9 Ways Senior Leaders Can Promote Creativity

I spend a lot of time thinking about creativity. How to encourage people to find their own, how to expand the definition of it, how to make the case for its utility in organizations. But what I also spend a lot of time on, is pondering what environments need to help people be creative. A lot of organizations have chosen to focus on the space in which people work – hence open offices, Ping Pong tables, whiteboards, and all those other “office perks” that companies put in place to set themselves apart.

Companies with beer fridges and board games be like… IMAGE CREDIT: GIPHY

But things don’t make an organizational culture. People do. And the people in that organization  – be it a student club, a nonprofit, or a corporation – should have philosophies about work that are congruent with the environment they build and attract prospective employees with.

This congruence came to mind again a few weeks ago when I read this report from the Center for Creative Leadership, about senior leadership behaviors that sabotage innovation. It’s one thing to say, “we love creative ideas,” but it is quite another to foster an environment that truly does that. As such, I want to turn around their findings, thus sharing nine ways that you can ensure your surroundings promote the innovative impulses of your team.

(1) Encouraging creativity.

And I mean really encouraging it. Not just saying “no idea is off-limits,” only to later poke holes in the ones that don’t match what’s previously been done or what solutions were expected. I wrote about the many ways that leadership can articulate dedication to creativity in Cultivating Creativity– and the way that’s most effective:

Leadership over creative individuals, or over individuals with whom you’d like to work creatively, requires a shift in thinking from the way we’ve typically conceived of supervising and managing. In the earliest waves of management, we believed that giving employees permission was the highest form of agency we could provide. Managers and supervisors are custodians of a work environment, and the manner in which people worked was up to them.

Then, leadership and management theory moved away from language of permission and into the language of support. “This individual has my support” was the new way of saying that someone was allowed to work in a different direction than they might have originally. While this change was welcome, this language is challenging because it still puts the onus of directing a project, a department, or an organization in the hands of the leader. The modern workforce is evolving to where having support still isn’t enough. So what comes next?

My answer: truly transformative creative work will come when individuals don’t have permission, or have support, but when they feel supported. While it may seem like a subtle semantic change, I believe it matters. It matters because it changes the responsibility of the manager or supervisor. Helping someone feel supported is a collaborative process. It requires the joint understanding of an employer and an employee, a patron and a protégé, a leader and a team member.

Leadership practices that help people feel supported, whether their idea goes well or poorly (more on that later) is more likely to foster further creativity. I speak often of how important collaboration is to creation; to help someone feel supported is far more collaborative than “you have my support,” and certainly more so than “do whatever you want.” As a creator, how can you articulate the importance of such support? And as a leader, how can you articulate or demonstrate that support to those under your employ?

(2) Evaluating ideas thoroughly, including resources and systems.

There is a time and place to prioritize ideas based on feasibility and resources. That time is not the very instant after the idea is presented. Perhaps the most precious resource that creativity needs to thrive and take hold is time; remember that when an unfamiliar idea is presented. Choosing to evaluate an idea for feasibility at that introduction point fails to truly examine the needs that idea addresses, the resources truly available (and what changes could be made if needed). In the Cultivating Creativity framework, the commitment to thoroughly evaluating an idea is a function of determination. Two traits of a workplace determined to be creative that I strongly recommend embracing and continually implementing:

A determined environment periodically assesses the resources of those dedicated to solving problems. Are they well equipped to address the issues at hand? Where are there gaps? How can those gaps be filled? And how can those in relatively higher positions of power assist in filling those gaps?

When assessing decisions, these environments encourage open-minded assessment of ideas and pitches. Go into negotiations or ideation sessions with a “how can we make this work?” orientation, rather than a “here’s why this won’t work” orientation.

(3) Pushing a Bottom-Up Approach.

After moving to an electronic system for ticketing at my last institution, we had a misfire on how tickets were distributed. I was embarrassed that a system I had championed had failed relatively early in its deployment and had disappointed students. One of those students, more agitated than many, came to see me. I asked her “what would you have me do?” and listened to her reply; the answer was a good one. Later in the day, we re-deployed the ticket acquisition process incorporating her suggestion. She was right.

Good ideas can come from anyone. This means that ideas can be acted on whether they come from the top of the organization, or from someone elsewhere in the pipeline – who sees challenges or problems from a wholly different perspective than those in leadership. As a leader, do you acknowledge the validity and truth in those perspectives, even (especially!) if they don’t align with what you’re seeing?

(4) De-Emphasizing Structure and Hierarchy

One challenge to allowing ideas to rise from wherever they originate, is finding the professional mechanism, or personal courage (or both!) to convey that idea upward in the organization. If we’re convinced people in power won’t listen or honor what we think, we hold ideas in- ideas that can make a difference if supported and funded.

