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Creative use of employees

Published on Friday, 22 Jan 2010
Illustration: Brian Wang

Creativity is a quality many companies expect their staff to possess, but only at certain times and on specific occasions. The most obvious of those is the brainstorming session where the team is called together, pizza is perhaps ordered in and, with minimal advance warning or preparation, great ideas are supposed to pour forth.

Needless to say, the results are usually not outstanding, since requiring people to be creative to order and on cue is rarely the best way to go about it. A much better approach is to develop a workplace environment that encourages innovation and expects improvement as part of the normal course of events. In that way, employees will become conditioned to thinking about their own jobs more analytically. On their own initiative, they will look for new efficiencies, adapt principles learned elsewhere, and move from passive to active mode in terms of contributing suggestions for the better management of the company.

The key to this is not to think of creativity as something encapsulated in a sudden flash of inspiration or dependent on an innate ability only a few of us possess. Instead, and especially in the sphere of business, it should be seen as the conclusion of a logical process of deduction. As such, it is more a matter of studying observable behaviour patterns and emerging market trends in the sector or in society, and then predicting where they are likely to lead. Brilliant business ideas can still appear "out of the blue", but in the vast majority of cases, they are the result of hard work, a can-do attitude and, sometimes, just seeing the obvious slightly before someone else.

Therefore, if companies want in-house teams to become "more creative", the first step is to give licence to experiment, within reason. All too often, basic office procedures, which don't relate in any way to issues of safety or security, require intelligent and well educated employees to follow every rule to the letter and refer any decision of substance to a higher authority.

Organisations that run like this can be very successful. But they certainly don't breed innovation and, as a result, usually fail to make the most of the talent at their disposal. Rule number one is that if you are looking for creativity, you must first trust people to think for themselves and allow them to make the odd mistake along the way. This will encourage the sort of mindset that stretches for new insights. And in the medium to long term, it will engender greater job satisfaction for individual members of staff and bring about better results for the team or organisation.

Another prerequisite is not to give up at the first hint of difficulty or resistance. It may seem paradoxical to let people keep experimenting when earlier efforts have met with no real success. But the point is that creativity in the field of business comes from having the courage to try something different and to keep searching for improvements.

An excellent example of how this can work is found in United States-based multinational 3M. Its continued sales growth depends on having a pipeline of new products so, in a company-wide initiative, all employees from senior management to those on the shop floor are given two hours a week to come up with new ideas. They can spend that time wherever they choose - outside, at home, in the local coffee shop.

This is not strictly monitored and there is no once-a-week review of results. The purpose is to make people realise that the research department or board has no monopoly on the good ideas. Everyone has the ability to come up with, say, the "next Post-It note". An enterprising 3M employee dreamt up that ingenious yet simple product when needing to scribble ideas on different slips of paper and keep them all in view. The concept of the sticky note pad might have gone no further, but the company saw its commercial potential, gave the necessary support, and developed what has become a highly lucrative product used in homes and offices around the world.

The message is that an organisation which not only expects staff to think creatively, but also gives them the chance to do so, will reap the benefits. But achieving such positive outcomes also depends on the following:  

Generating enthusiasm The prevailing mood in a company is often easy to detect. Sometimes just a few minutes waiting in the reception area or company canteen can give a pretty accurate impression of employees' usual approach to work and the way the organisation is run. For instance, if the front-desk receptionist is not authorised to assign meeting rooms for visitors and has to check with someone else, it is a fair assumption the organisation prefers to control and won't expect employees to be innovative in other areas. Alternatively, if there is a sense of enthusiasm, evident in quick answers, further questions and a general interest in what is going on, it is a good sign that initiative and innovation are encouraged. When it seems necessary to change behaviour and make people more enthusiastic, one method is to reframe existing perceptions into positive beliefs. In short, if employees are never expected to think inventively or put forward ideas, they won't bother to try. But if it is clear that suggestions, on whatever scale, are welcomed and implemented, people will "switch on", become enthusiastic, and soon regard thinking "outside the box" as an integral part of their job description.

Developing your team
Promoting this kind of change in behaviour is not always straightforward. Individuals may have a self-limiting outlook or be stuck in the old way of doing things. If that is the case, it can be useful to organise a short psychometric test or behavioural assessment to challenge ingrained beliefs and show people they are all capable of being creative. The results of such assessments often surprise. They demonstrate that, with a little effort, individuals certainly can be innovative and, by extension, that there is no reason to hide that ability in the workplace. Evidence from such tests can quickly alter opinions and perceptions. If something extra is needed, companies can always consider coaching and development courses.

Even when a team is aware of what is expected; they may be slow to change behaviour or continue to question the value. Training can help to get past these roadblocks by instilling a positive mindset, further illustrating the benefits, and focusing on specific examples to show that experimentation does not need to cause trepidation.

Competitive collaboration
To push things forward, it always helps to have a healthy amount of internal competition. This gets people moving with a new sense of energy and makes it clear there can be tangible rewards from taking the initiative. At times, two teams can be set the same task or challenge. Knowing that they are up against each other in friendly competition will often get the best out of both teams and lead to a wider range of ideas for further evaluation and possible implementation.

Once the best ideas have been sifted out and agreed on, the initial competition can evolve into closer collaboration. Those involved can put their heads together to refine, test and enact the original plans and come up with something for the long-term good of the company.

Sustaining innovation
Once teams within the workforce are on the path to innovative thinking, you must still take appropriate steps to maintain the momentum. This should include giving due recognition for creative contributions and visible results. It is also important to allow time for reflection and research, so that individuals come to view creativity as a responsibility and understand the obligation to keep learning.

Finally, even when things aren't going too well, remain optimistic. Many ideas and initiatives will not work out or lead to concrete results. However, the only sure way for an organisation to advance is by seeking improvements in every area and by making full use of the ideas and intelligence of employees who already know the business inside out.

Written by David Simpson, director, Team Building Asia

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