The thinking it took to get us into this mess is not the same thinking that is going to get us out of it. —Albert Einstein (widely attributed)

As an analyst in the research department at E Source, I spend a lot of time poring over the creative works of others, yet the pile of tasks that perpetually sits in front of me seems to hinder my own creativity. “Solve problems more creatively!” my mental voice chides, goading my will to create.

Illustration of a brain

This seems like a mantra—or even a war cry—for our age. I hear the words calling to me, echoing loudly at the edges of one looming global catastrophe after another. Well-informed individuals and well-meaning organizations agree that we have a dire need to change the way we act and think. But if creative problem-solving is a necessary key to unlocking society’s salvation, why are businesses stuck in old modes of thinking and doing?

One school of thought in organizational change—espoused by Harvard’s Teresa Amabile, among others—asserts that much stagnation is rooted in antiquated concepts about what creativity is and where and how it should (and should not) be encouraged. In her 1998 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article How to Kill Creativity, Amabile lucidly describes many common problems that plagued modern business and prevented healthy growth at the end of the 20th century.

Allowing time for reflection is more important to creative thinking than staying busy.

Today, almost 20 years later, many businesses still grapple with these problems, which, as Amabile describes them, have become systemically engrained. More recently, another Harvard study—Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning—came to a similar conclusion, asserting that allowing time for reflection is more important to creative thinking than staying busy. Yet we continue to encourage productivity and find less time for reflection in our workdays. These problems not only are systemic and pervasive, but also can be measured and tracked from an early age.

Exactly 40 years before Amabile wrote her article about killing creativity, Professor E. Paul Torrance was testing new methods for evaluating childhood creativity and its effects. As described in Newsweek’s The Creativity Crisis article, while Torrance’s tests are not perfect measures of creativity, there is little argument about the fact that his childhood creativity index is highly correlated to adult accomplishment. In fact, a high score on Torrance’s creativity index is a three-times-stronger indicator of professional success in adult life than childhood IQ.

How can you remove hurdles that are preventing your business from thinking and acting creatively? Tweet this!

So, how can you promote more creativity in the workplace and begin to remove hurdles that are preventing you and your colleagues from thinking and acting more creatively? We have a few suggestions.

  • Don’t ignore what you can’t measure. Deadlines, productivity, and oversight are all essential in well-run businesses, and they have well-defined and measurable outcomes. But these aren’t the only things that matter, and overemphasis can be counterproductive. A creative company culture grows from the artful introduction of three essential elements: expertise, unconventional thinking, and motivation. These qualities are difficult to measure, but ignore them at your peril.
  • Don’t assume that money motivates. Monetary motivators are sufficient when tasks are simple and outcomes are easy to measure quantitatively. For example, if the task is boring and repetitive, more money tends to inspire productivity. However, most business needs are relatively complex and are only met through creative problem-solving. Repetitive tasks should be automated, not motivated. Strong scientific evidence suggests that salary is NOT correlated to job satisfaction and in some cases offering more money may even act as a negative motivator. The HBR article Does Money Really Affect Motivation? A Review of the Research provides a good introduction to research findings on motivating employees.
  • Don’t undervalue employee expertise. Instead of offering more money to those who “climb the corporate ladder,” try motivating through sincere, personal, and even radical approaches to people management that reinforce a sense of personal autonomy and mastery. Don’t move employees from one position or department to another just to increase their salaries, elevate their statuses, or otherwise satisfy company reorg requirements that don’t take into consideration employees’ prior experiences and career desires. Assuming that deep experience can be replaced by high confidence or a pleasant personality will kill creativity (not to mention morale).
  • Your team’s “weirdos” have an unfair advantage when it comes to seeing things differently.

  • Don’t be afraid to rock the boat. It’s unwise to let every business meeting devolve into a philosophical conversation about the length of a string, but more boat-rocking is useful when it comes to fostering creative environments. Unconventional thinking involves viewing the world through a different lens, through curious eyes that see up as down. Your team’s “weirdos” have an unfair advantage when it comes to seeing things differently. Make a point of including them in your business conversations or, better yet, let them run team meetings. Be careful not to reprimand these odd folks for voicing unpopular opinions, and avoid creating “safe spaces” where egos are unnecessarily shielded. It’s all about letting creativity grow and flourish in every corner of your business. For more inspiration, check out Jimmy Soni’s 10,000 Hours with Claude Shannon: How a Genius Thinks, Works, and Lives article summarizing his recent book on the life of a creative genius.

Contributing Authors

Lead Analyst, Technology Assessment

Bryan Jungers conducts research on emerging, energy-efficient, and distributed energy resource technologies. His main areas of expertise lie in...