There is no doubt that creativity and innovation are key to succeeding in business. Both management and their employees are looking for answers to the following questions:

  •  “How can I fuel creativity in my workplace?”
  • “How can I be more creative?”
  • “Why do employees wait for their managers to tell them what to do, instead of looking for solutions?”
  • “What can my company do to support ideas and innovation?”

This article responds to these questions and provides practical ideas on how to fuel creativity in the workplace. I explore the creativity challenge from four different perspectives: the definition of creativity, you as an individual, you as a business leader, and the organizational environment.

The Definition of Creativity

While some of the best, most creative ideas are often spontaneous; in general, creativity is not random. In fact, creativity is a well-organized social activity, and, as such, to improve and develop creativity you must make it a habit. When I express this definition to people, they usually look confused, and I know they are thinking: “What?”

Let’s start uncovering this principle by trying to go beyond common prejudices about creativity. Close your eyes and think about the definition you have for creativity. You might find that your own definition is similar to some of the following: 

  • It’s thinking outside the box. 
  • It’s unleashing the imagination.
  • It’s for artistic people. 
  • It’s for people who are creative like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
  • It’s having lots of ideas. 
  • It’s continuous improvement.
  • It’s providing superior solutions.
  • It’s the freedom to think and to act unconventionally.
  • It’s the amplitude of mind and reason. 

When I read these statements, I am reminded of this quote: “The perception of the creative process is still based on self-limiting assumptions about eureka light bulbs flashing over the head of some inspired genius, rather than the well-managed diligence of ordinary people.”

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Level 1: Defining creativity

In a review of literature about creativity, I found the following definitions:

  • Creativity: You are creative if you (1) bring a new thing into being (creation); (2) join two previously unrelated things (synthesis); or (3) improve something or give it a new application (modification). For this you don’t need to be a genius, you don’t need to change the world with the next big thing, [creativity] is paying attention to little things that can be done differently and could achieve results in efficiency, reducing the time or resources being used and continue pleasing our final user. 
  • Creativity is the ability to break away from habit-bound thinking and produce novel and useful ideas. It produces innovation and continuous improvement.
  • Creativity can be defined as the mental ability of individuals or groups within organizations to generate original ideas or insights, also to modify these ideas according to the demands of the organization and environment—to clarify, resolve, and provide superior solutions—to improve the competence of the organization at all levels.

These definitions lead us to challenge the idea that you have to be a genius to be creative. Therefore, in order to go beyond this bias, all of us need to realize that creativity is about useful ideas, not about coming up with the idea that will change the world. We are all creative human beings. 

Creativity is a habit, a skill, and an ongoing learning process that we engage in daily. It is a social activity, which allows us to find solutions. To make creativity a habit, you must break old patterns and create new habits, new processes, or new orders.

As a skill, creativity can be consciously promoted and cultivated within you and your employees. It’s a collection of pieces of information. As a drawing, your ideas will start with a sketch, not with the whole picture. Creativity is a developing, ongoing process. I often find myself quoting the following advice: “Be aware that creativity is social.” The degree to which an idea gets enriched, transformed, and pushed forward depends on the number of people within your network who add something to that idea. Creativity is an incremental process.

Talk to people you trust about the issues and ideas with which you are struggling, and you will be amazed at how much information you will get. Use this information to help resolve these issues and ideas in your life. That is creativity on the move.

Creativity is not a mysterious gift of the talented few but an “everyday task of making non-obvious connections and bringing together things that don’t normally go together to have some degree of applicability and usefulness.”

Don’t be overwhelmed because you can’t find a perfect solution: “The Big Idea.” Instead, start by implementing one small step that will yield some form of improvement or failure. If you fail, you have learned that you have to approach the problem in a different way, but the process itself, as an observation or a learning curve, was indeed creative.

I have found that our personal definition of creativity is the first blocking factor. Inside of the work environment, we often see “fear of failure, of blowing too much money, or organizational constraints. If an organization is intolerant of making mistakes and failures, it should not expect employees to take risks often inherent in creative approaches to problems.”9 Instead, corporate leaders should let people know that it is OK to make mistakes. No great discovery has been made without failure.

Complacency, maintaining the status quo, and hierarchy are all rationales for the common corporate attitude that “here you do what the manager says” (which is understood as “here the only one who thinks is the manager”). This attitude contributes to a lack of creativity in the workplace.

Companies with the mindset that the decision-making process is a “political decision-making process” are establishing an infertile ground for ideas to bloom. Ideas need to be heard. They need to find fertile ground and be watered, which means you need to assign resources to test ideas to see if they work.

Let’s expand on some of these topics. Time pressure, stress, or simply being bored inhibit creativity. And the biggest inhibitor of all thinks that you are not creative – you are creative.

After reviewing these different definitions and thinking about your current personal approach to creativity, you can create a new picture, your own definition of what creativity is, that you can use in all aspects of your life: at home, at work, at school, in sport, and so forth.  

Let’s set the stage by understanding that the human brain responds to neurolinguistics programming. Your brain wants to stick with its already learned experiences and definitions of what creativity is. But you must break those patterns.  

