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Our professional environment is changing from one with an algorithmic task-based focus to one that both requires and values agile and heuristic thinking: innovative market disruption is driving the need for a more creative mindset from employees. The challenge for organisations, and for their leaders and managers, is how to create and maintain workplace environments that nurture and develop creative and innovative thinking.

Constraints, creativity and the wrong kind of stress

Creativity, like every other aspect of our lives, works within the context of constraints: available time, resources, capabilities (literal and mental) and budget. We can think of this as the pressure and stress of accommodating reality. Indeed, constraints can inspire creative responses, but they can suffocate them too.

The human incubator was originally inspired by a visit to an exhibition of chicken incubators in Paris Zoo. Installed at Maternité de Paris, a hospital for the city’s poor women, it reduced infant mortality rates from 66% to 38%. Aware of their vital contribution but handicapped by circumstances while working in Nepal, engineering graduate and Peace Corps volunteer Timothy Prestero evolved an incubator from the reliable, easily-fixed items that were on hand: car parts.

It’s a lovely story, but the second chapter underlines the reality of constraints – and the constraints of reality. The next hurdles were practical: manufacturing, financing, distribution, regulation. The real customers were not doctors, but Ministeries and donors. And medical equipment manufacturers target the affluent, not the poor. The NeoNature never went into production.

But while these kinds of pressure are stresses that your innovators must learn to accept, other stress-drivers will hinder their creativity. Overly challenging targets (be they about deadlines or budgets), particularly when the pressure they create is relentless, impair both our willingness and ability to think creatively.

Where outcomes are heavily incentivised, this affect can become multiplied. While managers may think of the magical power of extrinsic reward and recognition, the managed may act more like the athlete who ‘chokes’ at the final challenge. For the stressed, carrots can feel more like sticks. To increase creativity and optimise performance, employees need challenges that stretch but don’t snap, and pressures that motivate but don’t crush them. And the rewards must be intrinsic.

“What if?” opens more possibilities than “Don’t”

‘The work environment’ is a very broad phrase, encompassing the emotional and interpersonal atmosphere as well as physicality of the building. If the latter seems irrelevant, consider the story of Building 20 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, originally erected in 1943 as a temporary wooden structure. As MIT’s website records:

“Its ‘temporary nature’ permitted its occupants to abuse it in ways that would not be tolerated in a permanent building. If you wanted to run a wire from one lab to another, you didn’t ask anybody’s permission – you just got out a screwdriver and poked a hole through the wall. […] This building cast a spell over those who worked in it. Many former occupants have noted the magical power of the building to bring out the best from those in it, and the very real feeling that this was a special, even a unique, place.”

But it would be wrong to think of this as an ‘environment’ simply in terms of architecture: within the ultimate outer borders of commercial reality, Building 20 was a space that enabled rather than saying ‘can’t’ or ‘must not’. It not just inspired but – more importantly – did not stand in the way of experimentation, interaction and innovation. Despite – or perhaps rather because of – this apparent anarchy, at one point it housed 20% of all the physicists in the US, including nine Nobel prize winners.

“What if?” opens more possibilities than “Don’t”: if you really want ideas to catch fire, try not to isolate the individual sparks, no matter how bright. Creativity is a market best governed with the lightest touch. 

No more heroes anymore…

Those individual sparks, however, still need be lit in the right atmosphere if they are to burn not only brightly but sustainably. In a world that needs organisations that operate heuristically rather than algorithmically, organisations need managers that inspire the best rather than demanding it. Once it is the creativity and innovation in employees’ work that carries real value, rather than quantity and process-compliance, managers must not just be mindful of the impact of job design and project allocation on motivation but of the inner emotional and psychological state of those they manage.

In managing – in the sense of choosing as much as controlling – the work of others, they should draw on the insights available to us from neurology. These show us that there is more to the argument that recognition outguns reward in terms of motivation than the changes in workplace culture that the increasing presence of the millennial generation is bringing: the reactions of the human brain can be used to positively influence both how our workplaces are led and managed and the work that these places produce.

The work that most inspires is that which does not trigger what the neurologist David Rock has called ‘social pain’ by threatening employees’ sense of status (in the sense of feeling trusted and respected), autonomy, certainty, relatedness and belonging, and of being treated fairly in comparison with others. While there is an element of skills acquisition for leaders and managers in adapting to this new paradigm, the real change here is behavioural. Social pain is just as real as its physical counterpart, and its effects on performance and productivity are just as serious and longer lasting.

The challenge for leaders in creating creative environments for the twenty-first century is not to create heroes, either of themselves (the heroic leader is a paradigm from the last century, and an increasingly tarnished statue) or of their employees. The employee who constantly works to overcome daunting developmental challenges while operating under high pressure is not so much a hero as a burnout in the making. Like the bright sparks who generate them, creativity and innovation need air.

Three tips for boosting creativity and innovation:

  1. Work to make the rewards of work intrinsic
  2. Trust is a two-way street: don’t make employees ask for permission needlessly
  3. Growth comes from balancing the challenge with the pressure

Visit ASK at Stand G80 at the World of Learning Conference on 19-20 October 2016, or come to the seminar – Creating Creative Environments – that ASK Principal Consultant, Liaquat Lal, will be leading as part of the event. Full details appear in the Conference programme.