How to Foster Innovation and Creativity in the Workplace

Illustration of office workers carrying a colleague, who is carrying a lightbulb

Creativity in the workplace doesn’t just mean greater efficiency and innovation. It means increased bonding, teamwork, and talent retention.

When you create a workplace environment of interaction, engagement, and respect, you gain the double benefits of out-of-the-box thinking and increased productivity.

Why You Should Promote Innovation in the Workplace

Yes, free-thinking workers may not churn out more widgets per hour than hard-working corporate drones. However, they can develop processes and suggest optimizations that can dramatically increase efficiency.

Boland Jones (CEO of PGi Software) highlights the productivity benefits of creativity in the workplace:

Boundary-less Workplaces – Creative workers transcend the limitations of the “we always do it this way” attitude.

Remove artificial barriers to communication, rigid workplace rituals, and the “conspiracies of silence” that lead to group-think.

Value people’s individual suggestions and encourage them to question workplace norms – you’ll be surprised by the results.

Big-Picture Improvements – Instead of focusing all your efforts on optimizing existing systems, reward employees for larger-perspective thinking.

Sure, tweaking your shifts, hours, and workflows (and tracking them on Toggl Track) can help you squeeze more value out of each workday.

However, that shy intern working in the corner might have an innovative system in mind that could save you hours of busy work.

Emotional Engagement – Team members who feel valued and heard dig deeply into their work. You won’t just retain talent longer; you’ll benefit from an eager, energized workforce.

By empowering your employees, you earn their loyalty and respect – which translates into harder, more focused work.

Ownership and Loyalty – Ask yourself: does your workplace shape your team, or does your team shape its workplace?

When people have the freedom to impact their work environments and see their ideas in action, they can get very passionate about their work.

Nurture these feelings of investment by letting team members see projects through to completion; they’ll reward you by pointing out profitable opportunities that can only be seen from the ground floor.

Freedom to Fail – Nothing constricts creativity like a culture of judgment. Praise people for innovative thinking, even when they present impractical ideas.

Eventually, your team will stumble across the next great idea. Give them the chance to pursue their crazy dreams; you’ll find your share of dead ends, but also the next best way forward.

Examples of Fostering Innovation in the Workplace

Some managers use team-building games to encourage creativity, collaboration, and communication.

Others experiment with workflows and flexible summer schedules like the 9/80 model. Consider opening up certain decisions to the group, including events, workflows, and even office layouts.

For example, HubSpot involves employees in major decisions and provides professional development opportunities for team members (as does LinkedIn, another of the best places to work).

Airbnb encourages cross-communication between teams and allows employees to change roles within the organization.

Google fosters creativity in the workplace by providing relaxing environments, collaborative spaces, and a variety of perks.

The 7 Types of Innovation

You can better facilitate creativity in the workplace by understanding its source(s).

For example, Peter Drucker (the father of management consulting) identified seven sources of innovation:

  1. Surprises – The shock of leaving their comfort zone can spur creativity in your team members. Hold a meeting in a novel place. Set up a surprise event. Set your employees free of physical/logistical boundaries (at least temporarily) and their ideas will follow.
  2. Incongruities – When our realities don’t match or meet our expectations, we can discover new insights. Ask your team to work for a day with only 1950s technologies (or none at all) for a few hours. Have them work with flashlights and lanterns in the dark for an hour while interfacing with your computer systems. Discuss how they made the familiar and unfamiliar work together – and any insights that arose.
  3. Process Needs – The weak points in your company’s workflows and systems provide practical opportunities for innovation. If your processes need readjustment, consider the kaizen (continuous improvement) model. Don’t change all of your systems at once and throw your workplace into chaos. Instead, make small, manageable improvements on a regular basis. For example, you could introduce a small systems optimization at each Monday’s team meeting.
  4. Industry/Market Changes – As the business landscape evolves, your company adjusts and adapts. If a competitor releases a product that cuts into your sales, don’t panic. Challenges and threats shake up businesses; however, they also spur people to explore and create.
  5. Demographic Changes – Each new generation demands new and different products and services. Team members from various generations have different perspectives and values. For example, offering workplace flexibility and encouraging creativity in the workplace can help you retain millennial workers.
  6. New Perceptions/Perspectives – When managers spend time on the front lines, they face the frustrations employees face in their daily work. When team members join upper-level meetings, they don’t just offer new perspectives. They gain a greater understanding of the complexity of executive decisions that affect entire organizations.
  7. Novel Knowledge – When you learn a new concept or skill, you want to use it wherever you can. You apply it to a wide variety of environments and situations. For example, if you discover a new manufacturing technique, don’t just use it at the workstation in which you developed it. Consider how to apply this idea system-wide and across various departments.

Quick Tips for Creativity in the Workplace

Facilitate the Medici Effect – In his famous book, entrepreneur Frans Johansson highlights the stories of scientists and explorers who reached across disciplinary lines to make game-changing discoveries. (For example, did you know Charles Darwin was a geologist?)

In your workplace (and especially your meetings), welcome people from other departments and encourage as much diversity as possible. Just as the Medici banking clan did centuries ago, bring the best minds from many disciplines into one place – the results could be astounding!

Balance Independence and Collaboration – Reward people for sharing unique ideas and also for active listening. Give employees the freedom to be different but encourage them to collaborate and benefit from each other’s ideas.

Create spaces and times for individual work (to suit the introverts on your team) and then bring people together to coordinate their efforts.

Remove Rejection from Brainstorming Sessions – Try the “Yes, and…” approach instead of dismissing people’s ideas out-of-hand.

