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Don’t Let These Obstacles Prevent Creativity and Innovation at Work

October 5, 2018

Creativity and innovation

Creativity is the key to ideating—coming up with new ideas—and stimulating creativity is a key to innovating. Stimulating creativity to drive innovation is partly a matter of recognizing organizational and cultural obstacles in order to navigate around them. It’s also a matter of deliberately engaging people in ways that leverage their strengths, creating a dynamic of constructive dissonance that fuels their thinking.

What’s hindering creative thinking in the workplace?

Companies must address these organizational and cultural obstacles to creativity and innovation:

Macro-level obstacles. A macro-level paradox inhibits creativity and innovation for many professionals. The constant disruptions generated by technology and globalization require all companies to innovate. Yet most companies are not structured to facilitate widespread innovation. Creativity, the catalyst for innovation, can be hard to quantify, expressing itself through processes of trial and error and intuitive judgments. Creativity may require that employees at different levels have greater latitude than their companies currently accord them.

Where did this paradox come from? On the one hand, the financial news frequently reminds us that “markets do not like uncertainty.” Given this reality, most companies have historically made themselves competitive by minimizing uncertainty, quantifying it as calculable risk. Companies have succeeded by organizing objects and people into preexisting categories. They have valued gradual and obvious changes because they promote stability. On the other hand, imagining the next “big thing” necessarily involves uncertainty. Disruption-driven innovation involves anticipating yet-to-exist categories. The pace of change in our economy today makes quick, unpredicted changes essential to a firm’s survival.

Awareness of this paradox can itself stimulate creativity. Understanding the constraints within which many of us work can equip us to navigate around them. Knowing that our creativity takes place in an ecosystem that seeks certainty and predictability can help us frame strategic questions, such as “What kind of innovation do we really need in this situation? Does it have to be a breakthrough—something totally original? Or can it be incremental—an adjustment to something that already exists?”

Recognizing that innovations are on a spectrum from breakthrough to incremental makes innovating less daunting for many professionals. Moreover, incremental innovations often create exponential change. For example, when a consumer products company changed the color of its product, sales increased by 300% in two years.

Micro-level obstacles. At the micro level, an individual’s assumptions and stereotypes about what creativity requires may present an obstacle. Creativity may seem to be relevant only for those who make things: art, movies, music, or new products. The truth is, initiatives throughout an organization require creativity. These include projects such as developing a more user-friendly portal for retirees to review their benefits or developing a more engaging way for customers to wait for their coffee.

There are, likewise, stereotypes about the kind of person who can be creative. A “creative” is often thought of as a young, risk-loving, wicked-smart person working independently to birth the new “big thing” that will have venture capitalists lining up. If you do not fit this profile, the stereotype implies that you will not be able to think creatively, ideate, or innovate.

Like navigating the predictability-uncertainty paradox, demythologizing these assumptions and stereotypes empowers people and thus stimulates creativity throughout an organization.

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About The Author

Haywood Spangler, PhD, is the founder and principal of Work & Think, LLC. He brings a unique perspective to keynotes and seminars given his background as an instructor of business ethics at UVA McIntire School of Commerce, a researcher using original psychometric instruments, and a V.A. counselor. His clients include Johnson & Johnson, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, Morgan Stanley, the U.N.’s Pan American Health Organization, and NASA.

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