Cashing in on Creativity at Work

Creativity pays in business. Find out where to find it and how it can help you.

By Stanley S. Gryskiewicz, Robert Epstein Ph.D., published September 1, 2000 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

More than just a buzzword, creativity is the secret to business success that American companies can no longer afford to ignore.

Talk to any business leader today and sooner or later the words "innovation" and "creativity" will come up. But for many, these terms are simply buzzwords. Few truly know how to foster creativity and innovation in their workplace. And even fewer actually do it.

A survey by the American Management Association had 500 CEOs answer the question, "What must one do to survive in the 21st century?"

"Practice creativity and innovation" was the top answer across the board, but only 6 percent felt their organizations were doing a "great job" of it. This creativity deficit may be the single most dangerous gap in American business today. It leaves employees frustrated and disgruntled, and can easily send a Fortune 500 company into Chapter 11.

For the past 25 years, I have studied organizations that provide stimulating work climates and found that while some of the best, most creative ideas are often spontaneous, in general, creativity is not random. Certain organizational structures can foster greater innovation--not just the generation of great ideas, but their implementation as well.

The process of establishing structures that enhance creativity is one I have termed positive turbulence. It is characterized as an energizing climate, one that upsets the status quo and impels organizations toward renewal.

Turbulence--chaotic, bubbling, swirling, frenetic, threatening to drown us all--is the breeding ground for personal, team and organizational renewal. It may seem only like disruption and chaos, both inevitable facts of economic life, but the challenge is to seize it and make it work for you. By creating positive turbulence, organizations can not only survive change but prosper from it.

Learn to Look Around

Companies that are well-known for their traditions of innovation--3M, Bell Laboratories, Xerox and Hallmark--know the secret to nurturing and maintaining creativity in the workplace. And it's more than "thinking outside the box."

"The way forward is paradoxically not to look ahead, but to look around," explains John Sealy Brown, the director of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) for Xerox.

Sealy Brown has learned that innovation comes not from the top competitors, but from those outside the mainstream, those on the fringes of the industry, whose small, initial steps will ultimately herald meaningful change over the next three to five years. We need only look to the periphery, where people have the freedom to explore new possibilities, to get a glimpse of the future. Just consider the runaway success of Gap, Intel and FedEx, all small companies turned multibillion-dollar conglomerates on the strength of a few good ideas.

Valuing the periphery requires a seismic shift in organizational thinking. Instead of considering any deviation from standard operating procedure to be irrelevant, excessive or unnecessarily expensive, companies must begin to view such variances as portals to the future. With wide eyes and an open mind, they must actively and systematically extend the range of observation outward, beyond the comfort of the known. Those who do not pay attention to the periphery are soon overcome by the demands of change.

Commit to Creativity

It is the responsibility of creative leaders to provide their organizations with opportunities for exploring the periphery. It can be done on both the individual and organizational levels, and can involve either internal or external resources.

Internal sources for positive turbulence at the individual level include foreign assignments, membership on ad hoc cross-functional task forces, and the dubious luck of being present when a crisis occurs. New stimuli from these events are a natural source of novel and useful ideas and frameworks that would otherwise go untapped.

At the organizational level, sources for positive turbulence include developing cross-functional teams or inviting outside experts, whose specialty does not exist inside the company, to speak to employees on a matter of interest.

For nearly three years, the senior management team of Nortel Networks' Broad Band line of business has been devoting 10 percent to 15 percent of each of their quarterly management meetings to a variety of presenters, readings and videos from the outside world. For example, the group tracked venture capitalist spending through the periodical Red Herring, and venture capitalists spoke to the group to advise them of where investments for the future were being made and who was making them. "Positive turbulence changed our culture and our receptivity to novel ideas," says Ian Craig, president, Broad Band, Nortel Networks. "As an organization, we changed because the information from outside indicated that we needed to."

