Creativity comes in many shapes and sizes. That’s true for individuals AND organizations. But individual creativity can exist without an organization.
The reverse is not true.
Organizations are not inherently creative. They rely on individuals for original ideas. In fact, “organizational creativity” is almost an oxymoron.
I said almost.
While organizations are not creative per se, they set a stage. They provide the environment (culture and blueprints) that either enable or stifle it. I’ll dive into culture in a separate post. Here I’ll focus on a basic motivational blueprint: Teresa Amabile’s Componential Theory of Creativity.
Componential Theory of Creativity
According to Amabile’s model, creativity relies on both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Intrinsic refers to drivers inside each of us. These are the circles in the Venn diagram. (See figure.) Extrinsic refers to external motivators such as company policies, recognition, and the environment. These are part of the background for the diagram.
Amabile identified three intrinsic motivators that seem to overlap Dan Pink’s motivational model of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The top circle contains domain-relevant skills. These relate to an area of expertise—or mastery. The left circle contains task motivation— what a person enjoys doing. That’s close to purpose. And the right circle contains the processes individuals use to generate insights and inventiveness. While autonomy is not a process per se, its presence increases the likelihood of creativity. Creativity is strongest at the intersection of the three intrinsic motivators.
Here are a few things managers can do within each of the areas to improve organizational creativity.
Help employees build skills in an area of expertise (mastery)
The domain-relevant skills (top circle) relate to a specific field. They may be in engineering, medical technology, computer coding, industry awareness, art, music, or a host of other disciplines. These proficiencies provide the raw materials an individual can draw on in the creative process. That, in turn, raises organizational creativity.
Remember, people in different domains exhibit dissimilar creativity. The following abstract of the “Domain Specificity of Creativity,” explains this:
“Creativity has commonly been thought of either as a set of domain-general skills that can be applied broadly like a special kind of intelligence or as a general personality trait that colors a person’s approach to any kind of task or problem; but these ways of thinking about creativity are misleading. A better metaphor for creativity than either intelligence or a personality trait is expertise.
Research over the past two decades has shown that the cognitive skills underlying creativity in diverse domains vary widely. Some people evidence creativity in many domains, of course (and many show little creativity in any domain), but this is not because of some underlying creativity-relevant cognitive skill, personality trait, motivation, or attitude that can be deployed across domains, but rather because of a variety of such skills, traits, motivations, and attitudes, each contributing to creativity in different domains.”
This means employers should look beyond “general” creative traits in their hiring. They should assess candidates’ creativity within their respective domains. Engineers may need to labor over details for creativity to emerge, whereas an artist may rely more on “inspiration.”
Managers should hire people with high creative potential in their domains. People have an innate need to improve their skills. Success in doing so is self-motivational. Managers can nudge people toward mastery through sponsored internal training or educational reimbursements.
Boost employee task motivation (purpose)
Task motivation (left circle) is the willingness to undertake a task because it is involving, interesting, or challenging. If it’s related to one’s creative passion, it will be an intrinsic motivator. Passion generates sustained enthusiasm.
But just because employees have the skill to perform a task doesn’t mean they find it enjoyable or engaging. Managers have a couple of options here. One is to reassign tasks based on inherent interest levels. Perhaps the skilled employee can train someone who has the inherent desire but doesn‘t have mastery. However, this isn’t always possible or effective.
In that case, managers could help employees see the big picture, imbuing the task with meaningful purpose. People become disengaged when they don’t see how their efforts connect to something of value. It’s important for them to understand why they are doing what they’re doing. Simon Sinek explains this point in Start with Why
Managers should determine what employees are passionate about. Figure out what makes employees tick. Don’t assume a one-size-fits-all approach to motivation will work. Determine how to align employee goals with company mission and values. Link the tasks they perform to a firm’s purpose, to why it exists.
Reinforce processes linked to creativity (autonomy)
Creativity-relevant processes (final circle) include a host of tangible and intangible factors conducive to imagination, inspiration, and inventiveness. They include the methods and mindsets people use to analyze problems and generate solutions. I’ve described many of these in my Nine-Part Creativity Series.
Again, creativity is not the same for everyone. Different approaches to creative thinking are valid and situation-specific. Don’t teach or enforce generic creativity approaches that could cause frustration. When providing creative thinking advice or training, encourage autonomy in its application.
Autonomy means giving people more control over what they work on and when. Allow them to take part in setting their own goals.
Grant as much autonomy as possible for creative efforts. Permit employees to spend some of their paid time tinkering and exploring pet projects. The result can be small wins, where progress is “felt” every day. Celebrate these wins. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer argue in The Progress Principle that the best way to motivate people—the best way to ignite creativity—is by facilitating progress.
Google allows employees to work on whatever they want (as long as it benefits Google) for up to 20% of their time on the job. While the number of people taking advantage of this “policy” is believed to be small, it can still spur innovation.
3M’s 15% culture of innovation is like Google’s policy. The goal is to cultivate innovative ideas in employees. Since most of the ideas require collaboration, this is a springboard for new products and services benefiting the company.
Organizational Creativity: Final Thoughts
Businesses, non-profits, institutions and governmental agencies could all benefit from improving their organizational creativity. The blueprint described here is a starting point.
- Ensure staff members have mastery of the domain-relevant skills so creative ideas are both inspiring and doable.
- Inspire passion by explaining why and how tasks link to a higher purpose.
- Allow as much autonomy as possible to spur tinkering that results in ongoing small wins and progress.