Even if you know an idea is unfeasible, give your team a moment to consider it. If you loosen your grip on meetings and create a non-judgmental workspace, one person’s crazy idea could inspire someone else to a productive and profitable eureka moment.

Facilitate Creativity in Unexpected Areas – Abraham Maslow, famous for creating the hierarchy of needs, said: “The key question isn’t ‘What fosters creativity?’ But…why in God’s name isn’t everyone creative?

Don’t just ask your team members to turn on their creativity in strategy and brainstorming meetings. Encourage them to apply their insights to data entry, manufacturing processes, and other repetitive tasks.

You’ll be surprised by people’s insights into workflow efficiencies, as well as their perspectives on related systems and departments.

Enforce Positivity – Many managers avoid soliciting feedback from team members due to the torrent of complaints and petty disputes that can ensue. Instead of resisting employee feedback, require everyone to stay positive (or at least neutral) in brainstorming meetings.

For example, write all ideas down on your white board as they come – but don’t spend too much time on any of them (especially if people present them in a negative frame).

Let your team members know you’ll deal with negative and potentially contentious topics in private; save meeting time for positive and productive collaboration.

Supporting Creativity with Expertise

Teresa Amabile, a Harvard Business School professor, pointed out a primary difference between business and art. In creative endeavors, originality is often enough; in business, ideas must also be actionable and useful.

Amabile highlights two factors that must occur alongside creativity: motivation and expertise. Only with all three components of creativity can you see your innovative ideas all the way through the production process.

Expertise means both people’s skills and their ability to acquire new ones. Most of all, it refers to the amount of mental “space” someone has for problem-solving and innovation.

Sure, an experienced traveler knows how to speak various languages. They know the ins and outs of key transportation hubs and what equipment to take along on the journey.

However, world travelers’ greatest skill is adaptability. They communicate non-verbally when they don’t know the local language. They hitch rides, seek out local transport, and find ways to see the countryside that tourists would never consider.

Instead of bringing equipment for every contingency, they know how to use native materials and interface with locals to solve any problem.

To facilitate expertise and specialization within your organization, you must interface with people from all levels and departments.

Invite an accountant to a brainstorming meeting; in addition to adding a level of clarity, they can introduce you to new systems of thinking.

A data-filtering technique they use daily might be new to your team – and help you see around a stubborn obstacle.

Supporting Creativity with Flexibility

When inspiring innovation in the workplace, it helps to understand the effects of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Satisfied and creative employees need a blend of both.

An artist following her passion needs to eat; likewise, a factory worker needs to feel passionate about her job.

As a manager/leader, you provide both positive and negative extrinsic motivations for your employees. If they work hard, produce results, and innovate, you raise their pay and benefits; if they don’t, you could replace them with someone else. However, these “carrots and sticks” don’t have much effect on creativity.

Make sure your team members have enough financial compensation that they feel valued. People who make less than they believe they deserve rarely go the extra mile.

However, there isn’t a linear relationship between extrinsic motivation and creativity. Throwing extra money at creatives doesn’t help them reach their fullest potential.

Innovators need space, flexibility, and intrinsic motivation.

Support your team members creativity by allowing them to work on projects that matter to them.

For example, Apple, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and other companies give certain employees the freedom to work on side projects and develop new products.

At some companies, workers pitch ideas to gain resources for their projects, sharing a stake in the final result. At others, team members retain complete ownership of their side projects.

You can help people bring their interests and hobbies into the creative workplace by inviting them to join special projects. For example, when it’s time to revamp that old conference room, don’t hire a contractor.

Send an email across your organization, asking for people with design, carpentry, and construction skills.

Does Jen in HR come from a family of electricians and contractors?

Does Hakim in IT know where you can find vintage furniture at the best prices in town?

Inspiring Innovation 

Managers and executives must learn the art of matching people with tasks, maintaining creative environments and cultures, and providing smart boundaries.

As innovative startups succeed and grow, they naturally become large, slower-moving companies. Keep your team fresh by balancing the elements needed to support creativity and avoid stagnation:

Challenge – Find the right people for each task. That simple but necessary logistics task might feel too basic for Luis in engineering. However, Amy from production might see it as a step up in the organization.

Freedom – Everyone has a different ideal work style. Know your team members’ expertise, as well as their preferences. Does Janet love to share her decades of experience in advanced accounting and find repetitive tasks demeaning? Or, does she find a couple of hours of basic number-crunching a welcome respite from other work?

Balance – Give each person the right amount of freedom – and the right amount of limitations. Without structure, people actually perform with less creativity.

For example, task your team with increasing productivity by 20% but let them figure out how. Tell them which mountain to climb but let them determine the path to the summit.

Team Design – Homogenous teams create fast solutions because they think alike. When you create diverse teams, expect more disagreement and slower progress. However, the more varied the group, the more likely you are to come up with the right solution.

Resources – Give people enough time, money, and encouragement to truly innovate, not just choose the most obvious solution to a problem. But, don’t give them too much freedom; without limits, groups can wander aimlessly while “mission creep” sets in.

Instead, set goals, targets, expectations, and deadlines – and let your team members determine how to meet them. You can maintain creativity in the workplace over the long-term with wise and balanced management techniques.

How Toggl Track Can Help

Encouraging creativity in the workplace means relaxing certain limitations, including schedules and workflows. However, this doesn’t have to mean chaos. Have your employees track their time with Toggl Track.

Use our powerful report-generating tools to quickly analyze your team’s time-tracking data. Know who’s collaborating with whom, track multiple projects at once, and keep a managerial eye on the entire process.

Even the most creative and innovative teams can stay on track with the right tools, skills, and management techniques!

Tracking time enables employees to do their best work. Toggl track helps your team get on track.

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September 7, 2017