How to unlock creativity at work

With the right practices, you and your team might just be able to boost your creativity much more frequently.

Creativity isn’t some sort of abstract concept that is isolated solely in artistic fields. In fact, creativity is at times defined as the aspect in which something “new” is developed. Taking that perspective then, the power of creativity is probably near invaluable in a workplace setting where something new and innovative usually means getting ahead of the competition.

But creativity isn’t an analog system that you can switch on and off at a whim. This highly sought-after state of affairs has been often debated back and forth over different business studies on how exactly can team leaders and individuals themselves unlock its many benefits. 

While the answer isn’t exactly clear-cut, there are a few ways you can develop your and your team’s creativity so that you can bring it out when you most need it.

Unlocking Creativity At Work: A Consistent Process

The challenge of unlocking creativity is that we’re often busy with our day-to-day tasks. The messages, meetings, and other standard tasks tend to bring about monotony and almost automatic responses to things.

Unlocking creativity, then, needs to be a consistent process that’s integrated into you and your team’s daily routines. While some practices might take some time to show results, the effects are largely worth it; teams who ensure that some aspect of their work remains creative in nature often are more comfortable utilizing this skill when it’s most needed.

We’ve listed some practices that we believe can be helpful in fostering creativity as well as demonstrating to your team what practical applications of creativity would look and feel like.

Including Diverse Voices

Before you can even start trying out different strategies and practices that can help bolster creativity on your team, you need to ensure that the environment you’re working in allows for creative thoughts to flourish in the first place. This means that the foundational elements of your team must be diverse in background, expertise, and perspective.

In an article by NPR, Social Scientist Adam Galinsky noted that those that attempt to foster relationships with people outside of their cultural norms tend to develop better creative processes. Moreover, external perspectives tend now to also favour diverse teams as this gives already the impression of more creative output, as noted by Harvard Professor Richard Freeman.

It’s not as simple as simply hiring the best talent from a wide pool of individuals, you must also learn how to properly lead them towards developing better consensus amongst each other. It’s expected that different people from diverse backgrounds can help the creative process by offering viewpoints not necessarily common to others, but as Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes for HBR, there is a tendency for this creativity to get withered down once a final alignment is attempted amongst members. But with proper leadership, one can begin instilling a culture of sharing knowledge that can help every voice feel equally valued for a richer outcome.

Communicate for Openness of Ideas

In line with the importance of inclusivity through diverse voices in your team, it’s important that you continually communicate for the openness of idea sharing amongst team members and even across different functions in the company. Often we get bogged down in the individual functions that we tend to overlook some insights that your colleague or even a department unrelated to your role might have that can be surprisingly valuable in your work.

In an article for Forbes, writers Christine Organ and Cassie Bottorff have noted that these open communication channels (especially with cross-functional collaboration) can help break the “silo” effect that occurs within company departments. Often better agility is noted with open communication across team members and other teams as they are able to leverage the expertise that may not be present with their direct work partners.

Within individual teams, it’s also to keep in mind handy practices that can ensure that any and all ideas are valued regardless of how they might fit into the current state of things. Sarah Gibbons of Nielsen Norman Group, a company focused on research-based user experience, explains the usefulness of a “parking lot” for meetings to do just this. How a meeting parking lot works is that any ideas that may not be pertinent to the agenda or meeting goal at hand are not disregarded but rather noted down for discussion at a later time. This helps keep good ideas on the board while also empowering the team to share any and all ideas without concern about how they might work with every aspect of the discussion.

Make it Meaningful

More than just allowing diverse voices to be present in the room, there needs to be real purpose and meaning behind the work that is being done. More often than not this ties in hand-in-hand with the overarching company culture, but you can develop this within your own team by reminding them what the larger effect of their efforts ultimately develops into.

This can be one of the more challenging aspects of creative development, especially within larger companies where the final end results of individual employee work might not be so evident at the outset. In a study by ServiceNow, an Australian digital workflow firm, 42% of surveyed workers felt that many of their tasks remained menial at best, which aligned with the larger 58% of the same surveyed requesting more meaningful work.

But anyone working in any complex organization will understand that there is always going to be a variance of levels when it comes to day-to-day tasks. In a profile of Debra Sutton, marketing head for Service Now, she reflects on this through a shift in perspective rather than work. “It is more about ensuring the bulk of an employee’s time on the clock is spent doing tasks that matter – both on a micro and macro level – and align with their own personal path”, she adds.

