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How Bosses Can Spur Workplace Creativity and Innovation

The common misconception is that creative people are born. They fit a certain mold: those who unfailingly come up with good design and aesthetics. What few people realize is that creativity is so much more than that. It’s about deeper design work that solves complex problems through creative problem solving.

Gone are the days when employees are hired based on a clear-cut job scope with unmovable boundaries. An increasing number of organizations look to creativity, business innovation, and human-centered design as determinants of corporate survival.

According to Signo Uddenberg of MKThinking, many companies which stuck to merely routine innovation have vanished. 88% of Fortune 500 companies, he said, that were around in 1955 are gone. “These are some of the best companies in the world. Gone. What is going on?” The culprit is primarily technology, which has made the world more volatile and ambiguous by the day. According to Center for Asia Leadership co-founder John Lim, technology is forcing companies to successfully innovate or die a natural death. “If companies from small to large are unable to utilize smart technologies to their opportunistic advantage versus their competitors – they risk losing in the marketplace,” he explained. The same can be said of employees who are unable to keep up with the blindingly fast pace that scientific knowledge and technology grows.

The business models of the past called for employees who were hired to do a set of neatly related tasks. And this is why there are primary school teachers who remain primary school teachers until the day they die or retire. Employee A, for example, has a Set A skill set. They were hired because of that, and that’s what they do. Sometimes, there are a few mavericks who leapfrog from one field to another, gaining various skills, creativity, and knowledge along the way. In the past, creative people were a certain type. Analytical and those steeped in scientific knowledge were definitely not creative. Or so people believed. The unpredictability of the 21st century is — interestingly — leading business to a profound truth: Everyone is creative. But how come so many are intimidated by the creative process, shudder at the thought of seeing themselves as creative people or design thinkers, or wonder if they can come up with good design?   

The Kelley brothers, who had been prototyping and testing to come up with human centered solutions even before it was cool, identifies the missing link. David and Tom Kelley had guided countless companies through the design thinking process and the applied science of innovation for years. Notably, David, as founder of innovation and design firm IDEO, helped create Apple’s first mouse and the first Treo, a revered ancestor of today’s smartphones. After years of eating and breathing the creative problem solving process, zeroing in on users’ experiences, getting playful with the phases of design, the brothers realized that everyone was creative. Everyone was a design thinker hiding in plain sight. Everyone knew good design. It was just that they lacked creative confidence to dive headlong into the wonderland of creative problem solving.

For the Kelleys, “Creative confidence is about believing in your ability to create change in the world around you.” Interestingly, creative confidence is more of a mindset than a set of skills. It is not one’s efficiency in prototyping and testing or an innate skill in taking the phases of design apart. It is a creative “self-assurance.” It is this often missing mindset that determines whether a person successfully innovates or not.

Good news for those who think their education in scientific knowledge and the applied sciences like engineering, business, and medicine makes them anything but creative. It is precisely the multi-disciplinary perspectives of design thinking that make it so innovative. The creative process of a systems analyst will be different from that of a marketing executive. And it is that difference that makes a shared creative process truly innovative.  If the Kelley brothers were preachers, their good news would be this: Creative confidence is a muscle that can be strengthened through practice and experience. And this is best done, not in isolation, but with others.

Today, the speed at which business innovates is largely dependent on how many creative people step up. And it’s not so much an issue of hiring the right people as drawing out these “design thinkers in hiding” through leadership trainings that include design thinking workshops. Ultimately, creative problem solving is not a freewheeling and undisciplined process. Much like an applied science, design thinking and its design methodology comes with intellectual rigor and mental discipline.

Design thinkers are forced to evaluate human-centered solutions to complex problems against three factors: feasibility, viability, and desirability. All the talk of a creative process implies that the sky is the limit and that one’s imagination — or lack of it — is the only stumbling block. But design thinking is not only movingly relevant, it’s practical, and profitable.

The first step in the design thinking process relies heavily on inspiration and intuition. This is where the mind is actually encouraged to go all out in its wanderings and “thinking aloud” inventiveness. At this stage of the creative process, there are no wrong ideas. The mantra of design thinkers at this point is to “defer judgment.” Without this, good design cannot be truly desirable. Desirability is the cornerstone of all human centered design. Does it meet real people’s needs? Does the solution take into account people’s culture, beliefs, norms, and values? How much has empathy inspired a solution, product, or service?

Second, human-centered solutions have to be feasible. Is it even technically possible with the scientific knowledge available to man? Third, good design should impact the bottomline for companies. Is the solution scalable? What are the opportunities for profit? Will it drive business objectives? Simply put, will it make money?

Today, the question is, how can managers and business leaders create a culture and a workplace that encourages creativity and innovation? The obvious answer is to have employees attend workshops and trainings on design thinking and innovation. It’s true that everyone can claim a unique brand of creativity and original thinking. This is because everyone was once a child. There is no demographic more naturally inclined to design thinking than children. They can thank their uninhibited adventurousness and bias-free curiosity for this. But design thinking is strenuous and demanding. Good design does not materialize out of nowhere. It requires prototyping and testing, investigating users’ experiences, and relentless design methodology. In short, companies need to invest in building a culture of creativity through trainings, policies, and even corporate spaces conducive to creative problem solving.

For Tim Brown, current CEO of IDEO, leaders play a big role in deciding how creative a corporate culture is allowed to be. In a design thinking article, he observes how managers are called on to play the role of a gardener. The “creative gardener” is someone who nurtures an environment where it can be safe for people to be creative. “Setting the conditions for creativity has to do with cultivating a certain organizational culture and environment,” he said. According to Brown, leaders set the corporate tone for tolerance to risk-taking and facilitating dynamics that encourage collaboration and a shared creative process. Employees and junior managers need to see cues that messy yet satisfying design work and is something the organization truly supports. It could be something as simple as designating a room as the “Design Thinking Room,” an area for unstructured ideation, with colored markers, sticky notes, clay, and other materials. Or it could be as massive as mandatory design thinking training for the entire workforce.

Business leaders also have to rethink corporate values and what defines “good work.” Does someone necessarily do a good job when he or she can come up with a no-brainer solution the fastest? A fast-paced market culture in the workplace would say yes. Design thinkers would probably think otherwise. The design thinking process itself seeks to turn smart and efficient thinking on its head. Think of it as reinventing the wheel on steroids. And often, this kind of creative persistence is something many companies believe they can’t afford. That, of course, is far from the truth. Human-centered design is trumping profit-driven design on many fronts. More and more, the perceived intellectual luxury of the creative process is proving to be a necessity. Take for example the ride-sharing company Uber whose razor-sharp insight into the modern commuters’ pain points led to a USD 3-billion company. It’s not only human-centered design at its best. It’s also an example of how disruptive technologies are upping the ante on market competition.    

By Rajeswari Ramanee and Nirva’ana Ella Delacruz