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Mai Fenton
05 August 2020
5 minute read

According to LinkedIn Learning, creativity is the single most important skill in 2020. For two consecutive years, the online learning platform has found that the ability to think creatively is what businesses need most from their employees. But what exactly is creative thinking, why does it matter, and how can we encourage it in the workplace?

Art portrait of a girl wearing a shirt

Myth-busting: there’s no such thing as a ‘creative type’

Creativity is a greatly misunderstood skill. Many mistake it for artistic expression, linked to traditionally ‘creative’ roles - like writing, painting, or design. As a result, there’s a misconception that creativity is innate: you either have it or you don’t. If you aren’t a ‘creative type’ you simply can’t think creatively.

Myths like these lead businesses to discount creative thinking, failing to prioritise it in their hiring or foster it across their organisation. After all, why should a company care about the creativity of its finance team, or customer services managers, if their role doesn’t involve pushing out creative content? In fact, leaders might consider thinking creatively as a distraction, only to be indulged during employees’ leisure time.

If creativity isn't artistic skill, what is it? Creative thinking is the ability to consider something in a fresh light. We do this in many ways and situations. When you solve a problem, analyse a situation, dream up ideas, or find the best way to communicate, you are using creative thinking. Far from being a niche skill, it pervades work success across all disciplines.

More important than ever

The working world has changed beyond recognition over the past few decades, making creative thinking more important than ever. With process-heavy roles becoming automated, humans add value through creative flair, not by ploughing through repetitive tasks. Covid-19 has brought the value of creative thinking into even sharper relief. Responding creatively to challenges has been the difference between some businesses surviving or going under.

Take the Big Issue, for example, which could no longer be sold on the UK’s streets, meaning vendors saw their income slashed overnight. It managed to pivot in a matter of weeks to selling through other platforms, while finding ways to support the magazine’s regular sellers. Or, consider the many industries which switched their processes to supply much-needed PPE. One lab at Stanford University even developed medical respirators out of snorkel masks.

Creative thinking leads to better results

Even in more ordinary times, encouraging creativity is linked to better performance. One striking Gallup study showed that teachers who promote creativity get better academic results from their students. As companies are under greater pressure than ever, it’s a business imperative to encourage creative thinking.

So, are we recognising creative thinking as a powerful resource? Unfortunately not. Instead, workplaces are in danger of killing creativity through a lethal cocktail of margins, targets and fear of failure. 75% of working people do not believe they are fulfilling their creative potential, while 80% complain of being under increasing pressure to be productive rather than creative.

How to unlock a creative mindset

Teresa Amabile, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, has been researching creativity for decades. She believes that the workplace environment - and especially managerial practices - can have a major impact on our ability to think creatively. In her landmark article, ‘How to Kill Creativity’, she says, “creativity is undermined unintentionally every day in work environments that were established to maximize business imperatives such as coordination, productivity, and control.”

Amabile identified three components of business creativity. Yes, you need imagination, but it’s expertise and motivation that help you reach effective and relevant solutions to problems. Here are some ways of ensuring you make space for these three ingredients:

Resources

Teams need resources, not only to carry out their day job, but to build up their expertise. The most important resources a manager has control over is time and money: and assigning this to teams is a finely balanced judgement call. Time pressure can boost creative thinking - for example working towards a major launch or trying to release a product ahead of a competitor. But apply fake or impossible deadlines and you risk causing distrust and even burnout, which kill creative thinking. As for applying time and money to building expertise, it’s a no-brainer. In fact, the Association for Talent Development found that companies that offer well-resourced training programs have 218% higher income per employee than companies without training.

Diversity

A team of people from diverse backgrounds, work and life experiences is often more creative. A 2018 study by Harvard Business Review found that the most diverse companies were also the most innovative, allowing them to market a greater range of products to consumers. In fact, companies with higher-than-average diversity had 19% higher innovation revenues. Encourage different perspectives and create an environment where everyone feels comfortable to contribute.

Challenge

There is no motivation - that third component of creative thinking - without challenge. Covid-19 has provided businesses and individuals with fresh challenges like never before, whether that’s the need to develop medicines and vaccines in record time, or establish completely new supply chains overnight. Managers need to match employees with tasks and roles that play to their strengths but also motivate them by stretching them just the right amount: too easy and they feel bored, but too much and they feel overwhelmed or out-of-depth. To make the right decisions for their employees, managers should get to know them as well as possible before assigning tasks. Amabile warns that, “one of the most common ways managers kill creativity is by not trying to obtain the information necessary to make good connections between people and jobs.”

Freedom to fail

American industrialist Henry Ford said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” If managers do not recognise value in the lessons learned from failed attempts, employees will be less and less likely to experiment and come up with new ideas. Fear of failure and performance anxiety quite literally prevent our brains from thinking creatively. Dr. Wendy Suzuki, NYU Neuroscientist, explains just what happens to our creativity when fear peaks. Stress and fear shrink the hippocampus - the area of our brain responsible for long-term memory. Suzuki defines creative thinking as “taking those things you have in your memory and putting them together in a new way” - so it’s easy to see how an environment where we are fearful of failing crushes our creative mindset.

A call-to-action for business leaders

Going back to the LinkedIn Learning finding we opened with, it’s easy to understand why creative thinking is so vital to businesses today. The global pandemic has put our creative thinking skills to the test as we’ve adapted to a new normal. But it’s also shown that it cannot be simply up to employees and jobseekers to grow their own creative mindset independently. The onus has to be on businesses to build workplaces and managerial practices that encourage and unlock creativity - it’s too important to be left to individuals to build on in their spare time.

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