Creativity is a Precursor to Innovation

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“person holding brown pencil” by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash

It’s tempting to dismiss creativity as something reserved for artists or view it entirely through the lens of painting, music, books, etc. But this is a limited view of creativity that kills curiosity and prevents innovation.

For full self-expression to take place at an organizational level, it must be encouraged at the individual level.

1. Expressing Your Creativity Increases Your Productivity

In economics, there’s a concept known as positive externalities. Positive externalities are an unexpected benefit from a particular action. For example, I recently joined a CrossFit gym. Some of the positive externalities include:

  • Meeting new people
  • Alleviated symptoms of depression
  • Better sleep

None of those were the primary outcome you expect from joining a gym. Expressing your creativity on a regular basis leads to many positive externalities in the workplace:

  • Focus: In a world where thousands of things compete for your attention, the ability to focus on a cognitively demanding task for an extended period, also known as deep work, is essential to innovation. A creative habit increases your attention span and improves your ability to focus.
  • Flow: According to Steven Kotler, top executives in flow experience a 500% increase in productivity and all aspects of performance (creativity, innovation, etc.) go through the roof. But this only happens with the right conditions. It’s not going to take place when you’re checking email a hundred times a day or going from one seemingly pointless meeting to another. “Flow follows focus, the state can only show up when your attention is in the here and now,” says Kotler. One of the easiest ways for any organization or individual to create more flow is to express their creativity.
  • Habits: When a person is in the habit of expressing their creativity on a regular basis, this keystone habit causes a ripple effect on other areas of their life and work. For example, because of my daily writing habit, I’ve read more books in the last year than I probably did the previous decade of my life. Just because you can’t predict the potential output of a creative practice that doesn’t mean an individual or organization should abandon it.

The combination of focus, flow, and consistent creative habits give organizations and individuals an opportunity to plant seeds for innovative products and services. In the summer of 2013, I started a seemingly pointless project of teaching myself how to draw for 30 days. While my drawing skills didn’t improve dramatically, the project played a critical role in developing the visual voice of the Unmistakable Creative. It allowed me to see how I could work with other creative collaborators to bring an idea to life.

2. Increases in Happiness

“Waiting to be happy limits our brain’s potential for success, whereas cultivating positive brains makes us more motivated, efficient, resilient, creative, and productive, which drives performance upward.” — Shawn Achor

A happier workforce is a more engaged workforce. A creative habit gives a person many benefits that improve happiness.

Meaning, purpose, autonomy

Creativity allows people to find meaning, purpose, and autonomy in their work. When an employee has work that encourages them to express their creativity, they’re given autonomy. If their work contributes to an organization in a meaningful way, they feel a sense of purpose. When that work gives them an opportunity to improve at something, it eventually leads to mastery. A regular habit of creative self expression allows people to have autonomy because they’re working on something they control, purpose because it’s something they care about, and mastery because it gives them an opportunity to improve at something.

Visible progress

In a research study conducted by Harvard Professor Teresa Amibile and her colleagues, participants were asked to keep a journal about their work life. The days which participants rated as the most fulfilling were the ones on which they made meaningful progress with their work.

The most significant source of motivation for any individual or organization is visible progress. The simple act of creating something every day results in visible progress which results in a virtuous cycle of action, progress, and motivation.

For example, say an employee assigned the task of building a new product or service. Each day the employee works on this project, they see progress because something that starts as an idea becomes a reality. They see the direct impact of the work they’re doing. As a writer, this is something I’ve seen happen with the manuscripts for my books. When what started as a blank google doc is 50 pages, my motivation to keep working skyrockets.

Without an opportunity for self-expression, the true potential, or zone of genius of any individual will always be unrealized, undiscovered, or worse, completely ignored. But when the opportunity for self-expression is encouraged, recognized, and rewarded people are not only much happier but as a result more likely to reach their full potential. There’s far more to every individual than can be expressed through a job title or bullet points in a job description. When an organization forces individuals to stick job description only, they stifle the potential of the individual and the organization.

3. Creating the Right Conditions for Innovation

Creating the right conditions for innovation isn’t about fancy offices, catered lunches, over-the-top perks and attempting to build a Googleplex. The conditions for innovation start with encouraging curiosity.

Ask people what they want to learn about

One of my favorite movies of all time is Accepted. The main character doesn’t get into college, so he makes one up. After falsifying an admissions letter, creating a fake website, and leasing a building for his phony college, hundreds of other students unexpectedly enroll and pay tuition. With no idea what to do, he asks the students what they want to learn about. It’s a brave experiment that has yet to take place at a University. But it’s one any organization could potentially benefit from.

Companies like Pixar allow employees to take 4 hours of week in classes in anything, not just subjects related to their job. It’s been said that creativity is connecting dots. But to connect dots you have to collect them. And the way to collect them is to expose individuals to a wide variety of ideas.

Give people time

Google’s 20 percent time policy, which gave employees 20 percent of their time to work on projects not related to their primary job, has led to countless product innovations that have produced millions of dollars in revenue. Products like Gmail and Google news were the result of this policy. But if people had been told “you can work on what you want as long as we know how it’s going to impact our bottom line” it’s likely all that innovation would have been stifled.

The volume of a person’s output determines the quality of their output. It’s unrealistic to expect innovation from organizations and individuals without a high volume of ideas. A regular habit of creative self-expression inevitably leads to an increased volume of ideas, which in turn leads to increases in innovation. If people were given nothing more than an hour a day to express their creativity, they would accomplish remarkable things.

Don’t assume that something which appears solely beneficial to an individual won’t be advantageous to the organization. I’ve received a world-class education in human behavior, psychology, relationships, productivity and much more from my work at The Unmistakable Creative. These are skills that would be invaluable in any working environment. What an employee creates for an audience of one might help an organization reach an audience of millions.

Show and tell: Give employees and individuals an audience for their work. Let them showcase the things they’re working on. At startup incubators, companies participate in a “demo day” where they showcase their products to potential investors. But this doesn’t have to be limited to startup incubators. By giving individuals and opportunity to showcase what they’ve been working on, organizations are more likely to encourage creativity and innovation.

This gives them an opportunity to solicit feedback and iterate.

As long as people see their jobs as a place where creativity is stifled, then they’ll always see their role as a necessary evil to help them “escape the rat race.” But when they are given an opportunity to express their creativity in the workplace, they become happier, more productive, and more engaged in what they’re doing.

Creative self expression is beneficial to both the individual and the organization. It is a precursor to innovation. It’s something every organization should not only encourage, but prioritize if it intends to get the best work out of its employees. To put it simply, if you want your organization to innovate, encourage your employees to create.

Gain an Unfair Creative Advantage

I’ve created a swipe file of my best creative strategies. Follow it and you’ll kill your endless distractions, do more of what matters to you, in higher quality and less time. Get the swipe file here.

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