How to create an environment for creativity at work

A short while ago I witnessed a remarkably creative action from an employee I manage.

When tasked with finding a way to educate himself on the role of other members of the marketing department, he came to me with a drawn outline of an event for all of the company teams to participate in.

The idea was simple enough: find an hour of time to get everyone in a room, have dedicated and knowledgable speakers from each of the varying job roles setup at small “booths” dispersed around the room, then have small groups of six or seven people rotate to each booth every ten minutes in order to learn about that particular presenter’s role and how it affected every one of those participating.

Dubbed the “cross-polination workshop” the entire event was modeled after the popular speed dating events from the late 90s.

Amazed at the creativity and amount of work the employee had put into this seemingly simple idea, we presented it to higher management and got immediate approval to run it.

While there were minor hiccups to the event, overall the feedback once it was completed was widely positive and surprising.

Everyone that participated began thinking more outside of their respective job roles (including the employee who had come up with the idea for the event). Everyone began to look at how their work influenced others, they started looking for ways to improve the overall process of the company’s functions.

While the results are still making themselves evident, this seemingly simple event had sparked a lot of ideation in not only the department, but in the entire company.

But that was never my intention.

All I wanted was to have the employee learn about the roles of his peers, in order to see how his own work was effected and what effect it had in return.

I left the event that day somewhat stumped at what had caused such a simple request to unfold into a successful, department-wide workshop that had echoed upwards through higher management and even through the company executives. A simple request which had suddenly, albeit only slightly, rattled the “just do what you’re told– mentality of the entire department. All from one employee.

What had influenced this creative idea from the employee who started it all? I decided to find out, and see exactly what makes a work environment more, or less, creative.

What I found was intriguing (and from a managerial perspective not difficult to implement). For employees, this is the type of stuff I think we need to push onto those who not only manage us directly, but also onto the larger company as a whole.

People have been studying this for years

As early as the 1970s there have been attempts to record, rate, and scale creativity in a business atmosphere.

Several tests of evaluation have been integrated into companies big and small by researchers over the last three or four decades. Including the Perceived Work Environmental Scale (WES, Insel & Moos) and the Siegel Scale of Support of Innovation (Siegel & Kaemmerer).

Since the innovative dawn of the industrial revolution, companies have been stammering to fuel creative thinking in their offices. The successful innovative companies – the likes of Apple, Zappos, Nike, Pinterest, Amazon, RedBull, and Toyota – all understand that it’s individual creativity that leads to innovation, which helps keep the businesses not only alive and well, but growing.

These companies do whatever they can to ensure that their environments are prime for creativity.

And the results are proven, with multi-billiondollar annual profits and innovations like the iPhone, Kindle, Prius, and one of the fastest growing websites in the history of the web (Pinterest).

Thanks to years of trial-and-error it’s possible to look at what existing companies have done to spur creativity and innovation.

As I lead my own small team and reflect back on the creative example from the beginning of this story, I look to what these innovative giants do that countless other companies, like Microsoft and Barnes and Noble, don’t.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

The three things to make you more creative at work

In my search for understanding what exactly had influenced my employee, I discovered that the most accurate and scientifically plausible way to ensure a healthy environment for creativity comes from a superb, 1996 study from The Academy of Management Journal. The report is titled Assessing the Work Environment for Creativity.

From this article a number of insights can be pulled on what it takes to create an environment that promotes creativity in the workplace.

If you’re an employee, ensuring that you have these things in your job are vital to creative success (not only for you or your team, but for the company as a whole). If you’re a business manager or executive, you can’t afford not to have these things in-place.

They are:

1. Sufficient motivation to generate new ideas

While the employee in my example story had a defined job role, he often showed an interest in learning more than just how to improve what he did day-in and day-out. He had an intrinsic drive to learn more about the department and company as a whole!

Seeing an opportunity to help him grow into a more influential employee, I gave him a goal of learning more about what other employees in the department did and how that work affects him.

Because he had his own intrinsic drive for learning, and because I had set a goal for him to step outside his comfort zone, he was able to find the motivation he needed for thinking creatively.

Too often corporations are structured to avoid outside the box thinking. Employees are restricted to thinking solely on their roles, to not exploring anything outside their realm, to not ask questions or “cross pollinate” with other roles, and the result is just that: standard, status quo thinking and sub-par execution.

To fuel creativity there has to be an environment that offers motivation for employees to get creative. Whether it’s rewards, intrinsic fulfillment, or something else: employees need the proper motivation to be creative.

2. Resources to empower creativity

Having motivation to be creative may be enough for some employees, but a strong innovative environment provides tools to help employees excel at creativity too.

Things like professional training, tools, and time dedicated to creative thinking, are all an employee needs to take that extra little idea or question they have and make it the next big innovation for the company.

For the example employee, I gave him small amounts of time, 20-25 minutes a day, to explore his goal. I also made myself available to help brainstorm and filter through his ideas as he thought necessary.

Those two resources alone led to the cross-polination workshop that was so successful that the company is planning another, larger one in the coming months.

What’s this example tell us?

Employees need not only time to do more than just their regular job, they need access to tools and resources like learning centers, cross-polination forums, and even budgets to explore ideas.

Given the motivation and resources to encourage creative thinking, employees often drive themselves to do just that: be creative and drive innovation.

This is the reason Pixar has massive communal areas to spur unplanned collaboration. It’s why places like Google and 3M give employees time set aside for creative exploration. With motivation, time, and resources, studies like the one mentioned previously have shown that employees will work hard to innovative for the company!

3. Ability to self-manage

The last vital piece of a creative work environment is the ability for employees to self-manage (to some degree).

This makes perfect sense. Employees that are micro-managed don’t have the ability to think outside the box or solve problems in new ways, because they’re too busy doing exactly what’s told of them. There’s no room or time for creative exploration.

On the other hand, employees who are given a clearly outlined strategy and goals outperform all others when it comes to not only the quantity of work, but the amount of creative work.

Allowing employees to make their own decisions and do interesting work, leads them to embrace challenges, which – paired with the motivation and resources to be creative ” leads to innovative solutions.

While I task my teams with very clear goals and strategic vision, how we get there is entirely up to them. And I’ve seen the results to be immensely rewarding (not only for myself and the team, but for the entire business).

The cross-polination workshop helped opened the eyes of some employees who may have been hindering the work process down the line. Other employees I’ve worked with have created work that’s received National attention, or put into place an improved workflow that has sped-up the department’s processes.

Knowing that they’re expected to be creative in order to achieve a goal helps employees not only tackle projects in creative ways (driving overall innovation in the company), but it also makes them happier (an article for another day).

So whether you’re a manager or employee, make sure that your work environment is one where there’s clear motivation to be creative, where everyone has access to tools and resources for being creative, where there’s a clear ability to pursue innovative solutions, and where everyone has the ability to pursue a clearly defined goal in whatever ways they can.

I’ve seen it first-hand, these three things will drastically help create an environment of creativity no matter where you work.

Primary photo via Lars Plougmann. Ladder photo via Gunnar Bothner-By. Open office photo from 37signals.