Creativity at Work

"People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night."— Daryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, commenting on television in 1946.

The need for creativity is changing how the workplace is organized and what people do. These changes center on the use and interpretation of information: the basis for ideas. A company's future depends upon how well it acquires, interprets, and acts upon information. Today the spread of information technologies—including computers and data bases—is bringing about a sea of change in the business world.

Yet how workers interpret that information is as important as the information itself. Interpretation is, in fact, a creative act. But the degree of creativity is influenced by our feelings: our belief that we can speak without fear of retribution, our feeling of being trusted by others, a confidence in our own intuition. All effect how we respond to the information before us.

There are many ways in which the creative spirit can find expression in the workplace: innovations in management, improvements in distribution methods, or new ideas for financing a business. Creative ideas can also be used to strengthen the organization itself by increasing the initiative of workers. One such innovation is the elimination of restrictive job descriptions that put workers in "boxes" and limit their performance. Another idea is to share all financial information with all of the employees. Elimination of traditional corporate secrets helps workers to understand the larger reality of the business and encourages them to generate ideas of their own to reduce costs and increase revenues.

Since creative problem-solving requires the psychological commitment of the whole person, the modern workplace must undergo vital changes. From the efforts of pioneering companies around the world, a set of key ideas are emerging that can change the psychology of the workplace.

  • Small is better: Size affects creativity in the workplace. Bigness by its very nature appears antithetical to the effective expression of an individual's ideas. The best unit for creative work seems to be at the scale of the extended family, where people can get to know one another.

This suggests that large corporations be broken into smaller, semiautonomous units. An advocate of this approach is Jim Collins, a lecturer at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. "As our society has evolved from small organizations to large ones," he says, "it has stifled innovation. Of course, there are economies in doing things on a mass scale. But you lose one thing: that creative tip. Massiveness breeds conformity."

  • Climbing together: A close-knit team, drawing on the particular strengths and skills of each member of the group, may be smarter and more effective than any individual member of that group. Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg calls it "group IQ"—the sum total of all the talents of each person in the group. When a team is harmonious, the group IQ is highest. That places a premium on a leader who can create a smoothly working team: a leader who knows the virtues of sharing, trust, and encouragement.

The value of collaboration is a hard lesson to learn in cultures like ours, where the trailblazing lone hero has long been idolized, and where the goals of the individual are so often placed over those of the group. But even those working alone can learn the advantages of teamwork.

  • Vanquishing negativity: Apart from the structure of a company, the attitudes that pervade its operations can enhance or thwart creativity. One of the keys is building feelings of trust and respect to the point that people feel secure enough to express new ideas without fear of censure. This is because in the marketplace, imaginative thoughts have financial value. But an unimaginative, unreceptive attitude destroys opportunity. Someone who judges your imaginative thoughts, who refuses to listen to a new way of thinking or simply criticizes it, is a creativity killer of the first order. Cynicism and negativity are enemies of the creative spirit.

  • Valuing intuition: The capacity for making intuitive decisions is a basic ingredient of creativity. Intuition is trusting the vision of the unconscious, letting go of the self-conscious control of the thinking mind. It is so often opposed in the workplace because it can't be measured or quantified or rationally justified. But it has the ring of truth because it is grounded in the ability of the unconscious to organize information into unanticipated new ideas.

Operating a business in the global arena demands innovative ways of understanding and responding to the needs of people. Business people who know how to listen to their customers rather than just study figures and statistics will have a splendid future, and those who are able to draw on their intuition will emerge as natural leaders in this new business environment.

Many workers are no longer in search of a job that is simply a source of wealth, status, and power, but rather one that—apart from assuring a decent living—offers a sense of meaning and a platform for individual creativity. Production as an end itself satisfies neither of those desires.

But there is a growing gap between what many businesses see as their purpose and what more and more people want in their work. The larger that gap, the more alienated people feel from their work and the less of their creative energy is available. If a business fails to change the environment for its workers, it may find it difficult to get or keep the best people.

Anita Roddick, founder and president of the Body Shop International, puts it this way: "I don't want our success to be measured only by financial yardsticks. What I want to be celebrated for is how good we are to our employees and our community. It's a different bottom line."

Source: From the Creative Spirit, by Daniel Golemen, Paul Kaufman, and Michael Ray, copyright (c) 1992 (Dutton).

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