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Fostering creativity and innovation capacity in the workplace

As we continue to grapple with the future of work and the evolution of work, there is a need to revisit the idea of creativity and creative skills in the workplace.

Looking at how work is evolving, the future of human work is moving beyond knowledge work to what I will call 'creative work.' Knowledge work, which was supposed to be focused on solving problems, is now further evolving with work increasingly emphasizing the development of creative solutions to problems, or at the minimum, innovative solutions (i.e., not simply - solutions).

So, if your approach to your job is to find innovative or creative solutions to domain problems, you are already future-proofing yourself regardless of the job type, grade, or career level.

Now, to discuss fostering creativity in the workplace, it's prudent to start by establishing common ground on creativity.

A Quick Recap on Creativity

While there are many definitions and perspectives of creativity, for this piece, I'll adopt this definition

“the production of a novel idea that serves some purpose.” Creativity represents a balance between originality and usefulness. To be original means to be the first, to be unique, or phrased in operational terms “to be a statistically infrequent or uncommon idea.” To be useful means to solve some problem, resolve some difficulty, or fulfill some desire or wish”

(Puccio, 2006)

Csikszentmihalyi, a social psychologist who researches creativity, proposed a systems approach to understanding creativity, one that focused on the role of culture in determining both the traits and the products of creativity. In his model, Mihalyi had three elements:

  1. The Culture - domain

  2. The Field - society

  3. The Person – individual

In this framework, 'new' is defined based on the existing objects, rules, representations, or notations in the culture or field, "without rules, there can not be exceptions, without tradition, there can not be novelty."

To him, "creativity occurs when a person makes a change in a domain, a change that will be transmitted through time." This definition implies that for the change to transmit through time, it must be accepted by the domain. Mihalyi goes on to introduce memes as "the units of imitation that (Dawkins, 1976) suggested were the building blocks of culture". Cultures can be seen as systems of interrelated domains, and creativity often manifests in one of these domains. Each domain, over time, develops its own memes and system of notation. Though this can be either so loose as to make an assessment of novelty difficult or so tight as to make new developments difficult, it invariably sets the base of the old to which the new can be compared.

In Mihalyi's model, the element of value judgment comes into play; it becomes important that the creativity is endorsed in some manner by the domain/society; otherwise, how can it be creative? Mihalyi insists that the social valuation of an original idea or product is pertinent to its being creative.

This emphasis on the phenomenological aspect where a culture or a field perceives a product or idea to be valuable is one of the reasons I find Mihalyi's approach interesting. He says,

"if you cannot persuade the world that you had a creative idea, how do we know that you actually had it?”

(Csikzentmihalyi, 1999)

Original and Useful Product - Creative or Innovative?

Another creativity researcher, Sternberg, proposed a propulsion model in which he explored the various ways in which a product can be viewed as different within a culture. He proposed seven types of creative contributions grouped into contributions that accept the current paradigms in the culture and attempt to extend them and contributions that reject the current paradigms and attempt to replace them.

In his view, creativity requires that we reject current paradigms, accepting current paradigms simply means we are innovative.

Contributions that accept the current paradigms

  1. Replication is when a contribution attempts to show that a field is at the right place rather than moving it. The propulsion can be likened to a spinning stationary wheel.

  2. Redefinition is when a contribution attempts to redefine where a field is. The current status of the field is seen from different perspectives. The propulsion is circular, but not a wheel as the work leads back to where the field is but from a different perspective.

  3. Forward incrementation refers to a contribution that attempts to move a field forward in the direction it is already going. The propulsion is forward motion.

  4. Advance Forward Incrementation refers to a contribution that moves the field in a direction it is already going in but to a point beyond where others are ready to go. The propulsion leads to forward motion that is accelerated beyond the expected rate of forward progression.

Contributions that reject current paradigms

  1. Redirection is when a contribution makes an attempt to redirect a field from where it is going toward a different direction.

  2. Reconstruction/redirect when a contribution tries to move the field back to where it once was so that it may move forward from that point in a different direction than previously

  3. Reinitiating refers to a contribution that attempts to move a field to a different as yet un-reached starting point

(Steinberg, 1999)

Sternberg's propulsion model provides a framework for assessing the role a contribution plays in a culture/field. Whether or not this contribution is valued and thus creative is up to the value placed upon it by the domain/society – culture and field (Csikzentmihalyi, 1999)

The "Creative Person"

I won't spend too much time on the 'person' aspect of creativity, but I want to draw out a few central ideas relevant to the post.

