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Five Things the CEO Can Do to Encourage Creativity

IBM led a 2010 survey of 1,500 chief executive officers about businessy things and found that 60 percent of those surveyed cited creativity as the most crucial factor for future success. A similar survey in 2012 stated that "CEOs consistently highlight four personal characteristics most critical for employees’ future success: being collaborative, communicative, creative and flexible." As a result, one would expect to see businesses scrambling to hire more creative people and adopt more creative practices. However, I am not seeing much evidence of this happening. If anything, businesses seem to be demonstrating a reduced interest in creativity. There are two potential reasons for this.

Firstly, what people say they want in surveys often differs dramatically from what they demonstrate they want through their behavior; consider dieters who say they want to eat less fat and sugar. Secondly, those surveys were completed [five] and [three] years ago respectively. In this fast changing business environment, CEOs might have changed their minds and perhaps now feel that cleanliness and personal hygiene are the most important factors in employees. After all, who wants to work with someone who is smelly?

However, let us, you and I, be a little optimistic and assume that creative leaders and employees are crucial to at least a few corporate leaders—yourself for instance. What can CEOs do to foster creativity among their employees? Here are some suggestions.

One: Implement Ideas

If the CEO wants people to be creative, she needs to implement their viable ideas. Otherwise, employees will quickly work out that the creativity thing is a bit of a sham and will stop bothering to be creative. What's the point in taking precious time to develop and promote ideas if they will only be ignored? On the other hand, if novel ideas are tried out and implemented regularly, employees will be keen to build and propose ideas to your company.

What Can You Do? Lay down processes for developing, testing and implementing creative ideas.

Two: Avoid Stupid Metrics

Big businesses are tremendously complex entities that need to be profitable (or at least break even) to survive. Not surprisingly, then, business leaders rely on all kinds of metrics to work out how well their businesses are doing. This includes attempting to measure creativity, which is notoriously difficult to measure. The result is often measuring the wrong stuff in order to have numbers to put into reports and feed bar graphs in PowerPoint presentations.

The two numbers most commonly measured for corporate creativity are numbers of ideas and participation rates in innovation initiatives. These may be very nice numbers, but they are completely meaningless in terms of creativity. I know of businesses that use software to capture gazillions of ideas from large numbers of employees. Yet these companies are about as innovative as a frog. Others do not use such software, do not have innovation managers and only implement a few ideas. However, they really do implement ideas rather than capture them in a database and, as a result, these companies really are creative.

What Can You Do?: Do not count ideas. Really, don't do it. Measure the results of creativity, such as new products, improved existing products, better packaging, improved processes and how often your company gets positive write-ups in the press.

Three: Hire Creative People

Most companies claim they want to hire creative thinkers and those with entrepreneurial backgrounds (who are assumed to be rather creative). However, research shows that creative thinkers are generally disliked and entrepreneurs not only find it hard to get jobs, but when they do, they get lower pay than non-entrepreneurs.

If you go to any careers website and do a search on middle management level positions, you will see that organizations inevitably want to hire people with a degree and work experience in the relevant field of expertise. A marketing manager should have a business degree, an MBA and several years of experience in marketing in a similar company. This makes it likely the person hired will fit in and be very much like existing staff. But she is also unlikely to bring diversity of thinking to the job and, being very much like everyone else in the marketing department, she is unlikely to bring new thinking to the team.

Diversity feeds creativity while uniformity leads to conformity. If the CEO wants creative employees, she must ensure the company hires people with diverse backgrounds and creative minds, not people who fit a corporate mould.

Moreover, diversity should not be limited to experience and education. In the West, too many businesses are largely run by boards of middle-aged white men. Women, people from different cultures and people of different sexual orientations can bring new thinking and creativity to top management.

What Can You Do? Invest in a little training. Train your human resources team to understand, hire and encourage creative employees. Train managers to support rather than hinder creative employees. Encourage the posting of job adverts that encourage diversity of professional experience, personal experience, background and culture. Establish a policy of encouraging diversity in hiring.

Four: Participate in Creativity and Innovation Activities

In my anticonventional thinking (ACT) workshops and facilitated events in which the CEO (or president or managing director) participates, the results have been great! Organizers and participants of the event feel proud that the CEO is participating and this sends a powerful message that the CEO really cares about innovation. People who work with the CEO (my workshops inevitably involve putting people into small teams to apply ACT in practice) are inspired and have stories to tell.

Facilitators who run brainstorms often feel the opposite. They claim that when the CEO or other senior manager participates, it inhibits people who are shy about suggesting unusual ideas in front of corporate higher-ups. This is because brainstorming prohibits criticism of ideas and, as a result, the employee cannot know how the CEO will truly feel about her idea. So she takes the safe route and keeps her more outrageous ideas to her self. ACT embraces criticism. This means that an employee can feel safe questioning the CEO's ideas and, if the CEO criticizes her ideas, the employee can defend her thinking. The result is not a stiff situation in which ideas are suggested in front of an unspeaking boss, but an opportunity to really debate and discuss ideas. Moreover, the value of an employee debating ideas with the CEO cannot be overestimated.

What Can You Do? Where possible, actively participate in creativity and innovation activities. But check with the facilitator first. Some are not confident or comfortable working with groups that include a senior manager.

Five: Set Up Skunkworks

Skunkworks are independent, autonomous divisions in companies that are given the freedom to experiment with ideas. Typically, they have a budget and the ability to fast-track the implementation of ideas. They are expected to fail often in the hopes that they occasionally succeed brilliantly. In organizations that do not have a good culture of innovation, a skunkworks is probably the best way to kick-start innovation. Not long ago, I had dinner with a couple of guys in charge of the skunkworks of an African bank. The stuff they were doing was incredible—and would put banks in developed countries to shame. Moreover, they were getting far better results than they expected.

What Can You Do? Provide a budget and resources for a skunkworks, establish ground rules, put a team in charge and then just leave them be!

Do It

All five of these actions are relatively simple to put in place, especially for a CEO. However, it will require some time before results come rolling in. A policy of hiring diverse employees requires that said potential employees are found, hired, trained and given an opportunity to start working. Eventually, they will start having provocative conversations which will lead to ideas. Those ideas will be developed, tested and implemented (provided the CEO applies the first recommendation above). But it will not happen overnight. It will take time. Nevertheless, if a CEO applies these five recommendations, she can be sure of a more creative workforce and more innovative company within a year.

Thanks to Jeffrey Baumgartner for this guest blog post! Jeffrey is the author of the books, Anticonventional Thinking: The Creative Alternative to Brainstorming and The Way of the Innovation Master as well as Report 103, the Internet's longest running newsletter-blog on business innovation. This article originally appeared in Report 103 and is reprinted with permission.

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