Making Staffs Creative, And Keeping Them That Way

Creativity is like love. The question is not how to get it, but how to make it stay. To be successful over the long haul, organizations must learn how to etch creativity into the very fabric of the enterprise. The surest way to institutionalize creativity (something of a paradox, obviously) is by making certain that creativity is recognized and encouraged on an ongoing basis. We can argue whether or not creativity can be taught; there is evidence on both sides. But whatever the outcome of that debate, I believe creativity can be facilitated and welcomed or rebuffed.

One of the few researchers to look at creativity in a systematic, scientific way is Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile, who trained as a social psychologist at Stanford University. She has been studying workplace creativity for decades and has identified many of the factors that encourage it and kill it. (She contributed the chapter “How to Kill Creativity” to Harvard Business Review on Breakthrough Thinking, Harvard Business School Press, 1999). She recommends, first of all, that organizations expect and encourage creativity from all their employees, not just from the so-called “creative” types. She believes, along with Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and others, that everyone is creative. In her study of hundreds of workplaces, she found that anything that interferes with intrinsic motivation, including money, is a creativity killer, along with pressure, depression, and fear of layoffs and other negative consequences. She also documented the destructive nature of internal competition, in spite of what many hard-driving managers continue to argue. Rather, organizations are most creative when they are taking on external enemies—think of Steve Jobs in the early days at Apple, demonizing and merrily battling IBM. Coauthor Patricia Ward Biederman and I document this phenomenon repeatedly in our book Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration (Perseus Books, 1998). Finally, Amabile reminds us that true creativity is intrinsically motivated. We behave creatively because we love doing so.

As CIOs know as well as anyone, the competition for ideas is increasingly global, not just homegrown. In such a world, America no longer has a near-monopoly on creativity—which makes it that much more urgent for each of us to find ways to stay creative.

You have to start with what you can control: yourself. We tend to be so busy these days, so many demands are made of us, that we are at risk of forgetting that staying creative is our own responsibility. We need to build it into our day, along with time to exercise, eat correctly and hug our children from time to time. We can’t allow our imaginations to go on diets. We must feed them extravagantly. If you don’t have time to read, listen to new music. Use vacations to visit places you have never been before, the more exotic the better. Identify stimulating people and find ways to spend time with them. Exposure to the same old ideas simply produces increasingly tired iterations of them.

In addition to changing yourself, it is worth trying to change your workplace. If you are in charge of an organization, you can help your staff keep the new ideas coming by making sure that educational opportunities are built into the normal workplace experience. Some corporations that are utterly dependent on the creativity of their staff members (and most are, whether they know it or not) put together continuing-education programs that function day in and day out. One of the earliest examples was the school that Walt Disney set up for his animators. He brought in everyone from professors of optics to Frank Lloyd Wright to instruct and inspire artists he hoped would realize his vision for a whole new art form—the feature-length cartoon. In the last couple of years, Disney’s in-house college has been focused on teaching traditional animators how to master the now dominant tool of animation—the computer. But the practice of exposing artists to many different kinds of information continues today in the ongoing education programs at places like Pixar University, where all the employees at the company that pioneered computer animation are encouraged to take time out from their regular responsibilities for art-related courses. These programs differ from corporate “colleges” such as General Electric’s Croton operation, which focuses on preparing participants for future leadership roles. The animation studio universities fill participants’ imaginations with the raw material of dreams. They don’t so much instruct as encourage participants to expand their notions of what is possible by exposing them to new ideas. In short, mechanisms like Pixar University feed the imaginations of their employees.

If your workplace does not have an in-house college or corporate university, urge its creation. It should be a feature of every organization. And its curriculum should not be limited to what is offered in the typical business school. What better place to experiment with unexpected courses than in the safe, relatively inexpensive confines of a corporate university? Why not find out whether acting really is a useful study for those in business, as an increasing number of people believe? Ask for a mini-course in theater for your organization. Neuroscience is another field, albeit a more formidable one, that is rich with lessons for marketing, economic decision-making and competing in the global marketplace. Through functional magnetic resonance imaging, scientists are discovering the neurobiology of brand loyalty. Why not bring such scientists into the workplace to give presentations, seminars or workshops?

In the May issue of Harvard Business Review, James O’Toole and I argued that traditional business schools have lost their way and need an overhaul. Some companies that might once have sought MBAs exclusively are now also seeking graduates with alternative degrees. Among the “Breakthrough Ideas for 2004” included in a special HBR report was an article called “The MFA Is the New MBA,” by author Daniel Pink, who maintained that corporate recruiters are beginning to search for talent at leading art schools. Pink’s statement acknowledges the growing importance of aesthetics in today’s marketplace, where design distinguishes otherwise similar products. But more important, Pink is pointing to an approach to business education that emphasizes creative thinking. One university that is leading the charge is Stanford, which is currently building a new Institute for Design—a.k.a. the “D School”—that will provide design education for MBAs. The Institute is being developed by David Kelley, founder of the innovative design firm Ideo, together with Stanford business, engineering and computer science professors; its faculty will be mostly design professionals with real-world experience, rather than academics. Kelley’s courses at Stanford have already spun off such creative businesses as Ignite Innovations, a Palo Alto, Calif., company whose innovative products for developing nations include a solar-powered LED lantern. Why not offer a mini-course in design in the workplace to excite employees and get their imaginations going?

I am confident that design will not be the only paradigm that reshapes business education in the future. But I think the current interest in design is a good sign. It is a way of acknowledging that survival in business means looking forward, not back. Inventing what’s next is what creativity is all about. And it is only when we are exposed to new ways of thinking that our reinvigorated imaginations go into overdrive. And that’s when the ideas really start to fly.

Warren Bennis is a distinguished professor of business at the University of Southern California and chairman of Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership. This is his last column for CIO Insight.

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