Entrepreneur and Stanford lecturer Nilofer Merchant recently examined the role of creativity in business innovation, and what management can do to inspire and empower their employees to be more creative in their daily roles.
She wrote, “Creativity matters, but how best to enable it? Generating creativity is, in itself, a creative act. Yet most leaders try to scope creativity by defining the path—who should contribute and how—rather than defining the goal and asking for anyone to contribute.”
Merchant went on to document her experiences running an “idea-a-thon” at a previous company, in which employees from virtually every department and function were invited to submit an idea for a new corporate investment. The parameters were simple: it needed to be either a new product, solving a business problem, or fixing an existing issue.
Include everyone in the innovation process
According to Marchant, “Executives told me that they thought opening the aperture to access everyone’s creative potential could be chaotic,” but they were ultimately proven wrong. She explained, “The senior executives were genuinely surprised that they already had the talent and even the funds to drive big, meaningful change. And in all likelihood your organization is similar. But how can you breakthrough? Most leaders have been taught to focus rather than be inclusive.”
To shift this focus, Marchant believes companies must first dispel three common myths about creativity:
Myth #1: Not everyone can be creative
If you never ask a portion of your people for creative ideas, how can you accurately assess their creativity? Marchant recommends companies actively look for ways to break the traditional barriers of roles, credentials, and qualifications and frequently ask employees for their input. This doesn’t necessarily require a significant business investment, as she highlighted in her article. You might be surprised at the creative ideas unleashed by asking employees at the monthly all-hands meeting how they might apply a new approach to an existing business problem, for example.
Myth #2: Process kills creativity
In her piece, Marchant argued that the notion that process limits creativity “is only true if your process is broken.” She believes a good process can help by clarifying the goals, timeline, resources, and other necessary components, while still leaving the “how” open for individuals to add their own creative stamp.
Myth #3: Pay drives creativity
Marchant underscored that finding and fulfilling a purpose and contributing to something bigger is often more motivational than financial incentives. Rather than allocating resources to recruiting and hiring the most creative minds, companies should tap their existing employee base, encouraging them to step out of their day-to-day roles and exercise their creative potential.
For more of Marchant’s thoughts on unleashing creativity in your team, check out her HBR article here.