Here is a trick to break a neurolinguistic pattern: RENAME IT.

If you want to give your brain a reset, you must create a new command; that’s why you must rename it.  From now on, your new definition is not going to be called creativity. Instead, call it “C,” or “FACTOR C,” or simply create your own name for it.  

Years ago, teaching this concept in one of my classes, a student combined his name with the last part of the word creativity, coming up with “Noahtivity.” Later in his career, he told me that after he announced that change of mind, a new him was born, he stopped thinking about himself as someone who lacked creativity, and he became a better critical thinker.

When you do this, you become the owner of your brain; you create new patterns, and you create a new category that will give you the new amplified platform that allows your brain to operate at a different level from your previous patterns. Now you have the power to define Factor C for yourself and expand it without interference from your previous learning patterns. Factor C is now unlimited. You can give it any meaning you want. 

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Level 2: You as an individual

Thinking positive, breaking away from your initial thoughts, learning to look around for divergent ideas, and increasing your desire to be more creative are great predictors of creative behavior. Now that you have a new meaning for creativity and see yourself as capable of creativity, I will guide you into the journey of becoming more creative.

You need to own it

First, let’s establish the concept that “you need to own it.” Factor C must be part of everything in your life. This is a tool: a new behavior and manner. The desire to become or do something is called intrinsic motivation and is “considered to be a well-established predictor of creativity.”

This intrinsic motivation will determine the extent to which you are interested in a task and will engage in it. You need to want it and be passionate about it if you want to be more creative in any aspect of your life. It could be your role at work, as a husband or wife, as a parent, as a coach, or as a friend—more than anything you need to own it.

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You need to learn to look around

Second, you need to “learn to look around.” “A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry).

Learning to look around requires a shift in your way of thinking. You need to be open-minded; you must seek to learn and listen actively to other’s ideas. The feeling of being “out of your comfort zone” is a signal of stretching your personal point of view. The learning experience teaches us that on those occasions, you need to focus on expanding what you observe. You need to ask more questions to comprehend and approach the situation at a deeper level of understanding. If you don’t pay attention to those feelings, you will revert to your comfort zone, where everything stays the same, and creativity remains locked.

Learning to look around means you need to consider ideas as strings. One single thread doesn’t make the fabric, but you can start to collect ideas, organize them, and spend time figuring out what you can do with all of them together to create something useful and valuable to solve a problem or create something new. If it adds value to you, could it add value to others? How? Continue the questioning process, and by doing so, you will expand your view of the world.

Another way to do that is to look at contradictions in your processes or the marketplace. For example: “Instead of considering any deviation from standard operating procedure to be irrelevant, excessive or unnecessarily expensive, companies must begin to view such variances as portals to the future.” The point is to look at ideas as possibilities in the making, instead of immediately shooting them down because they don’t initially seem good enough.

The creative process is all about the free association of ideas, making sense of the nonsense, and questioning whether what you are doing could be done in a different way. Could it be improved? Could you save money, time, or other resources by doing things in a different way?

You will be using your associative thinking abilities, or what is also called “divergent thinking,” to make connections between things that don’t make sense and to engage in the creative process. It’s not about “to be or not to be”; creativity is a process. “Divergent thinking is important because it is not sequential and is seemingly disordered.”11 You have to trust your instincts, because the creative process relies heavily on intuition, on making analogies from different fields, on creating links between disparate pieces of information, and on exploring what can be effectively changed.

You may have the feeling of uneasiness, positive up-lift, or hints of negativity; these emotions are normal during the creative process. Emotions are triggered by your intuition; that’s the way intuition is communicated. So, you need to set aside your rational thinking style, which is characterized by mechanisms like categorization/classification, logical analysis, and decision criteria, and start developing and evaluating alternatives that involve synthesis and optimization.

Because of the way we have been taught, most of us have developed our left-brain abilities, the rational brain. Now we must start using the right side of our brain where intuition and free association thrive. “Go beyond standard procedure, find out what activities waste money or resources, and make them better.”

After you have collected your data and done your business analytics, put them aside, and ask yourself: What if this information is not adding value to your business? What if I could create a different reality? Get out of the obvious choices and paths and start thinking that you can create your own reality.

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You need to think happy

The third principle on level II is: “Think Happy.” I often tell my business clients and students that “having a good time is not a waste of time.” We must create a fun environment and generate some excitement around our jobs. In some cases, this means acknowledging that the work could be boring at times, but that there is something good that comes out of it.  

Using jokes and liberating humor significantly relates to organizational creativity. “Happiness and humor facilitate the freeing of old mindsets and the seeing of things in a new light.”Imagine a world where you could boost creativity and performance by 50%; wouldn’t that be great? The answer to that question, believe it or not, is happy employees. Creativity is one of the most important, if not the most important, performance dimensions of our employees. You want employees capable of focusing on solutions and not only on problems. Research shows that the more positive a person’s mood is on a given day, the more creatively they perform that day.

