Posted On November 9, 2017

A recent list of “Hot L&D Topics” caught my eye, and what it revealed was both unsurprising and remarkable.

Unsurprising because it contained the usual suspects, such as the need for HR leaders to improve their strategic planning and to partner more closely with the business. There were also several topics we’ve blogged about lots lately like improving employees’ business writing skills and their ability to remain resilient and manage change. Perennial topics of compliance and personalisation also made the list, again.

Remarkable because while so-called hot topics come and go – artificial intelligence and virtual reality this year, MOOCs and BYOD in years past – the more things stay the same. By that I mean that the most important skills needed in organisations have always been employee creativity (coming up with something new) and workplace innovation (improving something that already exists).

Whatever the employee’s formal title, be it secretary, call centre manager or chief executive officer, workplace creativity and innovation are everyone’s responsibility. And inside every successful organisation I’ll wager you’ll find team members who are encouraged to see, think, learn and act in new ways, whether the challenge is to reduce electricity costs, improve customer service or create new offerings and penetrate new markets.

Quite simply, when employee creativity and workplace innovation are in short supply, those organisations will inevitably wither and die. That was true if you were selling gladiatorial trinkets for a few aes signatum in ancient Rome, and it will always be true.

Everyone can be more creative

Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist best known for his hierarchy of needs, believed creativity was an aspect of human nature found in all of us. In children, Maslow felt it was easily observable but he suggested it faded among adults.

That it does indeed fade was proven in the 1940s by psychologists who devised a creativity test and tested a group of 45-year-olds, discovering that less than 5 percent of them were deemed “creative.” When they continued testing groups aged 40, 35, 30, 25 and 20 years of age, the test results were similar. But when they tested a group of 17-year-old subjects, the results jumped to almost 10 percent. And for 5-year-olds, creativity sky-rocketed to over 90 percent.

What happens between ages 5 and 45? The bad news is that we train our brains to find practical shortcuts to help us do regular things faster. Over time, we become so robotic at taking shortcuts that we soon find thinking creatively to be extremely challenging.

The good news can be summed up in Edward de Bono’s famous quote, “Creative thinking is not a talent, it is a skill that can be learned.”

In other words, everyone is creative, and 50 years of research shows that people of all ages can be taught, encouraged and coached to be more creative. That’s because four basic skills common to creative thinking can be easily taught:

  • Fluency, or the ability to produce many ideas, even if many are similar or are in the same vein
  • Flexibility, being able to produce a mix of different ideas that are not similar or share an underlying theme
  • Elaboration, the ability to add detail to a viewpoint or perspective
  • Originality, the ability to come up with something that’s unique or different.

And learning experts have discovered many ways of helping people think more creatively. These methods range from consciously removing barriers of habit that block creativity, to risk taking, brainstorming (also known as divergent thinking) and convergent thinking, or learning to combine diverse and disparate concepts and objects to create a new approach or solution to a problem. De Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats” is a great example of convergent thinking.

Regular practice in each of these activities can significantly improve creative skills such as imagination, visualisation and innovation.

The business of innovation

Innovative change in business is all about finding smarter ways of solving problems for customers and meeting market needs. It’s a characteristic that positions an organisation more strategically from its competitors.

But coming up with a bright idea is only the start of what it takes to be innovative. There’s an enormous gap between generating a creative idea and the end-product seeing the light of day, and the business of closing this gap needs to be managed like any other organisational process: targets must be set, funding and resources must be allocated, and skills must be available to employees that will convert ideas into business realities.

One company that does all this in spades is 3M. Consider this: one of 3M’s corporate objectives is that is that 25 percent of profits from each 3M division is to come from products less than five years old. So, to make this happen the company launches more than 200 new products each year – enabling it to consistently exceed that 25 percent target.