So while it’s unlikely that most companies will dismantle their hierarchical structure simply to ensure the free sharing of information (and, as many learned from the lessons at Zappos, such a move isn’t necessarily productive), it is possible to lower the intimidation factor when it comes to voicing a problem or suggesting a solution. A few quick ideas:

(5) Expanding Innovation Beyond R&D

Confining an expectation of creativity and innovation to research and development (or whatever the equivalent would be at your organization) underscores the idea that creativity is the exclusive province of a select group of people, equipped with a certain skill set, and allowed to impact an organization in a certain way. To be clear: I don’t believe that. I often express disdain or frustration with the phrase “I’m not creative,” but for a very specific reason: it underestimates its speaker. Yes, you too can be creative! And believing that, particularly in a professional capacity, starts with feeling empowered to explore that part of yourself.

Worried about your ability to contribute meaningfully to a creative solution? Start by noticing, and start by encouraging those you supervise to do the same. What elements of your daily routine could work differently, perhaps better? Who does your work include, and who might it exclude? What “research and development,” as it were, could you do within your organization- and how will you use those experiences to get the wheels of creativity and innovation moving? And in your role as leaders, when are approached with the results of these R&D efforts: how do you empower these folks to pursue solutions?

(6) Uplifting First

“That’s not how we do things here,” the fraternal twin to “that’s how we’ve always done things,” is the most disempowering phrase any budding creative can hear. You’d be surprised how many forms it can take – “we’ve tried that before, but it didn’t work,” “that’d never work here,” “we don’t have enough [insert thing] to try that,” – and yet it has the same impact each time: cooling not just that attempt to create, but any subsequent attempts from folks who want to create change.

I expect that much of the reason it’s so tempting to poke holes in ideas when they first arise, is because we’re accustomed to the mythology of good ideas descending from the heavens, fully formed and foolproof. That’s far from the truth. And that means while many ideas do need to be subject to feedback and criticism, it also means we have to try and see the good in those initial proposals to get to that point- not the bad or imperfect.

(7) Encouraging Risk in Innovative Ideas

I’m a generally risk-averse person, so the idea of advocating for risk feels foreign to me. And yet, I have to do so because nothing creative or interesting can thrive without it. Innovation needs risk because it deviates from what we’re familiar and comfortable with. The level of risk can be as big as turning money or humanpower over to an initiative, or as small as daring to imagine your department’s work, or a stakeholder’s experience, as different than it has previously been.

Mitigate risk by supporting creators testing new ideas with the parties who will see the most change. Worried about how a change will affect thousands of customers? Pilot it with five. Scared of long-term implications? Make the first trial time-limited. Small risks that generate wins make larger leaps of faith a little easier to digest.

(8) Embracing Ambiguity

Thinking about ambiguity in a creative scenario always brings to mind the image of Willy Wonka in the Tasting Room, snacking wide-eyed as Augustus Gloop wriggles in the chocolate waterfall tube. As the others around him fret about what will happen next, he muses aloud: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it’ll last…”

Few of us will embrace ambiguity with that level of comfort. And that’s understandable! Ambiguity has stakes for many of us, in a way that they never really seemed to for Mr. Wonka. If something goes badly, we could lose money. We could lose trust. We will hear about it on social media. In those moments, it’s also important to recall the good that could come from creativity and change. What parts of our jobs will be easier? What parts of our stakeholders’ experiences will be improved? How can we save money, or time, or the sanity of staff members? Yes, there are things we won’t be able to predict. But even to the risk-averse, I have to admit: there’s something a little fun about that possibility. It keeps our work fresh when we might otherwise get bogged down or bored with routine. In the words of another high-profile creative, Todd from BoJack Horseman, “I never know if I can handle anything. That’s what makes my life so exciting!”

(9) Acting Like a Rookie

At some point, society decided that an ironclad requirement for leadership was having all the answers. Being the steady pillar and sole source of information became a sign of power. But the very nature of creativity and innovation means venturing into territory that no one has seen or experienced before. It requires not having the answers. Liz Wiseman calls this a “rookie mindset,” and it’s one that we could all benefit from when considering a new idea. In her book Rookie Smarts, she explains why:

“When the world is changing quickly, experience can become a curse, trapping us in old ways of doing and knowing, while inexperience can be a blessing, freeing us to improvise and adapt quickly to changing circumstances.”

The purpose of organizational creativity and innovation is to change in a way that responds to our circumstances- not just to implement change for its own sake. Inexperience (and our willingness to embrace that inexperience) forces us to act on instinct and in response to our surroundings, yielding better and less predictable solutions.

I want you to pledge to do one thing this week that makes it easier for you, or someone you work with, to do something creative. Share with me what you’ll do in the comments!