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You can kill or boost creativity at work

Too often, forces acting upon creative, talented people in an organization can have a substantial impact on their output. Innovative thinking is not simply a result of individual or group talents but is also a function of the work environment. Is your organization set up to encourage or stifle creativity?

One of the ways that has been proven to fuel creativity is the alignment between an individual’s passions, interests, expertise and talents with job assignments and roles. This gets at the heart of intrinsic motivation. It is deceptively difficult and requires in-depth knowledge of a person to be able to adequately perform this match. In very small organizations, people need to assume a wide variety of responsibilities and this may allow for exploration and cross-fertilization of ideas. On the other hand, specializing in too many areas with low expertise can sap energy and drain creative fuel. In order to optimally tap creativity, individuals need to function in roles where deep experience and talent meet interests and passion, a combination that enables intuition.

From intuition often springs breakthrough thinking. As David Kelley, a founder of innovation firm IDEO, puts forth: “…your intuition is really the sum of your experiences. So the way that we say to improve your intuition is to have a lot more experiences and a variety of experiences.” He believes “the great danger for people as they progress through their careers is they rely on intuition informed by old data. It’s important to constantly refresh.” Those who never take vacation, take heed. Once the right assignments or roles are in place, having a diverse and supportive team can spark new ideas. The supportive part is highly relevant and often overlooked.

From my own professional experience, I cringe recalling an experience more than 15 years ago, seated around a boardroom table with a group of peers, strategic alliance directors at an innovative tech company, the first to design and implement large-scale back-end integrated e-commerce systems. We were asked what we would do if we had an unlimited budget. Silence befell the room and we looked around awkwardly. The request had no context and this was the first time we had been together as a group, let alone brainstorming as a team. Although we all knew each other, none of us seemed to feel particularly comfortable tossing out ideas. No one knew what would happen as they landed. It was not for lack of creative thinking, but comfort, that ideas were not flying at first. In short, a tactical leadership fail. This is not uncommon. Research by Teresa Amabile shows that “people believe that they will appear smarter to their bosses if they are more critical—and it often works. In many organizations, it is professionally rewarding to react critically to new ideas.” It is intuitively obvious, but research also shows that creativity and teamwork are diminished in a culture of fear where ideas are shot down before they can be explored.

In addition to brainstorming missteps and a culture of harsh criticism, it is not uncommon for companies in fast-moving industries to create a sense of urgency with impossibly tight deadlines. Under pressure, some rise to the occasion but for most, repeatedly working under unrealistic deadlines dampens motivation and leads to burnout. Not a recipe for creative blossoming.

Another potential creativity killer is an organization driven by accounting goals and beancounting. Clamping down hard on resources for new projects can lead to collateral damage as creative energy gets diverted to the search for appropriate resources in lieu of ideas for new products and services. Not only that, but the sense that work has meaning is a strong motivating force, so the message that only money matters can take the wind out of the sails. Consider compensation as well. For creativity to flourish, a lot of ideas need to flow freely and not all concepts will contribute to the bottom line. Idea generation and iteration take time. Never rewarding creative ideas, but rather only productive results, will limit the generation of big ideas. Extrinsic rewards are an important component of motivation for most people and aligning them only with the successful product launch, new customer acquisition or rate of growth to the exclusion of rewards of novel thinking will hamper long-term creative juice. Reward a little risk-taking.Take a look at your organization and see if processes and policies are in place that squash rather than fuel creativity. It might be eye-opening to consider what your organization is doing unwittingly to kill creativity. Set realistic budgets, allowing people to argue for resources, reward novel thinking. Establish aggressive but manageable deadlines. Enable intrinsic motivation, driven by interests, passions, and the challenge of the work itself. The sense that the work matters turns out to matter more than extrinsic motivation from financial rewards. Put more effort into all-important goal of aligning individuals with the right projects. If you don’t, you can’t harness the limitless creative power of your people.

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Passion is one great force that unleashes creativity, because if you're passionate about something, then you're more willing to take risks. - Yo-Yo Ma

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