Cultivating a creative workforce

2014

We all want to work in a gratifying and stimulating environment – one that brings out the best in us and our colleagues. But how do you cultivate such a work environment? The place to start is by building a creative workforce.

Why? Because creativity spawns interest and excitement among staff members. It leads to compelling product and service offerings. It serves to differentiate firms from their competition. So let's explore how to get it started.

Creativity has two components – consumption and production. Creative inspiration comes from consumption. One must consume creative things in order to produce creative things. It is how diverse ideas and styles are borrowed, blended and reapplied to create something fresh, new and bold.

The most creative, productive output is pure. Zen-like, it comes from the right view, right intention and right action. We create to contribute, educate, entertain and inspire. Creativity should not be hurtful, painful or damaging.

Building a creative workforce requires an understanding of this consumer/producer dynamic. With it understood, success comes with the delicate balancing of these apparent opposites.

Managing Consumption/Production Dynamics
The consumption part of the equation comes just by taking the time to observe. We are exposed to a whole host of original ideas and artifacts. Object d'art are all around us to consume – from a painter's masterworks, to musical masterpieces, from innovative packaging concepts to over-the-top TV advertisements. So much is there to consume that we can become overwhelmed and grow immune to all the creativity that surrounds us.

The truth is exposure to anything that we find unusual or provocative can be viewed as a form of creativity to consume. Consequently the best way to consume is to read, watch, observe, listen and play. The best part of that the consumption does not have to be deliberate or purposeful to have an effect on how we think and behave. We can be opportunistic and intentional or relaxed and meandering in our consumption and it will still be of consequence in our creative production.

An organization can promote deliberate consumption by, among others, supporting the arts, hosting community programs, holding "lunch and learns" and sponsoring book clubs all aimed at engaging staff to participate. An enterprise can encourage that by regularly emphasizing the importance of the arts and awareness of how it can be influential in improving the way work is done.

Management teams often find the production element of creativity a bit more daunting to establish within an organization. As the bible suggests, "there is nothing new under the sun." Indeed, the concept of producing something that is wholly new and never before seen may not be truly possible. Rather, creativity comes by way of extending existing constructs. For example, African drumming informs modern Jazz, the Blues informs Rock and Roll and the Internet is born through the emergence of computing and the evolution of network communication capabilities.

Radical departures from existing constructs also contribute to creative production. However, even radical departures from the status quo find their roots in something that existed before. Consider even Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, as radical as it was at the time, was based on Newton's work from two centuries earlier.

Whether evolutionary or radical, creative churn harvests tremendous pieces of art, literature and music as well as innovative products, provocative business paradigms and avant garde management models. The trick is in the ways that organizations institute creative thought and development.

Instituting Creativity
The best way to get the "creativity culture" started within an organization is by making it a corporate program. The Creativity Program should encompass a set of projects targeting specific changes aimed at retooling the culture. Projects related to community outreach/sponsorship, "lunch and learns," book clubs, culture committee and other arts awareness initiatives must be included within the Creativity Program.

But, these are only part of the story. Initiatives intended to harvest changes in management practices, policies and the ways in which work is organized (and, in the way problem-solving, in general, are approached) are important elements of a solid Creativity Program.

Consider a policy change as simple as requiring the formation of multi-discipline SWAT teams to solve complex functional-level problems. In such a work environment, for example, a product engineering department that has exhausted all of its approaches to reducing the cost of production problem confronting the Company can be assisted by a cross-functional SWAT team comprised of product engineering, manufacturing, IT, finance and marketing personnel.

This combination of skills and background can bring unlimited possibilities to the solution from opportunities for additional capital investment to reapplication of existing software to shop floor workflow improvements because the SWAT team participants come to their problem-solving assignment from completely different business backgrounds, working styles and expertise. This amalgam of talent brings a diversity in thought that can spawn very creative solutions to the business problem.

The fact is, this is a surprisingly effective way to cultivate a work environment that promotes the sharing of creative thoughts and actions. Cross-discipline work exposes participants to new thought models and problem solving paradigms, often leading to creative outcomes that would not have been recognized otherwise.

Formalizing the Program
By definition, a business program is ongoing in nature and is comprised of a series of specific projects that are staffed and funded at various points in time in order to deliver value to the organization. To ensure that a business program has staying power, it is important to fully document the projects that comprise it.

Each project within the Creativity Program, for example, should include a project brief which contains important information, including, a project name, description, objectives, a list of work products to be produced, resource estimates and a project timeline. These briefs can be simple and to the point, as long as they adequately describe the intention of the initiative. See the sample project brief below, for an example:

Project Name: Culture Committee

Description: This project is intended to establish a Culture Committee comprised of a small cross-section of staff members that will be charged with planning and hosting a regularly scheduled set of cultural activities throughout the year. These cultural activities are meant to expose staff to new cultural experiences so to enhance their ability to explore different ways of thinking and doing.

Objectives:

  • To enhance workforce creativity and problem solving through regular exposure to the arts;
  • To improve business performance through enhanced creativity;
  • To engage staff in the process of creativity consumption;
  • To extend Corporate goodwill and stature through more active involvement in the arts; and,
  • To be an employer of choice in the community through the cultivation of a creative work environment.

Work Products:

  • Culture Committee Charter
  • Committee Membership List
  • Committee Operating Procedures
  • Committee Meeting Schedule
  • Culture Committee Annual Budget Forecast
  • Year One Events Calendar

Resource Estimate: A Cross-functional team of 6 – 8 members for 1 -2 /days per week for six weeks

Project Timeline: 1 April to 15 May

To round out the program plan be sure that a project brief is developed for each initiative and that the projects are plotted on a program timeline. It is not unusual for the initial Creativity Program plan to span several years. Once established, the Creativity Program should be maintained and adjusted forever more – stated another way, organizations that make creativity a priority should designate a member of the senior management team to oversee the administration of the Creativity Program.

It is by gaining a better understanding of the consumer / producer dynamic elements of creativity that an organization can begin to establish focus on, and become passionate about, designing creativity into the workplace. Once this dynamic is better understood, the work of establishing a creative workforce can be done deliberately thorough a well designed Creativity Program.

By getting creativity onto the Radar Screen, and by making it a priority, an enterprise can establish a satisfying work environment – one that inspires and motivates exceptional performance from management and staff, alike.

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About The Author

James M. Kerr
James M. Kerr

James M. Kerr is the Global Chair of the Culture Transformation Practice at N2Growth and the author of The Executive Checklist. A specialist in organizational design and cultural transformation, he has been helping clients re-imagine the way work is organized and performed for more than 25 years. Kerr’s next book is due out later in 2016 and focuses on leadership and strategy-setting.