As a manager, am I enabling or killing creativity?


‘Enable creativity’: a new requirement for managers.

As a manager today, you are now required to nurture creativity and lead your teams to innovate. Where creative thinking used get your team ahead of the pack, now it is a survival skill.

This duty to enable creativity has been placed in your arms which are already carrying: masses of meetings, countless communications, deadlines, deliverables, and the unenviable task of keeping everyone motivated and engaged whilst working remotely.  Eish!

If it is any consolation, you are not alone. You are amongst a throng of professionals worldwide who are doing the best they can in the situation that they find themselves. CEOs are in it with you too. In a recent Financial Times article, it was reported that when it comes to homeworking and productivity, CEOs are saying that “creativity is the biggest single issue.” (Emma Jacobs, Financial Times, 18 Jan 2021)

So as a manager, how can you enable creativity without having to take a diploma in the subject?

Sorry, no hacks here. Only true and lasting growth.

I’ll start by stating this: There are no hacks or quick fixes to becoming a creative leader. This may disappointment you, but it’s the truth. I won’t pretend that there is a quick solution, just to make you feel better. I believe that too much in our culture draws us towards the easy path, convenience, speed. To our detriment, most of us have been conditioned to choose comfort over character and ease over endurance. We want it all, we want it now and we want it quickly. We often find ourselves with the patience of a toddler and the attention span of a goldfish.

Nonetheless, I’m happy to say that I notice a shift afoot. Stoicism is having a renaissance and the likes of Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday and Derren Brown have been leading modern movements towards greater discipline, courage and temperance.  Professors and authors such as Carol Dweck, Brené Brown and Simon Sinek have entreated us to adopt a growth mindset and become more courageous and deliberate in our efforts to become the leaders that we wish to be led by. In addition, the pandemic has given us pause to consider the impact of our hurried lives and the virtue of rethinking how we operate. Many of us have discovered that we are able to persevere through more than we realised (thank goodness we did not know in March 2020 that we’d still be coping with Covid in February 2021!)

So, there are no hacks here, only a path to true and lasting change, which I think is much better. So here are two steps toward becoming a more creative leader:

  1. Step one: develop your own creativity. (This is more of a lifelong journey actually.)
  2. Step two: analyse your leadership and your team using some clues.

The first step is to develop your own creativity.

To be a creative leader, you need to understand what creativity is and how it works. You should examine your life, test your creative thinking and develop your own creative practice. You need to live this. This is not only so that you will be more authentic, but because creativity is contagious (as is conformity.) As your creativity grows, you will naturally inspire and lead those around you on a more creative path without necessarily even realising it. By the way, this applies to your children as well. So, if you want your kids to be more creative, start investing in your own creative growth!

Why not take our free quiz to find out what could be killing your creativity and enrol in our 5 Day Creative Wake-Up online course which will give you a step-by-step, practical process for reviving your creativity and taking it to the next level. (Best done over five days, it’s around 2.5 hours of video-based learning – not five full days!)

The next step is to look out for these clues.

Once you are on your own journey of creative development look out for these clues that there is room for growth in your team’s creative thinking.  

1.    Your team is isolated.

Isolated teams put their heads down and just work flat out towards their own goals. At first, that doesn’t seem like a bad thing. By not interacting with lots of other stakeholders they’ll get more done, won’t they? Well, yes and no. They may achieve their own goals but on the mild downside this could be at the cost of better ways of doing the work and on the extra chilli downside they could be achieving the wrong goal altogether.

Creative thinking teams share ideas with other teams or include customers or suppliers in their thinking and problem solving. Diego Rodriguez, a partner at IDEO, says: ”Even in today’s highly networked world, organisations fail to take full advantage of internet technologies to tap into the creativity of many smart people working on the same problem.”

Try this:

Consider the teams upstream and downstream in your team’s value chain. Consider your team’s customers and competitors. Are there groups or individuals who would be willing and able to provide new and valuable perspectives to the work that your team is doing? Set up some time to introduce your team to these groups or individuals and outline some problems or opportunities to work on together. Are there other teams your team could give input to?

2.    The team has limited inputs.

When I was a student, I used to hope that if I added enough spices to the old vegetables that I used up from the fridge for my casserole, then the output would somehow be amazing. But it never tasted as good as I hoped! The value of the output depends on the value of the input.

When it comes to our thinking the same principle applies. Creativity expert and educator, Dave Birss says: “Narrow input leads to narrow output.” Dave explains that teams need to practice learning from anything. They need to expand their reading, learning and experiences. We need to feed our brains with interesting stuff so that it has lots of material to draw from and we can come up with ideas and creative solutions using a wide range of inputs.

Try this:

Discuss the concept of creative inputs with your team. What are their interests and hobbies? Encourage them to invest time in those things. Get them to share what they are reading. How can they expand their reading to include works from different countries, industries, ages or belief systems?

3.    Your team members are scared to fail.

I find the idea of being comfortable with failure quite weird. I don’t think it's very natural. For most of us failing is scary and humiliating. However, the kind of failing I often think about when I think about failing at work is major, career-limiting failure. Actually, there is a lot of smaller, low-impact failing that we can and should do. A great manager can help and encourage this kind of failing, and you should!

