Fostering Creativity in the Workplace: What Works, What Doesn’t?

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Creativity isn’t just for the writers, poets, and painters of the world. It’s becoming increasingly critical in the business world for people to be more creative by helping to solve core challenges, contribute innovative ideas, and, ultimately, provide the organization with true differentiation (hint, hint: a company’s competitive advantage is really its employees, not its products and services).

But many organizations struggle with how to institutionalize the practice. They want their employees to be more creative; they know that they need creativity to differentiate. And yet they practice it anemically.

A new body of scientific evidence is pointing towards isolation and boredom as critical drivers for creative thinking. People need to be a “alone with their thoughts” in order to foster the environment for creative thought. Of course, there are always exceptions. Inspiration can strike us at any time. But for the most part, that inspiration occurs when our mind gets a chance to wander freely, unencumbered by the structure of rational thought.

What’s Not Working

Even as organizations call for greater creativity amongst their workforce, most still practice antiquated methods of fostering it. I’ve outlined a few defunct ways below that I’ve observed at various businesses:

  • Structured creativity—aka “brainstorming.” As I have written about before, creativity is not a rational process. It requires people to let their minds wander, to decouple from structure and organization. When companies organize brainstorming sessions, they are, in effect, putting structure around the creative process and undermining the fundamental irrationality that true creativity requires. What can be done to fix it? Let employees brainstorm on their own and come back to the group with their ideas.
  • Open floor plans—there has been a movement around the idea that open floor plans (everyone sits at a desk and there are no walls separating anyone) promotes more collaboration and creativity. But recent research has shown that creativity levels are actually stimulated more by isolation than by group areas. What can be done to fix it? Give people some privacy. Give them their own “space” so that they are comfortable about disconnecting with the world for a bit without the feeling that someone is watching them daydream.
  • Over-Burdened Resources—most businesses are driven by margin. The objective is simple: keep the highest margin possible. But that requires limiting the cost-of-goods-sold (COGS). One way that many organizations do that is to maintain the fewest possible resources to maintain the product in the market. Often times, when the market opportunity grows (subsequently requiring more resources), businesses fail to staff accordingly. People become over-burdened with tasks required to maintain status quo and grow the business at the same time. It’s hard to let your mind wander when you are consumed by day-to-day tasks. Why? Because you are constantly focused on something. There’s no time to be distracted. What can be done to fix it? Organizations need to be mindful of their employees’ workloads and work to incorporate free-time so that employees can spend time relaxing and letting their minds wander.

What’s Working

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom. Over the past few years, organizations around the world have begun to look more closely at creativity in the workplace and figure out how to maximize it. I’ve listed a few things below that some of these organizations are doing to foster creativity:

  • Innovation centers—some organizations have adopted the approach of centralizing their innovation, providing guidance, teaching, and a “safe place” for people to express ideas. This can serve multiple benefits. First, it canserve as a “safe place” for people to express ideas and even collaborate with others if the need or opportunity arises. Second, it candemonstrate an organization’s commitment to creativity by giving a home to programs, events, and more that are focused around creative enquiry.
  • Isolation rooms—some organizations are designing their workspaces to include areas where employees can isolate themselves completely. These “isolation rooms” provide the kind of solitude that promote creative thinking. For example, on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington, numerous buildings have small rooms where employees can sequester themselves away from distraction (whether it’s a cube neighbor or office visitors) enabling them not only the opportunity to “focus” on tasks at hand but, more so, to let their mind wander without feeling pressure from watchful eyes.
  • Telecommuting—there are lots of organizations (including my own, Limelight Networks) embracing telecommuting as part of their office strategy. This practice operates much like the “isolation rooms” by providing employees the opportunity to disconnect when they want to, let their mind wander, and just revel in “being bored.”

What More Can be Done?

Organizations need to embrace creative processes as part of their DNA, recognizing that they can’t rationalize it. Employees must be given leeway to explore their own thoughts without being encumbered by a growing set of day-to-day tasks. Although most people are free to daydream and explore their own thoughts as they please (of course), the demands of today’s hyper-productive business world significantly impair the ability to do so. In order for organizations to be more creative, they must recognize, and stress, the importance of downtime.

What are some of the ways that you see creativity working (or not working) where you work?

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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