Two employees smiling and fist-bumping in an office conference room.
From optimizing the types of workdays your employees have to focusing on fostering a positive work environment, these experts offer proven strategies to boost employee creativity. — Getty Images/jacoblund

Workers’ creativity and ability to innovate are key to your company’s success in today’s knowledge economy. Two experts offer their approaches for fostering these attributes.

Increasing 'ideal' workdays throughout the week

One way is to focus on boosting the number of workdays that are high in factors that can stimulate creativity, like organizational support and challenging work, and also low in obstacles to creativity, such as time pressure and conflict, said Alexander S. McKay, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Employees reported higher creative performance on these “ideal days,” which account for about 30% of all workdays, as McKay and several colleagues found in their study of more than 11,000 surveys in which employees rated their workdays on factors that stimulate or inhibit creativity.

Their research, as shown in “Another Day, Another Chance: Daily Workplace Experiences and Their Impact on Creativity” in the Journal of Product Innovation Management, explored five workplace experiences that impact creative potential. In addition to ideal days, these are:

  • Toxic days: As you might guess, these are high in obstacles, like time pressures and office politics, but low in factors that stimulate creativity, such as organizational support and resources. Thankfully, they make up just 8% of workdays.
  • Disengaged days: Days in which people are "checked out” account for about 10% of workdays.
  • Typical days: As the name sounds, typical days contain average levels of both stimulant and obstacle factors. Work gets done, but the environment doesn’t promote a flow of creative ideas.
  • Crisis days: These are high in both stimulant and obstacle factors—essentially, a blend of toxic and ideal days—and make up about 19% of all workdays. While many survey respondents thought their creative performance was high on crisis days, their actual performance often fell short of this perception.

To be sure, bringing creative ideas to life involves hitting roadblocks and merging various ideas, McKay says. This creates friction, so crisis days are inevitable. However, friction alone doesn’t guarantee creativity. “Crisis days are necessary, but not sufficient for creativity,” he says.

Instead, business leaders want to boost the number of ideal days. How? One step is to be a support system, McKay said. That is, leaders need to let workers know they’re available for them and demonstrate empathy. Also key is setting progress goals, but not limiting how employees accomplish them. “That autonomy will go a long way for motivating people,” he added.

Instead, business leaders want to boost the number of ideal days. How? One step is to be a support system, McKay said. That is, leaders need to let workers know they’re available for them and demonstrate empathy.

Focusing on culture, process, and capability

Creativity can also be viewed as a product of culture, process, and capability, said Donncha Carroll, Partner in the revenue growth practice of Axiom Consulting Partners. Culture, the most important of the three, refers to “a psychologically safe environment where employees are free to speak their mind without fear of ridicule or criticism,” both of which can hinder creativity, he added.

Shutting down ideas before they’ve truly been heard or allowing a few team members to say things like, "We tried that before,” can undermine the creative process, Carroll said.

Conversely, creativity is enhanced when leaders initially promote divergent thinking, and then narrow the focus based on relevant criteria. Team members and leaders can also foster creativity by asking questions that explore and clarify the ideas proposed.

Next, creativity should be viewed as an ongoing process, rather than a single event, Carroll said. Depending on the complexity of the goal, leaders need to plan for a mix of individual, small team, and whole group activities. This allows employees to independently develop their perspectives, efficiently debate ideas in small teams, and then work with the broader group to develop insights that are collectively more than the sum of their parts. “Creativity is often a very iterative process where many small failures pave the [way] for a bigger success down the road,” he said.

Capability, the final component to organizational creativity, can be enhanced by assembling a mix of expertise from different areas relevant to the goal, Carroll said. A diverse breadth of knowledge and experience can help a team more effectively pursue the goal at hand.

It’s also important to identify how an individual or team will measure the success in its creative endeavor. Then, the business should review, analyze, and learn from the initiative, Carroll said. Rather than abandon a creative initiative that’s deemed a failure, a business often benefits by adjusting its approach until it achieves the desired results.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published June 24, 2022