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Know your enemies: Creativity killers

They’re familiar to all of us, but less recognised for their negative effect on innovation. Distractions, lack of resources, stress and strained relationships can all wreak havoc on creativity. By truly recognising the impact of these creativity killers on individuals, you can start unleashing the creative potential within your team.

Many teams bank on just a couple of people to generate creativity. These individuals become the go-to resource in all situations requiring a fresh perspective and are expected to keep churning out solutions and ideas. This isn’t ideal.

It’s common to think of creativity as a binary property: present in the lucky few, absent in the majority. But next to putting unhelpful pressure on some, it also silences others: those without the right status may be less keen to share their ideas, insights and feedback. As a result, great ideas may go unseen and weaker ones may slip through.

Diversity of expertise and backgrounds is crucial

Celebrate your creative stars, but don’t bank on them alone. A broader culture of creativity will serve everyone better in the long term.

Diversity and interaction fuel creativity and innovation. The process of transforming any creative idea, however brilliant, into a valuable solution requires constructive feedback. Varied influences and inputs never fail to give deeper, distinctive and more rewarding outcomes.

Furthermore, a culture that values and encourages creativity in everyone nurtures that all-important little creativity—those tiny break-throughs that can lead to bigger innovations.

If you’re ready to start unleashing the creative potential in your team, begin by looking out for the things that could be blocking the way—you have to know your enemies in order to deal with them effectively.

Minimise distractions: too much is just too much

We all know the impact distractions can have on creativity. We’ve seen the Steve Jobs quotes on the importance of focus. And we all know about the importance of saying “no”.

But quoting nuggets of leadership wisdom doesn’t make us masters of anything at all. Focus remains incredibly difficult to attain. What do you do if the person you need to say no to is your boss or your client? How are you going to stay on top of the countless emails, phone calls and inefficient meetings?

What is immediate isn’t always important but that can be hard to see. Daily, real-world challenges can overwhelm us and demand our attention. And everyday tasks can have a peculiar allure.

‘Attention residue’, a term coined by Sophie Leroy, describes the difficulty of maintaining focus when part of our attention remains on prior tasks. Jeremy Suisted writes about the impact this has on innovation. According to Suisted, “[…] our minds will default to pursuing the busy over the important. The result? When individuals meet to improve organisational innovation – they do so with the every-day tasks calling for their attention.”

Stop the squeeze: too little is just too little

Understandably, managers often embrace ideas, philosophies and approaches that offer cost-savings as a by-product, like scarcity as a driver of innovation and doing more with less.

Even though scarcity can and does spur innovation, we all need resources to be creative. Simple math just doesn’t apply here: removing four key resources will not quadruple creativity, however hard you hope.

According to a 2015 study, over 90% of Dutch companies recognise the importance of innovation, but only a third ever manage to reach their targets. And more than 90% put part of the blame on a lack of resources or priority within their company. Giving time for creativity and innovation is the critical resourcing issue here.

In a typical office setting, innovation often hinges on time. Even if creative ideas may appear to strike out of nowhere, transforming those ideas into innovative solutions requires both time and attention. This is where things often go wrong: many organisations have heaps of brilliant ideas that never seem to get the attention they deserve.

Don’t confuse creativity with productivity

Although it’s usually pointless to put a tight deadline on creativity and innovation, we still do. It may be tempting to disagree; many of us feel creative under pressure, churning things out against a deadline—after all, isn’t producing things all about creating them?

But it’s easy to confuse creativity with productivity.

According to Professor Teresa Amabile, “[…] people who are under a lot of time pressure on a given day, actually feel very productive, they tend to feel very creative. But, here’s the interesting thing; they were actually significantly less likely to come up with creative ideas, or solve problems creatively on those days.”

Producing and creating can be poles apart and involve completely different processes. Producing can follow a predetermined rhythm, often imposed by the necessities of timing. Creating happens when time is unfettered and flow can occur. So often time restrictions inhibit creativity: what could have been if we’d just had a bit more time.

Understand your team: we’re all just people

We all bring our private experiences to the work place, be it stress, relationship problems, health, personal ambition or financial woes. When we add in personality differences, navigating this powerful human cocktail of internal and external motivators, emotions and behaviours can become a full-time job in itself.

If domain knowledge is one of the key resources of creativity, the associated killers lie in ambush in two areas: roles and goals. We tend to take our roles quite seriously, and often don’t fully grasp the inhibiting effect job descriptions can have on behaviour. Simply put, a job description communicates how an organisation views a position. People whose job description does not include creativity in any form, may be less likely to engage in creative activities or be expected to do so by others. This is wasteful at best—many creative ideas come from unexpected places—and downright demotivating at worst.

Setting goals and expectations for each other or the individuals in your team is a delicate task, too: place them too high and you risk anxiety and panic which will inhibit or kill creative potential. Set them too low and boredom, disengagement or diffidence will be the result. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes challenge-skill balance as one of the crucial conditions of flow. Optimising flow is essential if you want creativity to flourish.

How to disarm creativity killers

The good news is there are ways to tackle and disarm these killers. By truly recognising the impact of creativity killers on individuals and by fostering a culture of co-creation, you can start unleashing the creative potential within your team.

Increasing diversity by blurring the boundaries between areas of expertise is a good place to start. Distractions like excessive email and inefficient meetings thrive in silos. Diversity is also essential for co-creation, and bringing together people with different skill sets helps address resource issues.

Workflow improvements are one way to approach this. Lean and Agile, for example, can help you get on the right track—and stay there with continuous improvement and by providing a flexible framework for checking in on understanding and progress.

But there’s no silver bullet. The approach that will work for you must fit your company’s specific circumstances, culture and needs. This is crucial. Successful change can only be created from within.

Addressing people-related blockers begins with a good look at the culture and the personal preferences that drive behaviours. Understanding the dynamics that inform who we are and why we behave the way we do is critical to enabling creative freedom and expression. Understanding also fosters trust and cooperation, so the impact can be felt much more broadly than on creativity alone.

So, how’s it going for you?

Creativity has been identified as one of the most important traits of successful leadership. It helps define a powerful and compelling vision, and in imagining new strategic directions, products and services and business models.

But understanding what can threaten creativity in others is equally important and a wonderful gift to share. Since the environment plays a big a role in creativity, start by asking yourself these questions:

  • How do you minimise distractions?
  • What might you do to better understand the creative needs of your people?
  • How do you ensure enough ideation and incubation time?

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