Unlocking Your Employees' Creativity

By Frank Wander  |  Posted 08-27-2014
Unlock employee creativity

By Frank Wander 

Modern leaders consider it their duty to continuously improve processes and technology. Yet, in traditional American companies, they refuse to embrace their talent infrastructure as an asset, and treat highly valuable professionals as nothing more than interchangeable parts. In these environments, little energy is focused on employee training and development. That is not the case, however, at today’s winning companies. They understand that people count, and act accordingly by nurturing cultures where talent literally flourishes. Just look at Google, Netflix, W. L. Gore, and other leading innovators. For these organizations, talent is an asset that produces a return commensurate with the investment they have made.

Creative Fitness: A Vital Aspect of the Talent Infrastructure

Everyone wants to stay fit, and the mind is really no different. As leaders, we should build time into the business week, where all professionals can think and mentally grow. This sends an important message: You count. When employees feel management cares about them, the company is rewarded with both loyalty and productivity. What goes around, yes, comes around.

We know that any part of the human body will deteriorate when it is not used. This includes the mind. For proof, just look at the U.S. educational system. It heavily relies on rote memorization, and produces high school students who score lower on creativity tests than second graders. That is a failing of modern education—and a great opportunity.

Creativity does not have to atrophy out of of disuse; in fact, it can be improved with regular mental exercise. For professionals, and their leaders, this is an opportunity to grow the asset side of the talent balance sheet. Furthermore, creative fitness exercise does do not have to be complicated. Busy professionals can carve out time to engage the creative circuitry in their brains no matter where they are, whether sitting on a train, stuck in traffic, waiting for a meeting to start (or end), or during a much-needed work break.

Leaders should, therefore, increase the creative quotient of their organization by encouraging mental workout breaks, or by leading one of the below creative exercises at the start of a meeting. If the leaders at your company treat you like an interchangeable part, then do these creative exercises for your own benefit, to improve yourself.

Here are seven exercises to get you started for a fun mental fitness workout.     

  • 1.    Try the 30 circles exercise from a Ted Talk by Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO. Quickly make 30 circles on a piece of paper, and turn as many of them into different objects in a minute or two. Try it and see how far you get.
  • 2.    Write down eight things that will be different in the world one year from now, five years from now, 25 years from now and 100 years from now.
  • 3.    Take a piece of paper and try to fold it into an object (this exercise is for those that do not already practice origami).
  • 4.    Name 10 creative things you can do with everyday household objects like paper clips, coffee cups, spoons, forks and cardboard boxes.
  • 5.    Go online and type remote associates test into Google. Many choices of tests will pop up. Each test provides sets of three clue words and asks you to come up with a fourth clue word that relates to the first three. Print out some of these, or keep them open in your browser on your phone. That way you will have them with you when you have a few free minutes.
  • 6.    Imagine you have a large stack of paper and rolls of tape. What could you create if you turned the paper into tubes and used them to construct objects?
  • 7.    Do you want to find out if you have the personality, attitudes and values that characterize a creative personality? For a free, quick test from the Kellog school at Northwestern University, click here

Understanding the ROI of Creativity

We are still not able to measure the ROI of creativity in the workplace. But that does not alter its value one bit. IT was, is and will remain a creative arm of the enterprise (see the link to my prior article on this subject below). More creativity is always better than less.

If you feel a need to prove the ROI on every action you take, you will fail, because knowledge worker productivity is difficult or impossible to measure. Value creation requires teams of hyper-specialized individuals collaborating within a high-performing culture to create almost anything. And as Albert Einstein said, "Not everything that counts can be measured. Not everything that can be measured counts."

Leadership does not have to be complicated. Caring about people is easy, and it greatly increases workforce productivity. If you do good things, like nurturing your talent infrastructure, you will achieve great success; if you do bad things, like treating trained and highly valuable professionals as a bunch of spare parts, then you will suffer repeated failure.

Remember: if your people are not flourishing, then neither you, nor the corporation you work for, will endure.   

About the Author

Frank Wander, a former CIO, is founder and CEO of PeopleProductive , and author of Transforming IT Culture, How to Use Social Intelligence, Human Factors and Collaboration to Create an IT Department That Outperforms (Wiley, 2013). This unique book is the very first operator’s manual for the human infrastructure, and will help you successfully transform your leadership style and your organization. 

To read his previous CIO Insight article, " IT: A Creative Arm of the Enterprise," click here.