Why creativity is essential at work

Creative thinking is the fuel for genuine innovation and global success. Here’s why.

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It’s core to being human. Without creativity, we couldn’t evolve. Using engineering, science, technology and design, we’re constantly solving problems so we can move and communicate faster and live longer. 

At work, having the autonomy to solve problems without being told how, leads to fresh thinking and ideas. We utilise a greater portion of the frontal lobe in our brain to generate new pathways to arrive at solutions. Yet, while a global survey of CEOs found they considered creativity was the number one requirement for future success,[1] only 35 per cent of workers are given time to be creative – a few times a year.[2]

People commit to what they create. We’ve grown up in companies that are top-down hierarchies, where instructions are issued by a more senior person to carry out a decision, with little or no consultation from the people actually delivering it. This ‘command and control’ style takes away autonomy from adults to create a solution and own it. What an incredible opportunity cost when capable, experienced people aren’t given the freedom to solve problems creativity beyond the parameters of their job descriptions. 

I know a senior manager in a global advertising agency who has spent their career designing and leading successful campaigns for clients. His capacity to generate and run with new ideas is hampered by last minute decisions made by less experienced account managers that have more power in the hierarchy, often resulting in urgent changes to scope. Rather than investing in creative solutions, he often leads fatigued teams through a late-night exercise in re-working. Ironically, this person is a Creative Director.

On the other hand, fresh food giant VkusVill in Russia, has experienced exponential growth, since its inception in 2012. It has 1700 stores and $1.7b in sales, without middle management, budgets or job descriptions. How is this possible?  

There are two key reasons. Firstly, they don’t have the usual hierarchy. Instead, there are five parts: a small management team, autonomous stores, a network of couriers, retail coaches and support staff. Secondly, this means the shop-front operators have the autonomy to make decisions and run their stores like owners.[3] They’re accountable for generating their profit and free to experiment and adapt to find the best solution, without fear of reprisal. The operators meet to share how they solved problems and seek ideas, like the entrepreneurs they are entrusted to be.

The age of entrepreneurialism. Corporate cultures value order and routine. They don’t reward innovative in-house thinking, because it signifies a loss of control. I’ve seen a lot of ‘Heads of Innovation or Transformation’ that sit a few layers down, with these consequences:

  • innovation is not seen as prestigious, legitimate or urgent, so lacks power and remains a low priority;
  • emerging innovation projects are vulnerable to politics, as the short-term agenda over-rides any chances of scaling them; 
  • people avoid exploring new ideas and taking risks, given it will potentially damage their career, and 
  • the best creative talent leaves to go the competition or a start-up.

However, the era of tightly controlled hierarchies, which were designed for the industrial revolution and have changed little since, is coming to a close. We’ve arrived at the age of the ‘entrepreneurial culture’. Companies that can adapt and reinvent themselves to compete in evolving global markets, will be competitive. Those that continue to invest their energy into maintaining an internal hierarchy with silos of groups and departments, will not. 

So how to evolve to an entrepreneurial model? The key is to empower people to make decisions for themselves, so we can meet our human need to be creative and thrive in our work. In other words, getting our brains back. This means a big shift in how boards see the role of the ‘leadership team’, as always having the answers, being right and directing subordinates to execute decisions. For organisations to innovate properly, “innovation” must: sit along-side and work in partnership with the role of CEO; have clear access to resources and expertise; provide scheduled time for creativity and consistently reward the creation of new value. Only then can a thriving, globally competitive culture grow.

[1] IBM, 18 May 2010, ‘2010 Global CEO Study, Creativity selected as most crucial factor for future success’.

[2] Gallup 2017 Workplace survey, Wigert, B. Robison, J. 19 December, 2018, ‘Fostering Creativity at Work: Do your managers push or crush innovation?’.

[3] Minnaar, J. December, 2020 Corporate Rebels newsletter, ‘VkusVill, How a Russian giant disrupts the food industry’.

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