Ruth Penfold-Brown


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Creativity is the single biggest thing that will give your business longevity. The challenge is that it is also the thing that’s the hardest (but not impossible) to enable. In this article, I’m going to share with you some ideas on how I think we can make it happen. 

But, why is creativity so hard to enable? (I hear you cry)

Simply because it is something that is hard for humans to do, even though it is something we are all born with. Children have no worries innovating and coming up with new games and ideas, but then something happens; perhaps we get something wrong and get in trouble, perhaps some teases us for something, and we learn (or decide) that it is not safe to be creative. Instead we double down on our perfectionism, in the hope of never feeling that pain again. 

The brain is really responsible for our inability to be creative. Its job is to keep us safe. By holding back ideas and presenting legit reasons for doing so, the brain is really just doing its job. 

It’s up to companies to realise this and support their humans to undertake their own creative recovery. Why? 

It’s simple. Falling in love with solving problems and constantly looking for exciting new solutions will mean that we create a healthier, more flexible mindset around challenges that come up at work, as well as finding new ways for the company to grow also. 

So if we can see how important creativity might be to our businesses, how can we make sure that we support people to become creative again?

The ways we unconsciously kill creativity

How many of us have felt like we aren’t creative? I am definitely one of those people. For a lot of us, that shift happens in school and then we live our lives thinking we aren’t creative people. When actually, we all are. 

We have a tendency to focus on the challenge that is causing us the most pain first, vs the one that might end up being the most impactful. When something takes our focus, if we can’t see further than the thing that’s causing us pain, then we lose the ability to step back and focus on the things that might create more impact. 

Creativity diminishes when we fail to have a diverse team. Diversity brings a wealth of different perspectives, but only if the environment feels safe enough for us to let those perspectives out. It’s essential to not only craft a diverse team, but also craft a culture that lets all of those different humans be the fullest expression of themselves. 

There’s nothing that squishes creativity faster than someone telling us; ‘that’s not going to work’ or ‘that’s a bad idea’. There should be no bad ideas.. I encourage instead acting in the spirit of critical friendship, which means using ‘yes, and’ where you might have used, ‘no, but’.

How we can rebuild creativity
  1. We can rebuild creativity where we intentionally build an environment that rewards learning (or ‘failing because we tried something’) as much as achievement. Within your team, work hard to remove the fallacy of a right or wrong answer. 
  2. We can become intentional about gaining diverse perspectives from across our teams in the way we structure meetings. Are we creating a culture we folx feel able to share their ideas freely?
  3. We can also set aside time for teams to come together to discuss new ideas, time with no real output. Are we rewarding folx for the amount of time they dedicate to thinking and to ideating? 

Example: A big part of the way we were able to flesh out our product roadmap at Shazam came from ‘hack’ time. Like many tech companies, we would allow a certain amount of the team’s time to work on something that they were inspired to hack – essentially find a solution to a problem – relating to Shazam, but not relating to their current role necessarily. Cross functional teams would often work together on different ideas. We would then host demo days where the teams demonstrated their ideas or hacks, and we voted for a winner. We had a TV show called Beat Shazam in the US and the quiz folks played alongside that was the result of hack time. 

  1. We can find more opportunities for ‘we’ not ‘me’. See where you can start to shift self-interest to collective interest. 

Example: Many teams aren’t used to sharing their work beyond their immediate team – my former People team was stuck in this trap. When we first started sharing our challenges openly at our daily company-wide standups it felt exposing and a little horrifying for many of them. Once we did and got over it, we soon realised the value gained was that other people had great ideas for how we might address our challenges – a little team creative thinking – and that by them knowing what we were working on, they became more sympathetic to things that were taking longer to deliver. 

  1. We can make sure that we are asking ourselves if we, as leaders, are operating in a way that supports innovation. Do we innovate personally and are we leading by example?

Tl; dr

Many of us struggle with creativity, but given it’s a human problem, there’s a very human solution. To intentionally design for creativity, we have to make sure we have a culture that celebrates failing and learning, where all voices feel safe to contribute, where we find every opportunity we can to unite the team, and we allow plenty of space for time to think and ideate. 

All of that fails if we, as leaders, aren’t leading from the front on it, and embracing creativity in our own lives.

About the Author

I help Founders and People leaders to build and scale purposeful businesses, whilst scaling themselves at the same time.

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