Alongside better productivity and motivation, the development of that “meaning” and “purpose” with any tasks being done can better bring forth a creative spirit with the tasks that require it. Aligning employees’ personal goals and journeys towards this larger scope of meaning can be the difference between a driven and creative mind and one that is looking to just get work out the door at the end of the day.

Allowing Individuality and Ownership

As part of developing that integral purpose that can serve as a driving point for motivation for better creative output, allowing your team to take full individual accountability and ownership for their work can enrich their ideation experience even more. A too common scenario that plagues many workplaces is the micromanagement of direct reports, even in the most menial of tasks. While mostly well-meaning, this can hinder how people approach their work and ultimately decrease their opportunities to be truly creative with their work.

Maria Timothy, a senior consultant with OneIMS, shares with Forbes her take on ownership as a consistent and healthy back and forth between the team, leads, and other stakeholders. “Your employee may not perform their tasks as you would, but they may be just as, if not more, effective by using their own methods.”, she writes as part of the reason why ownership can breed new methods and innovations even in what was once considered standard tasks. She adds on top of this that constructive criticism is equally as important as open feedback “can quickly and openly address any issues as they occur, as well as recognize and highlight success.

And with success also comes the risk of failure, which author Lynda Reid shares is just as important as the successes we experience. It’s through failure and mistakes that most individuals are able to grow and learn better methods to address similar problems in the future. Indeed, shifting attitudes from penalties to opportunities when viewing missteps at work can further develop a highly valuable culture of creativity that rewards out-of-the-box thinking.

Using the Right Activities

When facilitating training, workshops, team meetings, and even brainstorming sessions, it can feel awkward just trying to get your team to fully buy into the exercise or goal for the session. As such, the commonly used “icebreaker” activity can be incredibly useful in jogging creativity when most needed. But it’s no secret that icebreaker activities can feel a bit awkward in themselves. However, if you do these activities right, they can remain incredibly valuable.

A key part of a good icebreaker game is to encourage thinking and the sharing of new ideas. Icebreakers can be misused when it falls too much into the game aspect of things, but if honed and focused on free thinking generation, there can be material benefits for how your team approaches a particular issue and possibly kick-start the brainstorming process.

Additionally, the execution of icebreakers is just as important as the overarching theme or activity. One of the basic things you’ll need to consider is the size of your meeting audience as not every activity will resonate with large or small groups of participants. Another key aspect of a well-done icebreaker is to have all the tools and assets needed for the activity in question. This can range from whiteboards to more specific items that help push the engagement further.

The Importance of Developing a Creative Culture

While we’ve laid out all these tactics and best practices as separate entries into our guide on unlocking creativity, the most effective way to better unlock creativity is to cultivate a creative culture. Developing culture only works when you take a multi-faceted approach: that is to say, you utilize not just one of these practices but ideally all of it in combination.

These shifts in work management rarely work in a bubble with each other, and you’re likely intuitively to pick up another best practice when attempting to make one specific standard. It goes to show that a culture of creativity really thrives on key aspects of ownership, diversity, communication, and purpose, that all work in tandem to support the creative endeavors of its workers.

Benefits of Creative Cultures

BetterUp, a strategic and digitally-enabled development tool, developed a short entry on the many benefits that creative cultures have in the workplace. In this post, they combat the notion that creativity is solely for the creatives, and that this culture ought to be a norm in all workplaces that value innovation and forward-thinking.

Of the many benefits innovation through creativity can bring in developing new strategies and business maneuvers, it can also develop better collaboration between teams and improve productivity throughout. With problems being tackled by diverse teams, you’re likely to solve problems even faster while retaining the key talent that values a culture like this at the workplace.

Final Thoughts

Unlocking creativity was by no means going to be an easy feat. You’re likely going to be developing different iterations of the concepts above that better fit your team as well as researching other possible ways to further enhance their creative capabilities. What’s important to keep in mind is that this process requires consistency from the get-go. Half-hearted attempts to jump-start a creative process can quickly turn sour, let alone doing the same in terms of creative culture.

With a concerted effort and a genuine understanding of what it takes to truly unlock creativity, you might surprise yourself with how all these different incremental changes end up amounting to a true shift in creative perspectives at work. 

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