The 'person' in this post looks at traits, motivation, and skills.

Some traits and motivations listed by researchers, Sternberg & Lubart, 1995 are:

  • Risk-taking

  • Openness

  • Individuality

  • Perseverance

  • Tolerance of ambiguity

(R. J. Sternberg & Lubart, 1995)

A different researcher, Hennessey, also describes three component skills that a person must approach a task with to be creative:

  1. Domain skills - background knowledge

  2. Creativity skills - willingness to take risks, experiment

  3. Task motivation

(Hennessy, 2004)

In summary, creativity requires

  1. The skills and associated domain knowledge to make such a contribution

  2. The attributes, motivations, and attitudes that increase the likelihood of making such a contribution

  3. A culture/domain and field/society where the determination is made if the contribution is "creative"

Creativity in the Workplace

For this, I will focus first on "usefulness".

Jobs are defined based on usefulness, the idea being that you are "paying" for some value expected of the person, team, department, function, or unit.

That value is predicated on the expected usefulness of the person's, team's, department's, function's or unit's contributions.

Usefulness viewed as Solutions to Problems, Creativity as Creative Solutions

The easiest way to talk about usefulness is to speak in terms of "problems-solved." A contribution will be deemed useful if it solves a problem. The solution becomes the contribution, and the originality of the solution makes it creative.

Problems and solutions exist within domains of knowledge and expertise. All industries are domains. Organizational units are domains of expertise. Every domain has problems they are trying to solve and solutions they can offer to problems. Competitive advantage can come from how these problems are solved or solutions are developed compared to others in the same domain—for example, developing innovative or creative products that beat the competition or innovative or creative solutions to how the organization is run that will make it more efficient (like lowering cost, increasing the quality of output) and more capable of developing industry-leading innovative or creative products or services.

So, the contribution, therefore, is the nature of the ideas and products developed by individuals, teams, departments, functions, units, and organizations as a whole, as a solution to the problems they are seeking to solve.

How then do we foster creativity in the workplace?

Our job designs and descriptions need to change - we commonly de-emphasize domain expertise, so we need to change that by emphasizing:

  1. The unique domain problems the organization is trying to solve in the context of the current trend of problems that need solving in that domain

  2. The types of solutions the organization is trying to develop in the context of the current trend of solution possibilities in the domain.

The organization presents unique conditions and context for developing innovative or creative industry solutions to industry problems while also presenting unique organizational problems requiring organization-specific solutions. Therein lies the path to competitive advantage.

Focusing on problems to be solved allows individuals to look within and across domains for the latest, up-to-date knowledge that will aid the understanding of the problem and the development of the solution. It also allows for a shift in the focus for individuals searching for a job. They get to change their perspective from "what I can do" to "what problems I am uniquely able and motivated to solve right now" and "what are the conditions under which I do my best work." For people to think as described above is not to say they only search for experiences that match their thinking, however, adopting the perspective makes it possible to either hope to find opportunities that validate your self-assessment or opportunities that challenge and stretch it, all the while being intentional about it.

Our management culture needs to stop discouraging risk-taking and experimentation - we need to start embracing calculated risks and experimentation. For this, we need to look at how to help non-individual contributors embrace this mindset and leadership style. For that, one major step is to ensure that non-individual contributors, earlier in their career, experience solving problems in one field using their domain knowledge, ideally as individual contributors. This experience solving domain problems with domain knowledge, if emphasized and built upon in management and leadership development, will provide the foundation for practice-based conceptual thinking that makes it possible to see and appreciate problems and solutions instead of just activities. It also makes clear the difference between solving problems and completing activities/deliverables and helps them manage the balance between the two without losing sight of solving the problem.

An interesting observation I've made about having operated with domain knowledge in at least one field is that it becomes a key enabler for applying other management and leadership principles later on (if reinforced as part of the development experience). For example, when tasked with managing work across multiple domains, most of which you don't have as much knowledge, you are able to focus on the results and outcomes, assess the need for knowledge, appreciate and leverage expertise when you have it available to you in your team or contracted in, and are able to make decisions about how to move forward even when there are ambiguities or clear unknowns.

