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Encouraging creativity & innovation


There was a nice story in the press last year (Dallas Morning News March 2, 2008) about a 78-year old scrap metal worker, N.L. Jones. Given the opportunity to apply his creative talents to scrap metal and wood, over the last decade Jones has turned this useless material into thousands of bird houses. And in the process, created a new product and market for his employer.

The current financial crisis - and the ever increasing rate of unemployment - highlights the need for managers to foster such creativity and innovation. But how to do it? What part can trainers and coaches play in developing such creativity, particularly in managers? Fortunately, over recent years there has been an increasing body of research and practice that suggests some ideas that can help develop innovation and creativity.

Encourage the intrinsic motivators

Not surprisingly, this old favourite came to the fore in the research. For example a recent study of hotel workers in Hong Kong (Chak-keung Wong & Ladkin, Feb 2008) found that the “risk-taking dimension was correlated to the intrinsic job-related motivators. These include opportunity for advancement and development, loyalty to employees, appreciation and praise of work done, feelings of being involved, sympathetic help with personal problems and interesting work.”

Help managers develop a creativity schema

As with all employee development, the genesis rests with the manager. It almost goes without saying that if you expect employees to be innovative, then it must start with the manager. In a major study published in the Academy of Management Journal, June 1996, it was found that managers could assist the development of innovation within their employees by:

  • Providing high levels of autonomy
  • Encouraging people to use a wide variety of skills
  • Enabling people to identify with the job
  • Ensuring the job had sufficient significance within the organisation
  • Providing personal feedback and ensuring the job had built-in feedback

Provide and develop a range of creativity processes

Many will be familiar with one of the best creativity processes, Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats concept. This process can be used individually, in creative brainstorming or even normal team meetings to foster the creation, development and implementation of new ideas, concepts and products. As with all of de Bono’s ideas, it’s simple yet highly effective.

"It almost goes without saying that if you expect employees to be innovative, then it must start with the manager."

It’s well known that increasing one’s participation in creative activities such as music and art also increases creativity at work. For example, a process that I like is the establishment of ‘Art Shows’ where individuals and teams display their latest improvements on coloured posters. These posters not only include improvements made in work practices, products etc, but also communication processes such as project management, change management and negotiation.

One company that introduced the ‘Art Show’ concept (they called it a ‘Day in the Sun’) set up these posters in the cafeteria one afternoon each month. All employees were invited to visit the cafeteria, view the exhibits, have a coffee and talk with the individuals and teams who had posted their ideas. The ensuing development of improved ways of working across the organisation was quite amazing.

As well as art, there’s also the use of music and humour in training and coaching sessions. A German manager whom I was coaching recently, joined a Danish company – two totally different cultures. The Germans are often noted for their structure, procedures and authority, whereas the Danes like teamwork, discussion and humour. Her new team would require a very creative culture to bring new products to market. So, at her first kick-off meeting with her new team (of Danes), my manager used a laughter coach in a one and a half hour session that was a raging success. It also cemented her role as a leader who understands her people.

Provide creative problem solving forums

Another great way to help managers and their people become more creative, is to teach them some of the numerous ‘creative problem solving’ techniques and processes available. One that I like is when working with teams, split them into two groups, and ask each group to identify and define a problem. When they have defined the problem, they then hand it over to the other group to solve. This clearly delineates problem analysis from the creativity of solution finding – two entirely different thought processes. Belbin’s creativity rules are very useful in this process: “Only give criticism to a new idea after you have said two good things about it” and “Criticism can only be given in the form of a question.”

Develop a positive corporate culture

Over and above encouraging the intrinsic motivators, helping managers develop their ‘creativity schema’ and using creativity processes, there’s the essential requirement of a positive corporate culture. It’s hard to be positive and creative if everyone around you is negative. If the organisation as a whole is to foster innovation and creativity, the key influencers in the organisation must demonstrate a positive mind set.

"If the organisation as a whole is to foster innovation and creativity, the key influencers in the organisation must demonstrate a positive mind set."

Unfortunately, managers quite often look to ‘fix problems’ rather than encourage innovation (in fact many will say that’s what they are paid for). For example, in a study by Ipsos Public Affairs (2007), 88 percent of US workers considered themselves to be creative. But when it came to creativity in the workplace, just 63 percent said their positions were creative, and a comparable 61 percent thought similarly about the companies for which they work.

What’s working around here?

Changing such attitudes can take time and energy, yet the process is simple – change the behaviour and the attitude often follows. For example one can readily see the difference in attitude that quickly occurs when two different types of questions are posed to employees in the same organisation. If you ask five or six employees; “What needs to be fixed?”, you will be presented with a list of complaints (which in fact are often minor, but start a negative discussion). On the other hand, if you ask another five or six employees “What’s working around here?” you’ll start a meaningful discussion about some of the key drivers that make the organisation successful.

Some organisations have used the “What’s working around here?” approach by bringing groups of people from across the organisation together for short sessions. In these sessions, participants discuss in pairs their answers to “What’s working around here?”. The facilitator then draws out many of their answers and the group decides on three key drivers that the organisation will focus on over the coming months. This process is simple, inexpensive and encourages the development of a positive culture where innovation and creativity are valued. Appreciative enquiry is a similar process that can produce wonderful creativity.

In summary, as coaches, trainers and L&D people, we need to:

  • Ensure all our interventions are based on and relate to, the intrinsic motivators that will provide the appropriate environment for the development of creativity
  • Encourage managers to develop their own 'creativity schema' by exposing them to a wide range of creativity development processes
  • And above all, work with managers to develop the corporate culture that looks upon problems as exciting challenges rather than performance inhibitors

In these challenging times, wouldn’t it be great to be working in an organisation where people rather than throwing out the unusable scrap, are building a range of new bird houses!

Bob Selden has been a career trainer for more than 30 years – in fact it's his lifetime passion. Bob can be contacted via - he would be happy to help or advise with your career questions. If you'd like to see where his training career has led, check out the website for his book 'What To Do When You Become The Boss' at 

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