Art director and designer George Lois said: “You can be cautious, or you can be creative, but there’s no such thing as a cautious creative.” Creativity takes courage and curiosity. It is about venturing into unknown territory and we can’t always succeed straight away in this new and unfamiliar place. To be innovative, your team needs to experiment and take calculated risks and you need to make them feel comfortable doing so.

Try this:

Talk to your team about their level of psychological safety in their work. When have they wanted to risk something but felt unsafe to try it? What made them feel this way? Have there been actions or indications from you as their manager or from people in other parts of the business that have restricted them from trying new things? What can you/they do about this? What is within your locus of control? Work on some possible solutions with them.   

4.    You don’t stretch your team with challenging work.

According to Harvard creativity professor, Teresa Amabile, intellectual challenge is a key motivator for producing creative work. She applies the work of Henry Sauermann, then at Duke University, who did a study of more than 11,000 R&D employees. He found that employees who intellectually challenged by their work were more intrinsically motivated and more productive than their colleagues.

I like to think of employee creativity in terms of a pilot light on a gas geyser. For some employees, the pilot light is on, but that unit is not firing! There is no heat in the geyser and just cold water in those pipes. But when a person is motivated and challenged by what they are doing, that pilot light bursts into hot flame and the water in the geyser begins to bubble and boil. That’s the kind of people you want working in your company: energised, inspired and sparking with ideas.

Try this:

Think about each person in your team. How do their capabilities and talents stack up to the work that you have assigned to them? Are there stretch assignments that could challenge them without overwhelming them? Is there some less challenging work that they do that you could pass on to a more junior or outsourced resource?

5.    There is false harmony.

When I first heard leadership development coach, Grant Ashfield from LeadershipWorks talk about ‘false harmony’ in a team, the term really stuck with me. I am a person who strives for harmony in any situation and in the process often runs from conflict. The term false harmony struck me as powerful because it reveals the danger of not addressing conflict constructively. I realise I have pretended that false harmony is harmony, but it is not.

False harmony is an enemy of creativity because true creativity requires creative abrasion. We need to be able to hammer and sharpen ideas out in the way that a black smith would hammer out a metal spear. Creative abrasion is a phrase coined by Jerry Hirshberg, founder of Nissan Design International. It describes a team culture where ideas are productively challenged. Creative abrasion is a good thing, yet it is a concept that is often seen as dangerous by managers.

When we all smile and nod and accept the first ideas that are put forward (or the ideas put forward by the most forceful person in the room) then we are working towards the most creative output.

Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, Linda Hill, says that creative abrasion is the ability to enable debate and discourse. It amplifies rather than hides differences of opinion.

Try this:

Do some team development work with a facilitator to work through your conflict and false harmony issues. How can you encourage debate and inject honesty?

6.    The team is too serious.

Remember Benjamin Zander’s Rule Number Six?

Two Prime ministers were sitting in a room discussing affairs of state.  Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk.  The resident prime minister admonishes him: “Peter,” he says, “kindly remember Rule Number 6,” whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes and withdraws.  The politicians return to their conversation, only to be interrupted yet again twenty minutes later by an hysterical woman gesticulating wildly, her hair flying.  Again the intruder is greeted with the words: “Marie, please remember Rule Number 6.”  Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology.  When the scene is repeated for a third time, the visiting prime minister addresses his colleague:  “My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this.  Would you be willing to share with me the secret of this Rule Number 6?”  “Very simple,” replies the resident prime minister.  “Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so damn seriously.'”  “Ah,” says his visitor, “that is a fine rule.”  After a moment of pondering, he inquires, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?” … “There aren’t any.”

All work and no play kills creativity.

Try this:

Think about how seriously you take yourself. Consider how can you bring some humour and playfulness to the team? Can you appoint a Chief Entertainment Officer to help the team unwind and lighten up from time to time? How can you encourage the team to have fun together and try not to take themselves too seriously.

7.    You don’t actively encourage team creativity.

As the manager, you are steering the ship. Your team needs active encouragement from you if they are going to become more creative in their thinking and action. It won’t just happen on its own. This includes encouragement of idea generation and fair, affirmative evaluation of new ideas.

I remember working with a customer service team who’s management was up in arms about their lack of creativity and initiative. However when I spoken with the service agents on the floor, they bemoaned the fact that they had constantly made suggestions and put forward ideas for improving the customer experience, yet management shot them down every time. Eventually they just gave up and shut up.

Try this:

Consider how you can reward and recognise your team members for creativity. Can you access funds, facilities or other resources to enable some of their ideas? Be honest with yourself: do you hear yourself saying these things to your people without acknowledging their thinking or truly analysing their ideas: we’ve tried that before; that’s too expensive; that won’t work; we did that last year.  

In the end, creative managers outperform their peers

It all comes down to the bottom line. McKinsey and Company has found that creative leaders outperform their peers on key financial metrics. 67 percent had above-average organic revenue growth and 74 percent had above-average net enterprise value.  If increased productivity, improved employee wellbeing and a more agile and resilient workforce is not motivation enough to develop creative thinking in your leadership team, then perhaps revenue growth and net enterprise value will be the catalyst!


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