Sweden's $7 billion insurance giant Skandia has created a strategic planning unit comprised of people from three distinct generations. Members of this "3G" planning team use their differences to spark dialogue on medical realities such as death, aging and disease, as well as their impact on younger generations. Such trends have implications for actuarial decisions, future selling strategies, product development, market-niche choices, and even qualification procedures for future customers. By considering these implications from different angles, the 3G group helps Skandia better address complex challenges.

Hallmark each year brings into its Kansas City headquarters 50 or more speakers they believe have fresh ideas. Guests have included Lyn Heward, vice president of Creation, the animal-free circus Cirque du Soleil; Guy Kawasaki, Apple Fellow; and David Whyte, storyteller and poet. The sole purpose is to provide stimulation to the world's largest creative staff more than 740 artists, designers, writers, editors and photographers who generate more than 15,000 original designs for cards and related products yearly.

Several years ago, Bell Labs brought in a speaker whose talk about nature led to the idea for new technology. Roger Payne, a world expert in whale communication with a Ph.D. in ornithology, described to the group his major finding: that whales sing to each other to communicate, but that they change their language patterns each year. Payne noticed this phenomenon in contrast to birds, which keep the same pattern year after year. Halfway through his presentation, a scientist jumped up and ran out of the auditorium with an idea on how to improve communications between submarines. The stimulus helped him make a connection to a problem he was trying to resolve in another setting.

External structures for positive turbulence provide opportunities for both individual and organizational innovation.

On the individual level, such structures include conferences, training experiences, travel, museum visits and gallery openings, and reading outside periodicals. All of these sources offer a glimpse into what will become mainstream, and help prime people and their organizations for change.

On the organizational level, companies should look to joint ventures, alliances and networks to provide alternative methods of competing today. Whether undertaken for strategic advantage or financial gain, these events offer opportunities for cross-fertilization of ideas and perspective. What is important is that the companies come together to help create positive turbulence for their partner organization.

The paradox of positive turbulence is one business leaders today cannot afford to ignore: the energizing, disparate, invigorating, unpredictable force that often feels like chaos is the same creative energy that can provide continuous success and organizational renewal. Without such risk-taking, without embracing uncertainty, many of today's leading businesses will be tomorrow's failures.

WHAT IS YOUR CREATIVITY CAPACITY?

What is your organization's capacity for creativity, innovation and successful renewal? The answers to these questions may provide you with insight into your organization's capacity for innovation:

1. What is your organization's ability to absorb new information? High? Medium? Low?

2. What capacity does your organization have to learn, remember and process information?

3. What motivation do your employees have to engage in novel interpretations, to seek novelty and then make sense of it?

4. Is your organization balanced with both innovators and implementers of new ideas? Both are needed. One without the other results in either a house full of ideas never implemented or perfected redundancy.

GAMES TO GET THE CREATIVE JUICES FLOWING

Everybody knows that creativity--the ability to express ideas that are both new and valuable--is mysterious, right? We also know that creativity is rare, that only those with high IQs have it and that it can't be studied scientifically. Not true! Recent research has taken much of the mystery out of the creative process in individuals, and it suggests that everyone has roughly equal creative potential. To realize that potential, we need to build certain basic competencies--special skills that allow us to express our creative potential. There are, it turns out, four basic types of skills we need to express our creativity:

1. CAPTURING: It's important to pay attention to and preserve new ideas, even if they don't seem valuable at the moment. That's why artists and inventors carry pads everywhere and jot things down on napkins.

2. CHALLENGING: Difficult problems and situations may be scary, but they're wonderful for creativity, because they cause old ideas to "resurge" and multiple ideas to compete. We can spur creativity by seeking challenges and learning to manage failure.

3. BROADENING: Getting broad training--especially in areas outside our current areas of expertise--also boosts creativity, because it leads to more interesting interconnections.

4. SURROUNDING: Multiple ideas--the stuff from which new ideas emerge can also be set in motion by interesting and diverse environments, both physical and social. A static environment--meaning the same old desk and the same old colleagues--is stifling.

Here's a sampling of games that make it easy and fun to build basic creativity skills. The games not only spur creativity, they also teach some of the principles we need to keep ourselves creative throughout our lives. Let the games begin!

THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE GAME

IN A NUTSHELL: Participants try to solve absurdly difficult problems.

TIME: 5-10 minutes.

WHAT YOU'LL LEARN: Unsolvable problems provide directed challenges that spur useful creativity.

WHAT YOU'LL NEED: Writing materials.

HOW TO PLAY: Give participants three minutes to generate at least three solutions to an impossible problem. They won't come up with any "perfect" answers, but it's important that they write down at least three solutions--even if the solutions seem silly. You might pick an impossible problem that's relevant to your industry ("How do we cut our production costs by 90 percent by Tuesday?") or to society ("Propose a way to eliminate all air pollution in this country within the next three days"), or you might even give people a problem I call the Ultimate Creativity Design Challenge: "How can you increase creative expression in your workplace by at least a factor of 10 within the next 10 days?" When three minutes have passed, call on members of the group to share their ideas, and lead a discussion about the results.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. When faced with difficult questions, do people shut down? How do they react?

2. What kinds of replies do people give? Are the replies entirely useless?

3. How can unsolvable problems spur creativity?

4. What are the ultimate challenges in your business?

5. Could ultimate challenges be used by your company on a regular basis to develop new ideas? How so?

SELLING A ZORK

IN A NUTSHELL: Participants try to sell a strange object to the group.

TIME: About 15 minutes.

WHAT YOU'LL NEED: The "Zork" can be almost anything, as long as it's very unusual. Check your garage, attic or the Internet for the oddest stuff you can find. You should have at least one strange object (or drawing or photo) ready for each of the volunteer salespeople in the game. Each item should be out of sight before the game begins.

HOW TO PLAY: Ask a volunteer to come to the front of the room and face the group. Explain that you'll be showing him or her a "Zork" and that--as soon as the Zork appears--he or she must immediately try to sell it to the group for at least $1,000. Now present the strange object and time the performance. As time allows, repeat the procedure with other volunteers and other Zorks from your collection. With a suitable selection of bizarre objects, it should be great fun.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. How is it that people are able to sell Zorks, even though they've never seen them before?

2. Is Zork-selling "creative?" Why or why not?

3. if you can sell a Zork, what else might you be able to do that you're not doing now?

4. How, if at all, might Zork-selling be relevant to creativity in your personal or professional life?

THE POPSICOLOGY GAME

IN A NUTSHELL: Participants generate a creative design using popsicle sticks (or toothpicks or tongue depressors).

TIME: About 20 minutes.

WHAT YOU'LL LEARN: The more resources people have to develop their ideas, the more numerous and diverse the ideas they will produce.

WHAT YOU'LL NEED: 30 popsicle sticks for each pair of teams.

HOW TO PLAY: This is a deceptively simple game. First select a panel of between three and five people to serve as the Judicious Judges. Divide the remaining group in two, with the Perky Picassos on one side of the room and the Marvelous Monets on the other. Now divide each of these groups into teams of about five people each. Give each of the Perky Picasso teams 10 popsicle sticks and give each of the Marvelous Monet teams 20 popsicle sticks. Now give everyone five minutes to generate the most creative design possible using only their popsicle sticks. Finally, have the Judicious Judges circulate among the groups, rate each design and then report their results to the entire group. Lead a discussion about the outcome.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. Which group developed the most creative designs: the Perky Picassos or the Marvelous Monets? Why?

2. How could the results of this game be applied to your workplace?

TIP: This game normally produces dramatic results. Why? Even if each stick could only be placed in one of two positions (for example, horizontal or vertical), the Perky Picassos (with only 10 sticks per team) could produce only 1,024 different arrangements, whereas the Marvelous Monets (with 20 sticks per team) could produce over a million!

Robert Epstein, Ph.D.

For more creativity games, please refer to Robert Epstein, Ph.D. 's Big Book of Creativity Games (McGraw-Hill, 2000), from which these were excerpted, with permission from The McGraw-Hill Companies. Epstein is a former editor-in-chief of PSYCHOLOGY TODAY.

For more information, visit CCL's Web site at http://www.ccl.org.