Bright colors, whiteboards scattered through the office, corporate retreats for “team building” – just a few of the ways organizations have tried to encourage workplace creativity among employees. But what we’ve found is that without employee engagement, efforts at stimulating innovative thinking often fail.
So what factors go into the kind of engagement that allows creativity to flourish?
There must be a level of trust among employees that risk-taking is encouraged. Workplace creativity comes from a) thinking in different ways; b) sharing those ideas; c) implementing the discoveries. And those discoveries could be something big, they might be new sales techniques, a new type of marketing campaign or indeed new HR policies.
Leadership needs to embrace this, too. Good leadership, whether it’s at a round-table brainstorming session or in day-to-day interaction, communicates that it’s safe to try new things. As Google discovered, trust within teams is one of the most powerful signifiers of success.
Collaborative tools and spaces
Engagement also needs to give employees tools – the tools they want to work with. They’re the same tools that will allow them to collaborate best, and collaborate across organizations so ideas don’t languish in silos. We need to provide the technological tools to make the interchange of ideas quick and easy. Video conferencing capability in all kinds of meeting rooms is becoming imperative. And it has to be as easy to use as your cell phone. Remote collaboration should be able to happen anywhere, anytime.
It seems that trying new things isn’t the domain of management alone. Engagement that drives creativity also means empowering workers to make decisions on matters that affect them the most. If employees feel like new ideas will actually be implemented – and implemented by themselves – they are more motivated to contribute. By pushing decision-making down the line, we create a whole organization of leaders invested in improvement.
With the right corporate culture for creative thinking, there are specific exercises you can use. Here are four I’ve seen that work:
Unstructured, open learning time
This is a model derived from early childhood development that has made its way into the workplace – witness Google’s 20% policy, where employees can spend 20% of their working hours on side projects. Set aside employee time when any kind of explorative learning is encouraged.
You don’t need to wait for the annual retreat to set up playtime. Create problem-solving games. You could also put forth a real-life situation affecting your work – a difficult client or technology shortfall. Shake up the dynamics with teams comprised of members of different departments – don’t pitch the marketing team against the IT team. You want diverse points of view to encourage lateral thinking and foster office-wide “team-ness.”
Coordinate a day when employees step into the shoes of a colleague in a different department. Give people an opportunity to see workplace challenges from an unfamiliar point of view. Different places mean different thinking.
Create teams and ask employees for their “what-ifs.” Another question to ask: “If you could wave a magic wand, what would ____ look like?” Remind them there are no bad ideas, and allow no criticism. It can still be helpful to let people submit written responses. In these instances, anonymity helps introverts get a chance to participate and no one need fear feeling embarrassed.
Employee engagement fosters creativity and encouraging creativity boosts employee engagement. If you’re wondering why innovation has dried up in your organization, take a look at your engagement situation. And then maybe try one of these ideas.
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