“Creativity” is one of those things (like its close cousin “risk-taking”) that nearly all leaders love to hail, praise, and rhapsodize over. So why is actual creativity in the workplace so rare?
It’s because hailing, praising, and rhapsodizing are free and have no consequences. (Although, actually, they do; more on that later.) It’s kind of like hailing, praising, and rhapsodizing over the Paleo diet while finishing off that Big Mac. You might feel like you’re doing something good, but nothing really changes.
Although this analogy may seem extreme, it’s actually pretty apt. If you’re eating a Big Mac while espousing a Paleo diet, your actions are completely at odds with your words. (That is unless further research reveals that our proto-human ancestors dined on two primitive all-beef patties, primitive special sauce, some veggies and primitive cheese, all on a primitive triple-decker sesame seed bun.)
It all comes down to a basic and universal truth: talk is easy; execution is hard.
This is why so many leaders talk about the importance of creativity in the workplace while doing virtually nothing to actually support creativity in the workplace. Because talk is easy; execution is hard. But it’s the execution that actually changes things. It’s the execution that causes one business to achieve breakthrough results while another languishes.
If you, as a forward-thinking leader who truly understands the value of creativity, want to move from mere talk to actual execution, you need to first get rid of the obstacles to creativity. There may be many of these lurking in the shadows of your business, but you should first look for these three:
1. Your self. You, as the leader, have the potential to be the biggest catalyst for creativity within your team. But you also have the potential to be the biggest obstacle. If you jubilantly shout, “Let’s get more creative!” while at the same time saying…
“Don’t rock the boat.”
“Here’s why that won’t work… “
“The last time we tried something crazy like that, we got burned.”
“That probably won’t fly with the higher-ups.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” (And no, I don’t care that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs said this. It’s still wrong.)
… then you’re an obstacle. Either change or stop lying about how much you value creativity. Remember those consequences I talked about way up in paragraph 2? Among them is the very strong possibility that when you don’t back up your pro-creativity talk with pro-creativity action, you start to lose your most creative people. Because trust me, creative people don’t want to work with leaders like you.
2. Your systems. Every business needs systems. Systems streamline essential and everyday functions. Systems provide a critical sense of order. Systems ensure that payroll is met, that inventory is maintained and that vendors are vetted. Here’s the catch, though. While rigid systems work great for routine functions, creativity is not a routine function. Creativity doesn’t adhere to a 9-to-5 schedule. Creativity doesn’t thrive in a cubicle. Creativity doesn’t always wear a blue three-piece suit. So as a leader, identify the areas of your business where you want creativity to thrive, and then remove any non-essential systems that are getting in the way of that creativity.
3. Your space. Creativity is all about connecting dots. These dots can be people, places, things, ideas. That spark that happens when two dots collide? That’s creativity! And the more different the dots, the more creative the idea. Look at it this way. If two yellow dots collide, you’re going to get a creative-and yellow-idea. But if a yellow and a blue dot collide, you’re going to get a green A green idea, where there were no green dots. Now that’s creativity! [You: “Okay, you’ve kind of lost me with all of this dot talk.” Me: “Fair point. Let me bring it back to your world.”] If, for example, your marketing people only interact with other marketing people, they’ll get marketing people (i.e., “yellow”) ideas. But what if you throw a blue dot into the mix? Say, someone from accounting? Or someone from outside-maybe an actor, or a historian? Now you’ve got some interesting dots, with lots of interesting possibilities! What if, instead of just subscribing to industry magazines and journals, you have a few copies of Smithsonian, or Lapham’s Quarterly lying around? That’s a cool mix of dots, which could lead to some really cool ideas-ideas that the competition couldn’t possibly come up with, because they don’t have that particular mix of dots in their space.
Creativity is important. It’s what’s going to keep you in business, and ahead of the competition. And it’s your job, as a leader, to do more than just talk about it.