The Obstacles to Stimulating Creativity in the Workplace

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Creativity is deemed to be an essential skill for the future. So why do so few organisations truly stimulate it?

reativity has been labeled as one of the top skills that leaders and employees alike should be mastering. Several studies have pointed out the ways in which creativity trumps other skills, including more traditionally valued skills such as strategy-setting or operational management. Yet, many professionals feel that the workplace is everything but a place where creativity is rewarded. Organisations can often be a place where originality fades in front of bureaucracy and old ways of approaching new problems. This begs the question: if creativity is such an important skill for the future, why do so few organisations truly stimulate it?

3 Facts that Placed Creativity at the Top of the Skill Hierarchy

#1 It’s Seen as The Single Most Important Leadership Competency

In 2010, IBM published a study based on more than 1,500 face-to-face conversations with Chief Executive Officers around the world. One of the key findings was that CEOs identified creativity as the single most important leadership competency. Why? It was seen as the one skill that can help leaders and their teams navigate the complexity of our world, and consequently, of the business environments in which they operate:

“Today, creativity itself has been elevated to a leadership style. Traditional approaches to managing organizations need fresh ideas — ideas that are intended to disrupt the status quo.”

#2 It Was Measured As a Skill That is Inversely Related to ‘Computerisability’

These findings were reinforced by a Nesta report published in 2015. Its conclusions confirmed the intuition that creative jobs are less prone to be replaced by automation compared to other professions. Most notably, the report found that creativity is inversely related to ‘computerisability’:

“While many barriers to automation have recently been overcome, allowing sophisticated algorithms and autonomous vehicles to substitute for workers in a wider range of domains, creativity arguably still provides a big obstacle to automation.”

#3 It’s One of The Top Skills for The Future

The praise for creativity does not stop here. A World Economic Forum report on the future of jobs, published in 2016, put creativity as a top skill for 2020. The report analysed several industry profiles to understand what skills were going to be most relevant in the future. Interestingly, several industries that are not particularly recognised for their creativity have included creativity at the top of their most-wanted skills’ list. Surprisingly, this was a pattern across the Consumer, Financial Services and Investors, and Mobility categories:

“Overall, our respondents anticipate that a wide range of occupations will require a higher degree of cognitive abilities — such as creativity, logical reasoning and problem sensitivity — as part of their core skill set. More than half […] of all jobs expected to require these cognitive abilities as part of their core skill set in 2020 do not yet do so today, or only to a much smaller extent.”

The natural assumption is that these findings would push organisations to foster more creativity. However, this expectation does not really materialise in practice. Many of us experience a profound lack of fulfilment in our daily work precisely because our creativity is not put to use. In fact, not only does the creative side of our brain remain unstimulated, but there is a pervasive feeling that it is also being stifled. The less we tap into our inventiveness, the less we feel capable of using it well. Our jobs can often feel repetitive and slightly meaningless at a deeper level. This is an impression that cuts across industries and jobs titles. One thing is visible: very few workplaces focus on supporting their employees to develop creativity.

3 Obstacles to Embedding Creativity across Organisations

#1 Hard to Define, Hard to Measure

When we talk about creativity, we tend to gravitate towards activities that have an artistic inclination. In our collective imagination, we think of creative people as those who have a sense of detachment from the mundane practicalities of our world. It’s also something slightly esoteric: a sort of divine quality that some people are gifted with. It’s therefore difficult to embed creativity in the day-to-day language of business. Beyond this initial perception, though, creativity is a developed concept outside the arts. The challenge? The multiple definitions of it — often contradictory — make creativity difficult to study, benchmark or quantify. However, a general definition is that creativity occurs where novelty and usefulness meet, as the Handbook of Research on Creativity pinpoints:

“Quite frequently, researchers adopt some rendition of a two-criterion definition: an idea is creative if it features (a) originality or novelty and (b) utility, usefulness, or appropriateness.”

If we take this simple principle, we realise that it applies to a broad array of tasks ranging from improving a data system in a novel way to serving a bank’s customers in a more engaging way.

#2 Creativity as Skill Reserved for Top Management

At an organisational level, we are not all made equal when it comes to practicing our creativity. In reality, a leadership bias makes creativity less likely to be required from junior or mid-ranking employees. The catch is that there is an implicit hierarchy of skills at each stage of professional development. First, employees go through the ritual of grunt work to get all the basics. Once they prove themselves enough, they start getting involved in the more complex tasks, engaging in work that needs more brain power. The next step is acquiring technical or industry-specific knowledge and developing an expertise. Even when reaching managerial positions, it is not guaranteed that you will be stimulated to give creative input. Creativity was traditionally reserved for top managers or leaders who were responsible for big problem-solving and strategic decisions. The leaders would create, the followers would execute. Although there is now increasing awareness that this model is antiquated, we have inherited a model that is not easily changed.

#3 Teaching a Skill Few People Possess

Creativity, like many other human talents, may well be something that people are naturally inclined to possess at varying degrees. The only tangible difference between creativity and other more traditional skills is that we are not taught how to be creative. It is usually a quality that some of us develop due to an internal propensity to be creative. Yet, creative thinking is a process that can be taught and learned just like any other competency. The caveat? Organisations would first need to go the extra mile and articulate what creativity means for them and what outcomes they desire. To add another dimension to the problem: very rare are the leaders, let alone managers, who have the capacity — and willingness — to further transmit this creative vision to their employees.

While creativity is praised as an ideal skill to have, stimulating it at scale in an organisation can be an intimidating task. Some key questions can help organisations and employees foster more creativity. What does creativity mean to us? What do we want to solve through creative means? How can employees at all levels of the organisation contribute creatively? Most importantly, how do we incentivise the use of creativity? This can help unleash some of the latent creativity that employees are earning to tap into.

I am a coach and trusted advisor to driven and gifted people who feel there’s an inkling of rebellion in them. I help them create more fulfilment and reduce stress in their work and careers, on their terms. Connect with me here:

Written by

Coach — Career and Work Transformation | PhD Researcher | Facilitator

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