According to Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer of the Harvard Business School, there was a “50% increase in the odds of having a creative idea on days when people reported positive moods, compared with days when they reported negative moods [… and there was also a] carryover effect showing that the more positive a person’s mood on a given day, the more creative thinking he did the next day.” This means that making your employees happy and nurturing positive feelings about their work and the company they work for is an opportunity your company can capitalize on.

You need to build a workplace where people feel free and safe. Freedom and happiness are a powerful combination that can unfold creativity. There’s no such thing as feeling happy and not feeling free at the same time. Even people in prison will feel happier when they feel free in their mind from the situation they are in. Employees need to feel free to enjoy themselves and the process. That feeling of freedom leads to joy, and joy drives people to explore with more confidence. If you feel free, safe, and happy, there’s no doubt you will be more creative.

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Level 3: The Business Leader

Be the leader. Whether you are in a leadership position or not, commit to creativity. Listen aggressively to employees’ ideas and allow enough time to explore different ideas. Get the Message Out. Leaders must start by stating plainly and simply: We honor, welcome, even crave your ideas, your creativity, your talents, your passions. Look around the company. If you have any ideas for improvement, or even whole new products or processes, let us know. The door is always open.” Identify as many ways as you can to reinforce your employees’ entrepreneurial mindset. Leaders need to build a culture where ideas are welcome, and positive results are rewarded.

Create meaningful work, track it, and show its progress. Meaningful work speaks to our emotions in positive ways because it creates a sense of a higher purpose. As a leader, one way to create meaningful work is by explaining to your employees the big picture and how their jobs add to it. Create a sense of progress. “Even ordinary, incremental progress can increase people’s engagement to be creatively productive in work, and [boost] their happiness during the workday.”

Manage the power and politics in your organization. You need to manage the boundary between new initiatives and the core business and use your network to propel ideas. You’ll face significant political barriers, particularly where your team’s initiatives are different or separate from those of the main organization. As a leader, your political and leadership skills will be tested, and you will have to be capable of influencing your organizational power base to make ideas a reality.

Here are some practical ideas you can use as a leader to improve creativity:

  1. Offer foreign assignments and membership on ad hoc cross-functional task forces, and invite outside experts whose specialty does not exist inside the company to speak to employees on matters of interest. Let your employees manage a crisis, send them on a trip to explore other companies, or have them interview other business leaders within your business industry or outside of it. Offer opportunities for education and career enrichment. The purpose of these activities is to create a new stimulus, get them outside of their everyday frameworks, and promote new encounters and new questions about the way they perform their work.
  2. Devote 10% to 15% of quarterly management meetings to a variety of presenters, readings, and videos from the outside world. Being exposed to anything completely different from your own thinking provides a new perspective. For example, you can create a task force that includes members from three distinct age groups to look for solutions for those age groups and give you feedback. Work with your harshest critics to understand the flaws they see on your ideas or processes.
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Level 4: The organizational environment

“While some of the best, most creative ideas are spontaneous, creativity is not random. Certain organizational structures and culture can foster greater innovation—not just the generation of great ideas, but their implementation as well.” You need to establish structures and the right organizational climate so that employees will feel free and safe to think in unconventional ways.

A culture that can tolerate the “trial and error” reality of the creative process and has appropriate ways to handle failure is simply better—reward innovation among your employees. Let them know how important their effort is for the business and sit down with them to figure out how to implement innovation. Great ideas without proper implementation and execution add little value to the corporation.

Devote company resources to support ideas, innovation, and implementation. “Individual creativity by itself goes to waste if it is not nurtured within organizations in a systematic and sustained manner by providing facilities, incentives, and opportunities to employees. The most important aspect of fostering creativity and unleashing the creative potential in people is the culture that exists within the organization culture.”

“It’s no good to get lots of maybe-great ideas, and then just have them sit there. It’s all about action. You must have a mechanism with formal processes and policies in place that allow your entrepreneurs to model, prototype, and test their ideas. Otherwise, you’ll never know if the idea is good, great, or not viable.”

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Existing assumptions about creativity within ourselves and our companies need to be challenged so that people can learn to think differently. Always think happy, creativity is part of you, and if someone tells you the opposite, and you believe it, it is time to rename your creative self. You need to own your creativity and learn to look around to nurture your creative thinking.

The creative process is all about the free association of ideas, using your intuition, making sense of the nonsense, and questioning whether what you are doing could be done in a different way. Could it be improved? Could you save money, time, or other resources by doing things in a different way?

Creativity is about trial and error. Failures must be accepted as a step that is a natural part of the process. Work with your harshest critics to understand the flaws they see in your ideas or processes. Remember that creativity is social when you open up to others, you expand your pool of opportunities to find superior solutions.

As a leader, build a culture where ideas are welcomed and positively rewarded. Create meaningful work. Turn ideas into action. Great ideas without proper implementation and execution add little value to the corporation. Manage the power and politics that can hinder the creative process of your team. Make employees feel free, safe, and happy, and they will be more creative under your leadership.

Be patient but consistent toward your goals. Changing your mindset and posture and that of your company will not happen overnight. There is not one single formula. You must commit to creativity every day and make it a habit. Before too long, you may see your efforts rewarded when you or someone on your team comes up with an innovation that will transform your company.