How to address the creativity gap in your organisation

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Don’t you find early December a strange time of the year in the workplace? There’s that sense in the air of wrapping up the old year’s activities ahead of Christmas madness around the corner. A tendency for reflection to begin about what a brand new year will hold. That ‘new year, new me’ mentality we latch onto as individuals often carries through to the collective mentality of the businesses we work in. With the ink still wet on next year’s business or marketing plans, the immediate future presents itself with new thinking, clarity and possibility.

For 2020, there is one skill above all others that vitalises individuals and the organisations they work for: creativity. So much so that Linked In’s 2019 Workplace Learning Report revealed that creativity is now the single most in-demand skill for companies to cultivate in their employees. This isn’t only the preserve of businesses that produce creative output. The ability to use imagination or original thinking to approach problems differently, stay one step ahead and avoid irrelevance is at the heart of what makes a thriving workforce and successful business, irrespective of what sector you might be in.

But prioritising a skill like creative thinking as part of your learning agenda may take a shift in organisational mindset. Here are a few considerations to help shape your own approach:

1. Businesses increasingly need soft skills alongside discipline-specific hard skills.

It’s common practice to scope learning and development needs by looking at departmental skills gaps and role-specific competencies. While it’s essential to make sure that your team’s specialist knowledge is up to date, the World Economic Forum estimates that 35% of those skills are likely to have changed within the next 5 years. It’s perhaps no surprise that soft skills have become increasingly important as a way to equip businesses to adapt to the rapid pace of change.

I’m not a fan of the term ‘soft skills’. It suggests a vagueness that belies the central role they play in today’s business world, making them easier to de-prioritise. Sharon Alred, co-founder and director at Signature Recruitment, agrees: “The term ‘soft skills’ typically covers creativity, interpersonal skills, problem solving, time management, decision making, flexibility and attitude. They are perceived to be ambiguous and tricky to measure, so often get neglected, not only at the hiring stage but also when companies develop their staff, which is unfortunate as these are the skills that enable companies to grow.”

Just as the most effective content marketing strategies will balance a mix of time-relevant and evergreen content, companies for whom effective people are their competitive advantage will want to invest in building time-relevant and evergreen skills into their business.

2. The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting

So said Plutarch. But so much training is geared towards filling the brain with knowledge, not how to free it up to think. According to Daniel Pink, author of best-selling book Drive, ‘For the definitional tasks of the twenty-first century [...] solving complex problems requires an inquiring mind and the willingness to experiment one’s way to a fresh solution’.

3. Creativity has jumped up the rankings of in-demand skills for business success

Surely the ability to think creatively has never fallen out of fashion? Back in 2015 the World Economic Forum ranked creativity 10th on a list of skills workforces needed to thrive. It now ranks it as 3rd, behind problem-solving and critical thinking (which I’d argue creativity was an essential component of anyway).

So why is creativity back on the learning agenda? Perhaps, in the words of Joni Mitchell, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’. Critics of our education system would suggest business is now experiencing the impact of a generation of pupils schooled in how to pass exams and not necessarily how to think on their feet or learn from failure. Others like Orlando Wood, chief innovation officer at System 1, writing for a recent IPA report, suggest that we are living through an era of left-brain thinking rather than whole-brain thinking, and this brings a tendency to over-analyse, narrow the field of solutions and undermine creativity, with reduced effectiveness the inevitable result.

4. Most businesses are not yet meeting the need for creativity.

Earlier this year Dentsu Aegis undertook a global survey of Chief Marketing Officers to understand how they felt about unlocking innovation and business transformation. The survey revealed that 85% of CMOs believed that creativity was the number one capability required for future business success. But only 54% of them believed they were actually delivering on this capability.

Here’s Sharon Alred again: “Creative problem solving coupled with communication skills to be able to articulate, pitch, create buy in and implement solutions and ideas is lacking in many workplaces. In my experience, those that have understood its importance are usually more successful.”

5. It’s more important than ever to demonstrate business impact.

Budgets are tight. Training budgets even more so. So making the case for learning and development investment becomes easier when there is a clear business case. A 2018 UK L&D Benchmarking Survey by findcourses.co.uk advises: ‘If you are looking to prove ROI, move beyond your learning objectives and envision how your organisation would be a better place because of the training. What behaviours would your learners adopt with their new knowledge and skills and what are some business outcomes that could result from those changes?’

Luckily, there is plenty of evidence for the positive impact of greater creativity on the bottom line. Not least from McKinsey, which found that companies in the top quarter of their ACS creativity score ranking performed better on financial metrics (organic revenue growth, shareholder return and EBITDA) and on innovation. Crucially, when McKinsey dug deeper into what business practices drove this, they concluded that creativity and innovation had been hardwired into those businesses’ daily practices. They had committed to creativity as a business priority at all levels of the organisation.

6. The onus for learning should be on the organisation as much as the individual.

One of the mistakes I’ve seen organisations make is to place the onus for learning entirely on the individual. That’s not to say self-directed learning isn’t crucial. But to focus only on that overlooks the vital role of the organisation in creating the conditions for motivation and setting the context for learning. After all, the 70:20:10 guideline for experiential, social and structured learning suggests the most effective training happens on the job where it is directly connected to performance and business outputs rather than learning outputs alone. So it makes sense to pay attention to getting the context and conditions for experiential learning right.

Here’s Daniel Pink again: ‘Only engagement can produce mastery. Yet in our offices and our classrooms we have way too much compliance and way too little engagement. The former might get you through the day, but only the latter will get you through the night. Autonomous people working towards mastery perform at very high levels. But those who do so in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more’.

Engagement and innovation are linked for obvious reasons. Genuine engagement comes from believing the connection between company purpose and the role individuals feel they can play. This in turn means innovation and creativity is focussed on adding value and driving growth.

Katie Scotland of Future Me Consulting agrees: “People need to be clear on where they are going in order to feel happy and motivated. Investing the time to think creatively and holistically around personal development goals, beyond role-specific and technical performance objectives, will unlock new energy and impact. Investing the time to set out a meaningful set of goals is a great way to start the new year and kick off a new purposeful challenge with a bang.”

7. Creating the conditions for creativity can be a development goal in its own right.

If the role of companies in fostering creativity is clear, there is also considerable academic consensus around what conditions need to be present in those companies for creativity to flourish. At Firehaus we like to use the Innovation Engine model developed by Dr Tina Seelig at Stanford University, which sets out how creativity in the workplace is a culmination of internal factors (your knowledge, imagination and attitude) and external factors (the resources, environment and culture of your organisation). Crucially, each internal element has a corresponding external element which can either hamper or unlock it.

Here’s Louise Breed, director of Karian and Box, employee engagement experts: “Many of our big corporate clients are tackling the challenge of nurturing innovation and creativity within what have historically been compliance-driven and heavily-bureaucratic operational environments. But that doesn’t happen just by sending someone on a training course. Providing the organisational infrastructure to drive innovation and creative thinking at every level is critical. Whether that’s through rewards and incentives, or supporting line managers to encourage creativity in local team conversations, it’s got to be something that’s reinforced and supported at every possible employee touchpoint.”

It would be a mistake, for businesses wanting to cultivate creativity for competitive advantage, to focus on learning and development areas which only address knowledge gaps rather than unlocking imagination and attitude. And a missed opportunity not to look at how external influences within the business could best be enhanced to support that.

Beth Pope, founder and brand partner, Firehaus

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