Why Creativity is Key For The Post-Crisis Rebuild
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Today’s business leaders face an extremely uncertain road ahead. As businesses, including my own, chart a new path forward, they are going to need to deploy creative thinking at every turn — from rethinking business models, to re-examining customer experiences, to developing new products.
In fact, we already know that companies that cultivate creativity are reaping significant benefits, from revenue growth, to greater market share, to stronger leadership. During recessions and economic downturns, 14 percent of companies outperform both historically and competitively because they invest in skills that allow room for ideas and innovation.
It goes without saying that creative talent is highly sought-after. But what most company leaders fail to see is that the answer to this “creativity gap” is right in front of them. Within their existing employee pool, they already have a group of people with creative abilities; they just need to find a way to harness and amplify those skills.
I don't come from a typical creative background — I'm not a professional artist or designer. I started my career as an investment banker and feel most at home in a spreadsheet. But as a CEO, I need to be able to think outside of the box in order to successfully build a company, a team and a product. I might have had to work a little harder to find those creative sparks than others, but they were always there.
Leaders need to discover and make use of creativity across their existing workforce to thrive in the next chapter. Here’s where to start.
Broaden the definition of creative
Leaders need to reevaluate their own perspectives of what it means to be creative in order to successfully encourage it in the workplace. Misconceptions about what creativity means and looks like are far too common and inhibit us from realizing that creative talent and abilities already exist within our teams. You don’t need to be a sculptor or graphic designer to be considered creative. Creativity at its core is a part of being human — it's universal. How we use our imaginations, share ideas and interpret the world around us is entirely personal.
A big part of challenging these preconceived notions is embracing what creativity represents in all its forms, leaving organizational goals at the door and acknowledging that creativity can’t always be measured in dollars or KPIs. Empowering employees to use their creative abilities requires leaders to walk the talk too. I’m not saying that you need to create a revolutionary new product or process. Showing that you embrace creativity can happen in small ways. It could look like carving out time to create regularly, be it a work-related design project or renovating your home, and sharing the process and experience with the broader team. For me, I play guitar, cook, do my own landscaping and gardening and take illustration courses. Although all of these activities happen outside of work, they sharpen my creative lens, bring new perspectives to the job and build creativity into our fabric.
Build a culture that champions creativity
While creativity happens at the individual level, shared creative pursuits and interests bring us together in incredibly meaningful ways. Creating a structure and setting aside time for when collaboration can happen is important, but so is bringing together people from different departments, roles and backgrounds. People want to hear others' ideas so that they can inspire or sharpen their own.
Giving employees the freedom to take risks can empower creativity, but leaders need to take into account that sharing new ideas can also make people feel vulnerable and have the reverse effect. Collaborating on creative projects or ideation sessions in groups can help mitigate this, but leadership also needs to create an environment where failure and sharing ideas are the norm and part of the process.
In my experience, bringing individuals together with common interests has the potential to enrich a community and deepen culture in expected ways too. Moreover, during times of stress, upheaval or uncertainty, like many of us are experiencing right now, communities can also be deeply restorative in addition to being a safe space to stimulate creativity.
Use creativity as a tool for employee wellness
You’ll never be able to tap into the true creative potential of your workforce if you don’t take care of your employees. Work-life balance and encouraging employees to tap into creative outlets outside of the workplace not only can lead to breakthroughs, but also can do wonders for boosting mental health and overall wellbeing.
A simple way to do this is through a stipend that can be used for a creative activity, whether it’s signing up for an online painting class, participating in a photography workshop or attending a writing seminar online. Employees who fully explore their creative abilities are those who come up with the most original ideas and push us to reach beyond known solutions.
This is even more critical now as we’re all experiencing our work and private lives converge in unprecedented ways. In times of stress, finding ways to encourage exploration and curiosity not only has positive impacts on performance, but also overall wellbeing and company morale.
Learn from children, leave time for play
As children, we’re encouraged to explore our creative interests. We’re taught to experiment and discover. We’re unconstrained by existing behaviors, social norms or self-doubt. As we age and face the realities of adulthood, creativity can fade into the background for many of us. We start to compare our creativity to that of creative professionals and elites. Our always-on culture, barrage of information at all minutes of the day and routines distance us from our creative selves.
As I’ve progressed throughout my career, I’ve realized how important it is to carve out space for employees to find their way back to natural curiosity. Google’s infamous “20 percent time” rule encouraged employees to take one full day per week to work on a passion project. It’s an example of how built-in time for play and imagination can spark creativity and lead to increased productivity.
Of course, you can't play all the time, but the more that leaders can unshackle people from to-do lists, meetings and daily pressures, the more creative — and resilient to economic change — your organization will be.