and walking the halls of Hollywood, or alternatively to the lone mad artistic genius. It is only recently that we have started to think of creativity as something that is to be harnessed, cultivated, and that is ultimately innate to human life.


Despite the substantial body of work on the topic, its nature remains nebulous and elusive. Because both the process and the results of creativity are intangible and impossible to pin-down, the call for creativity at work has been difficult to hear and to answer. As a result, the majority of managers and corporate structures seldom think about creativity as a strategy for growth.


Yet creativity is becoming increasingly necessary in this fast changing world where technology continuously challenges us. The ability to innovate is now recognised as the main competitive edge. Creativity increases the scope of alternatives to be considered for problem-solving, improves decision-making, leads to innovation and thus more effective and efficient operations and products. Creativity also increases workplace engagement and interaction, the ability to attract and retain quality employees and increases staff morale, fun and happiness.


Importantly, there is a role for management in the creative process. It is necessary for leaders to step back from the fray of daily management and engage in its questions. The magazine Harvard Business Review held a round-table discussion with known 'creativity leaders’, who all shared this common viewpoint -  One doesn’t manage creativity. One manages for creativity.”


What does that look like?


The good news is that leaders can do much to encourage the creative work process.  Managers can create a culture in which creativity will thrive, “like a gardener who prepares the creative soil and nurtures the seedlings of ideas.”


Research shows that creative workers are intrinsically motivated; they are the curious explorers that wish above all to learn. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the famous book ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ describes this mind-set as “a state of uninterrupted marvel.” 


If one of the keys to creativity is intellectual challenge, management must find ways to provide it. That demands awareness of individuals’ interests and skills. For instance, some employees will have more capabilities in generating ideas and designing projects, while others will be better at idea commercialisation. Both these processes require creativity. The trap here is that since the passion for an idea is highest among its initiators, projects often lose steam on the road to market. Management must therefore not only recognise these individual passions and skills, but also aid collaboration between these different functions and help with the transition.


Another key to creativity is providing a certain amount of independence. Every organisation, especially as they get bigger, need a degree of set processes and workflows – such as found in project and customer relations management software.  However, over formalisation will kill creativity. By prescribing the exact procedure for appropriate actions and behaviours, it restricts employees’ freedom in choosing their own method of finishing a task or creating an idea. 


In the same vein, Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Engineering, noted that companies with strictly hierarchical structures and differences in status among people impede the exchange of ideas. There is therefore a need for some ‘slack’ – which translates into an organisational setting that allows sufficient time and resources for exploration. Google famously allowed its employees time to research and explore topics that interested them particularly; this is how some of their best ideas – such as google scholar - have come about.


What logically follows, is that one crucial trait of a manager that inspires, is the acceptance of failure (and a certain appetite for risk). The goal should be to experiment; therefore, to fail often, and learn as much as possible in the process. To implement this, companies should adopt the ‘Growth Mindset’, – a term coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Managers can create a safe environment by seeing failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a springboard for growth and for stretching existing abilities. At the heart, is creating a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Managers thus need to create safe environments, where employees will not fear punishment or humiliation for failing.


Much research has also been done on the role of diversity in spurring creativity. 

  1. Firstly, research has proven that socially diverse groups (race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups. This is quite simply because interacting with individuals that are different forces employees to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort. Individuals who have had multicultural experiences and have spent time learning about different cultural behaviours, have more awareness of the underlying connections between ideas, thus increasing creativity.

  2. Secondly, Creativity happens at the intersection of disciplines. Many breakthroughs have occurred when disciplines have collided. Creative problem-solvers are often able to connect two distinct areas of expertise. The invention of Gatorade is an example of this creative collision; "It took experts from two seemingly unrelated subjects, nephrology and football, to bring about the completely new category of sports beverages”. Beyond the implications for hiring practices, when working on specific projects managers should not shy away from seeking external help from consultancies and freelance workers.


To conclude, those ‘aha’ moments that always seem so sudden and give creativity the illusion of some mystical creature, can be cultivated and harnessed. Everyone has creative potential, which can be improved and strengthened. And the good news is, that there is a lot of sound research on how to do just that in the corporate world. So managers, tap into your imagination and see what would work for your team.





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