The described shifts in non-individual contributor capabilities will translate into team cultures that take calculated risks and embrace experimentation to find better ways to solve the problems. The team culture will value domain knowledge and more readily access and use the latest insights across relevant domains to overcome the challenges of changing operating conditions and levels of competition to continuously optimize the quality and ultimate value of delivered products (solutions).

Our work culture needs to stop disabling task motivation by discounting the meaning of jobs and disrupting emotional connection to the job and job tasks - we need to start expecting people to enjoy what they are working on and ask questions when they don't. This won't happen until we address the first two (2) points above - shifting our focus to solving domain problems and ensuring people in management roles have the right capabilities to embrace the necessary mindset and leadership styles. The third element here then helps individuals capitalize on the meaning of work and ways of working experiences we offer to work out "the kinds of problem I am uniquely suited and motivated to solve and the conditions under which I do my best work."

Helping individuals explore and answer these questions becomes a key part of the employee experience from internships all the way to deciding and achieving career aspirations. We can help them see (before joining) and experience (upon joining) what problems the team is trying to solve, what solutions the team is developing, and the conditions under which the work is done at this point.

Making this all real

For the organizations - to make this real for organizations, we need to work out what this all means for non-individual contributors operating at pivotal points in the organizational system. These people are responsible for making decisions that strengthen or weaken the system in general and as it relates to developing innovative and creative contributions (solutions) recognized and accepted by the industries to which the organization and its various units and departments belong and within which they operate.

It is important to consider the system's central role in determining organizational capabilities.

In the next series of posts on organization, I hope to share some working thoughts and ideas about the domain and social aspects of work in organizations by looking at three things:

  1. How organizations are designed and what that means for domains of problems and solutions

  2. How jobs are designed and what that means for job engagement and task motivation

  3. How work is done and what that means for ways of working that encourage tolerance of ambiguity, risk-taking, and experimentation

For the individuals - to make this real for individuals, we need to work out what this all means for each person, including the people in non-individual contributor roles, as they navigate the world of work.

We need to help those who know and want to take a creative approach to their jobs by providing self-exploration and discovery experiences with the requisite support as they work on solving problems the organization needs solving.

Those who are yet unaware get to use the opportunity of experiencing how the work is done in the organization to educate themselves and decide what they want their work experience to mean to them. Working out if they are keen to operate within the frame of "problems they are uniquely able and motivated to solve" and "becoming fully aware of the conditions under which they do their best work."

In the next series of posts about the individual, I hope to share some working thoughts and ideas about the variables that can help define and understand the following:

  • How to think about problems to be solved and what motivates you

  • How to think about solutions to problems and what inspires you

  • How to think about conditions of work and what resonates with you and helps you do your best work

The posts should come soon!


Amabile, T. M. (1997). Motivating creativity in organizations: On doing what you love and loving what you do. California Management Review(40), 39-58.

Csikzentmihalyi, M. (1999). Implications of a systems perspective for the study of creativity. n R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of Creativity (Hardback ed., pp. 313-338). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frederiksen, N. (1984). Implications of cognitive theory for instruction in problem solving. Review of Educational Research, 54(3), 363-407.

Hennessey, B. A. (2004). The social psychology of Creativity: The beginnings of a multicultural perspective. n S. Lau, A. N. N. Hui & G. Y. C. Ng (Eds.), Creativity: when east meets west (pp. 201-226). Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd.

Lubart, T. I., & Georgsdottir, A. (2004). Creativity: Development and Cross-cultural Issues. n S. Lau, A. N. N. Hui & G. Y. C. Ng (Eds.), Creativity: when east meets west (pp. 23-54). Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd.

Mayer, R. E. (1999). Fifty Years of Creativity Research. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of Creativity (Hardback ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Puccio, G. J. (2006). Creativity 101: An introduction to some basic concepts and the field of creativity studies. Paper presented at the meeting of Indo-US Workshop on Design Engineering, Bangalore, India. Retrieved August.

Ruscio, J., & Amabile, T. M. (1999, 10th March, 2006). How does creativity happen? Retrieved April 6, 2006, from

Sternberg, R. J. (1999). A Propulsion Model of Types of Creative Contributions. Review of General Psychology, 3(2), 83 -100.

Sternberg, R. J., & Lubart, T. I. (1995). Defying the crowd: Cultivating creativity in a culture of conformity. ew York: Free Press.

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