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Making Creativity and Innovation Happen

New research outlines who should innovate and how to create innovative cultures.

Key points

  • Creativity and innovation are not just for specific job roles or those in “creative industries.”
  • Organizations can assess creative skills when hiring and promoting.
  • To foster the culture of creativity, organizations need to create an environment where people are not afraid to make their voice heard.
  • Women leaders tend to have a more creative reputation than men in those same roles.

In a World Economic Forum article outlining the "top 10 job skills of tomorrow," at least five are related to creativity and innovation. These include ideation; critical thinking and analysis; complex problem-solving; creativity, originality, and initiative; and analytical thinking and innovation.

Yet the question remains: How can organizations go from simply realizing the importance of these skills to actually making creativity and innovation come to life? A recent symposium at the annual meeting of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology may offer some answers.

Hans Peter Gauster/Unsplash
Building creative cultures
Source: Hans Peter Gauster/Unsplash

Who do we expect to innovate?

Should creativity and innovation be the domain of people in creative roles? It is commonly assumed that small and growing organizations have to be flexible and that employees need to take on many roles and be creative in order to solve problems. But what about larger organizations, where there is more specialization?

Take, for example, Roblox, a global gaming platform with more than 55 million daily active users. Philip Simmons is an industrial-organizational psychologist at Roblox who led a job analysis based on more than 120 interviews with hiring managers and leaders.

Creative problem-solving emerged as critical for success across most roles, from engineers and product designers to data science and talent acquisition. Due to the nature of the product, most of the problems that employees solve on a daily basis have not been solved before. Another challenging dimension comes from the scale of the company and the diversity of its users. To rise to the challenge, engineers need to be able to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity and solve problems in original and effective ways.

How can a company cultivate a creative engineering workforce? The Roblox example suggests that creativity skills can be measured at the time of hiring and also as part of performance evaluations. Creative engineers need to identify and formulate problems, generate a variety of novel ideas for potential solutions, evaluate these ideas, and iterate upon them to reach effective solutions. Candidates should be allowed to demonstrate their creativity and their success should be measurable.

At Roblox, incoming interns and college graduate candidates were asked to create robots inside the Roblox environment that could successfully navigate an obstacle course. Skills demonstrated on this task are directly relevant for entry-level engineering jobs, and candidates tend to recognize that successful performance requires a high level of creative thinking. When recruitment includes assessing not only technical skills but also creative thinking and problem-solving skills, these skills can become part of what an organization values and builds.

What does it take to foster a culture of innovation?

Contrary to the stereotype of the "lone creative genius," creativity does not happen in a vacuum.

In my lab at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we examined the context for creativity and innovation at work. We know that creative individuals tend to be passionate about what they do, tend to experience support for creativity at work—both from the organization as a whole and their immediate leaders—and are able to voice their thoughts and ideas. It is less clear what combination of personal passion and contextual factors are related to creativity. Thus, we set to examine these patterns in two large studies.

In one study, we surveyed 14,000 workers in the United States. The sample was representative of the economy as a whole, both demographically and across different industries. Unsurprisingly, we found that creativity and innovation at work were highest for those who were very passionate about their jobs and who also described their organizations as encouraging and rewarding creativity (e.g., through opportunities to suggest new products or projects).

They also described their jobs as allowing them to communicate opinions about work issues, even if their opinions were different from that of others. Interestingly, creativity and innovation at work were similar for those who did not experience direct encouragement for creativity and those who did, as long as they had the ability to speak up about issues that affect the organization and have some passion for work.

In another study, we surveyed close to 5,000 workers in a diverse set of hospitals in Ontario, Canada. These workers were in a broad range of roles, both clinical and non-clinical. Analyses showed that as long as workers were comfortable voicing their opinions and making recommendations about issues that affected their work, their confidence in their ability to be creative at work was not shaken by a lack of support for creativity from their supervisors. However, for this confidence to be visible in creative and innovative contributions at work, workers needed to act on their passion and get support from their supervisors.

Do we require creativity from (all) our leaders?

Leadership is fundamentally about solving organizational problems, making creativity a critical skill for effective leaders. Moreover, organizational problems are increasingly novel, complex, and ambiguous as leaders move up the organizational ladder.

It is important to understand both the actual attributes and traits of leaders as well as the attributes and traits ascribed to leaders—that is, their reputation. Indeed, people gain leadership opportunities based on their reputation, which is closely related to how others—within the organization, but also outside of it—relate to leaders.

Nadine Maliakkal, a doctoral candidate at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and colleagues at the Hogan Assessment Systems examined data about the reputation of close to 5,000 leaders in the United States. As expected, they found that the top leaders (C-suite leaders) had a higher creative reputation than lower-level (non-C-suite) leaders.

This research found that leaders' gender affected their creative reputation. For men, creative reputation was similar whether they were C-suite or non-C-suite leaders. However, women in C-suite roles had significantly higher creative reputations than women in non-C-suite roles. Although this study did not specifically address why this is the case, researchers suggested that women have to be considered significantly more creative than men to be able to ascend to C-suite levels of leadership.

To foster a culture of creativity and innovation, organizations need to expand the notion of who is expected to be creative at work beyond those in traditional creative roles of research and development or marketing. Recruiting and assessing for creative skills transforms stated values into lived ones.

But skills are not sufficient for creativity to happen at work. Organizations need to create an environment where workers will not be afraid to raise questions or offer suggestions and an environment where both supervisors and managers and the organization as a whole demonstrate that they value creativity. The most direct and influential way to demonstrate valuing creativity is through leaders, from immediate supervisors to the C-suite.

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