3M and other innovative businesses such as Apple and Google/Alphabet share five common corporate traits:

  1. Strategic focus. Each organisation places a strong strategic focus on the role of innovation and the contribution it delivers to the business.
  2. Insight. They have an excellent understanding of their markets and customers. They also strive to configure products and services around emerging
  3. Collaboration. They all clearly understand the core capabilities of their organisation and their partners, and pitch in together to find and develop innovative solutions.
  4. Process. Each has simple yet effective approaches to conceiving, qualifying, developing and quickly launching new offerings.
  5. Organisation. Roles, responsibilities and culture in each organisation all support innovation, and metrics measure and reward successful innovation.

Doing more with less

Not every organisation has the resources of a 3M, Apple or Google, but it’s important to remember that creating a culture that fosters workplace creativity and innovation starts with one person: the leader.

That leader can create the right environment for innovation to flourish, and while doing so may take time, it’s not rocket science. Here’s how:

  • Acknowledge and reward your innovative thinkers. This may be leadership 101 but it’s amazing that more organisations do not actively encourage employees to be innovative, then compensate innovation to build engagement throughout their organisation.
  • Inject creativity with collaboration. We’ve already mentioned the importance of collaboration, so think about how your partners, suppliers and supply chain might combine to help stir your organisation’s creative juices.
  • Make time to innovate. Returning to the 3M example, in 1948 the company mandated its “15 percent program” whereby 15 percent of employees’ time is dedicated to creativity and innovation. 3M developed the ubiquitous Post-it note as a result, while Google brought Gmail and Google Earth to life from a similar employee program.

Other things every business leader can do to create a workplace environment for innovation to thrive include increasing the amount of time spent simply talking with employees about creative or innovative improvements, and actively listening to what they hear. There’s also a host of supporting systems, tools and techniques that don’t cost the Earth.

Houston we have a solution

Speaking of doing more with less not being rocket science, another facet of creativity and workplace innovation is that scarcity, not abundance, often contains the germ of creativity.

A great example of this is the 1970 Apollo 13 moon mission. Just two days into the mission and more than 321,000 kilometres from Earth, the NASA spacecraft was jolted by an exploding oxygen tank. Faced with massively reduced life support and power, there was a very high probability that the three astronauts would never return alive.

Back in Houston, engineers set the gold standard for innovative, flexible thinking. First, they brainstormed methods of how best to reduce carbon dioxide on-board the spacecraft and getting it back on trajectory to Earth.

Secondly, engineers cobbled together a DIY life-support system to deliver oxygen, managing the feat on Apollo 13 reportedly only 15 minutes before catastrophe could strike.

They then found a way to fling Apollo 13 around the moon, using its gravitational pull and the last of Apollo’s engine power to set sail for home.

In all this, NASA engineers, program managers and scientists used what they had at their disposal:

  • Bits and pieces from the spacecraft, particularly the lunar lander used as a “lifeboat” to return the astronauts to Earth
  • Collective knowledge mined in brainstorming sessions that led to tools, equipment and techniques originally intended for other purposes being used to get three astronauts home safely.

Key to competitive advantage and growth

As you can see, creative thinking and workplace innovation are keys to competitive advantage and growth, even survival. As early as 1996 researchers into employee creativity Oldman and Cummings wrote, “Numerous commentators have argued that enhancing the creative performance of employees is a necessary step if organisations are able to achieve competitive advantage.”

Edward de Bono agrees: “(Creative thinking) empowers people by adding strength to their natural abilities which improves teamwork, productivity and profits.”

Now, you may already have those creative problem-solving skills embedded in your culture and available to your organisation. If so, you’re one of the lucky ones.

If not, I can assure you that acquiring them will be a “hot topic” for you – this year, next year, forever and a day.

We can help.

MCI Solutions’ been improving the creativity of individuals, teams and organisations for more than three decades. In fact, one of our most popular in-house seminars is” Leading Workplace Innovation” designed to help teams create the right environment to support idea generation, and blend together the whimsical world of creativity and the logical process of turning great ideas into successful innovations. To find out more, have a chat with the MCI Solutions Learning Team. You can call us on 1300 768 550 or get in touch with us. 

Now that’s a good idea.