The 3 Big Myths of Sparking Creativity at Work

By Greg Holden, Business Writer & Social Media Manager, IRI

How do you spark creativity at work? This is a question as old as business itself and a topic of extensive research that has yet to be answered conclusively. What has been turned up through decades of study, however, is at least a cursory rebuttal of several big myths about how to encourage workers to be more creative. In a nutshell, creativity cannot be forced, only coaxed out of its hiding place with proper incentives.

The key word here is incentives.  Does this mean money? Rewards? Recognition? Maybe a promotion, or just a new title? Or is it just the chance to present the idea to the C-Suite?

Yes.

See what I did there? Let’s review. This article opens with the statement that no matter how much work has gone into studying creativity in the workplace, it has yet to be solved. There is no silver bullet or cure-all treatment that will save you. So if you are reading this article in hopes of learning exactly what to do to prime your people to reach their creative peak, I have some bad news for you. It’s not here. It’s not anywhere. Your organization is a living organism that requires cultivation. Part of that cultivation process is knowing how to manage the people who work for you in a way that makes sense in the context of your organization’s culture. No two companies are alike.

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So what it means to incentivize employees to be creative is more than just doing one simple thing, like offering more money, lavish bonuses, recognition, or fancy titles. It involves an understanding of what your people want, what drives them, and how supported they feel in the actions they take, sanctioned or otherwise, and then delivering on their interests. In other words, it takes empathetic management.

In her summary of the recent research into what makes firms innovative, MaryAnne Gobble, Managing Editor of Research-Technology Management (RTM) noted that no clear formula has emerged, but that much of the recent research does “illuminate two central elements: culture and talent. Whatever else you do, whether your innovation process is centralized or dispersed, rigorously structured or freewheeling, you have to find the right people and put them in the right environment.” She then states that these two factors are themselves the product of one other: management. Managers are responsible for creating the organization’s culture and hiring the people to fulfill the needs of their business units. Managers are people, however, and prone to false beliefs just like anyone else.

Let’s take a look at a few of the big myths that managers have believed would cure their creativity deficits.

Myth #1: Money is the Best Motivator

This one is actually trickier than it looks. Money is important. Money, in essence, represents a person’s “worth,” however defined. If you aren’t paying your tech rock stars a properly valued salary with a good bonus at year end, chances are they’ll leave simply because they feel undervalued, regardless of other circumstances. So, yes, money is an important factor in the valuation people make about where they work. What it does not do, however, is incentivize them to be more creative.

In a report titled “7 Key Trends Impacting Today’s Workplace,” the company TINYpulse, an employee engagement firm, asked surveyed companies what incentivized their people to go the extra mile. Can you guess the results? Money didn’t even make the top five (it came in seventh). What came in first, you ask? Camaraderie and peer motivation (i.e. a healthy organizational culture).

Myth #2: A Properly Structured Idea Gathering Program Will Spark Creativity

Again, do not mistake this myth to mean that structured programs aimed at idea generation are inherently a false move. They work by laying the foundation for soliciting ideas from employees. The problem is not what they aim to do; it is in the attempt at placing formal structures around idea generation in the first place that is faulty. In his article in RTM, “Managing the Unmanageable,” Peter Augsdorfer analyzed 70 European companies and uncovered something quite fascinating: truly creative corporate environments are basically anarchic.

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Augsdorfer explains: “[T]he decision to invest corporate resources lies outside the formal organization and emerges from the hidden life of the corporation. It turns out that researchers decide at their own pace which research issues to take up. It is for the benefit of the company, but it does not feature in the department’s action plans nor have any formal resources allocated to it.” Essentially, at the core of early stage innovation and idea generation, the decision to research a particular idea comes down to the fuzzy, undefinable “feelings” of the researchers involved, not the managers overseeing the company’s formal processes.

This is perhaps one of the more interesting areas of researching creativity. It provides an excellent Catch-22 example of why organized structures for creativity in corporate environments fall short. Think about it. Formalized structures for soliciting ideas and deciding which ones to invest in require a process where managers look at an idea and its complex technical details while also considering the market uncertainty surrounding its possible success. Researchers who have an idea must have the knowledge to overcome any trepidations these managers may express when they present them their idea. But how can they research the idea well enough to do this unless they already had the go-ahead from management to research it? This is what Augsdorfer was exploring: the covert world of corporate R&D where creative researchers “bootleg” their pet projects; that is, they research them on company time but in a way that’s hidden from management… and that’s a good thing, according to Augsdorfer.

Myth #3: Creativity is a Natural Extension of Talented Workers, So Hire More Talented Workers

This myth is about managers who focus more on getting the right people and less on properly managing those people once hired. This stems from the assumption that these people will just naturally come up with creative solutions without any incentives because, obviously, they’re the “right people.” Do not be fooled, incentives matter when it comes to creativity. Culture and talent are supremely important in how innovative a company can be, but it’s important to note that creativity and innovation are not the same things. Innovation might be roughly described as the full fruition and commercialization of an idea for a new product or service, or the improvement of an existing product/service (we can also lump “improved or new processes” here). Creativity is just the wellspring from which ideas emerge. Whether those ideas are acted upon is another matter entirely.

So when we use terms like “innovation” and “creativity,” we are not referring to the same processes. Innovation may struggle to be properly incentivized because it usually encompasses many moving parts across multiple business units and is not dependent solely on any one person or department. Innovation requires talent and culture to succeed. The proper incentivizing for the undertaking of innovation is therefore difficult to study. For creativity, however, its incentivizing efforts can be studied because it is the process by which a company encourages its people to share their ideas and then looks at what worked (Again, none of the findings from such studies are universally applicable, but they are relevant within the context of that business and its specific culture).

Enough

Whether incentives for individual creativity come in the form of money, prizes, recognition, or just a catered bagel and coffee the following morning doesn’t really matter. Companies incentivizing their people to share ideas are more likely to receive them than the companies that do not. After all, and here I’m speaking to you, innovation managers, you don’t get what you don’t ask for. Just because an employee is hired for her talent, does not mean she will naturally produce a series of amazingly creative ideas without being coaxed into doing so. Therefore, hire people for their skills in a particular area as it relates to innovation, but give them a reason to share their creativity.

Everyone is Creative… Everyone

Aside from the mistake in thinking that creativity cannot be incentivized, the idea that talented workers are the sole source of creativity is also a toxic one. Everyone is creative. The least educated workers may come up with ideas the PhDs overlooked. The line supervisor with a high school diploma may notice a better way of manufacturing a product than his Research Fellow Product Manager. Everyone sees problems differently, and everyone comes up with a different way to address those problems. How would you know about the solutions these “non-talented” employees come up with if you aren’t providing a safe and encouraging environment in which they can share them?

Again, it comes down to whether or not your managers are open to and accepting of idea input from everyone, which comes back to the initial argument, made at the very top of this article. Creativity is a product of managers knowing their people, and knowing what they want, and then working to deliver on their needs. If your culture is closed off and overly bureaucratic, chances are your lower wage employees do not feel that sharing their ideas will benefit them, so they don’t. But tell them, in close, small group settings, that their pictures will go up on the wall for sharing their “big idea” and suddenly they’re rushing to your office with scribbled notes on a cafeteria napkin. Recognition matters and everyone wants to be heard; two important lessons to take away for any aspiring manager.

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