A renowned business strategist and recent recipient of the “Future Thinker” Award from Thinkers 50, Nilofer Merchant is on a mission to reinvent the way they work, including dispelling the myths around creativity in the workplace.
In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Nilofer implores employers to start looking for creative solutions within their organizations, before going outside of it. Why? Because your existing employees, she argues, have all the creativity you need.
To generate this type of creativity though requires change from the top. Leaders need to think outside the box, and shift how they define a project — from who should contribute and how, to determining the end goal and opening it up to all to find the best solution.
One company that Nilofer worked at was afraid this way of thinking would end in chaos, but, as their innovation consultant, she managed to convince them otherwise. They had a windfall of $2 million, and instead of just evenly distributing it project by project or department by department as they usually would, she suggested that they present the opportunity to all employees and ask how they feel that money would best be spent. They still set parameters but they focused on being inclusive instead of exclusive.
Nilofer sent a company-wide email to explain the opportunity and outline the three things they need from everybody:
- People were requested to form teams. Collaboration enhances innovation, writes Nilofer. This also prevented the leadership team from having to sift through many of the same ideas, instead like-minded people could work together — no matter their department or role. This also encouraged employees to work with those outside of their regular teams and routines.
- Teams were requested to put a plan together, outline the goal (grow revenue, cut costs, etc.), and scale the project.
- Lastly, they had to explain why their idea mattered to the company.
From this process, management learned that creativity can come from the most unexpected places. One employee in market research suggested they re-imagine the cafeteria service by flipping the design so that healthy foods could be presented before less healthy ones. At first worried about the margins — pasta is cheap, while fresh fruit can be pricey and perishable — they quickly saw an improvement in their staff’s eating habits without seeing too high of an increase in cost.
To help leaders shift their mindset about creativity in the workplace, Nilofer dispelled three myths about creativity:
Myth #1: Not everyone can be creative.
Many think creativity requires deep expertise or that you have to hire the “right” people. This filters out all the people whose fresh perspectives — which only they own — are needed and limits the scope of results. Break the barriers of roles, credentials, and qualifications by asking everyone, “What would you like to change for the better?”
Myth #2: Process kills creativity.
Many see process as limiting creativity. This is only true if your process is broken. A good process can serve as guardrails to clarify goals (timeline, resources available, and desired outcomes) yet leave the “how” open. The capacity to direct one’s own work enables teams to share responsibility, self-organize, generate ideas, and collaborate.
Myth #3: Pay drives creativity.
Many have long thought that we need to financially reward creativity to get more of it. Money, while necessary, motivates neither the best people, nor the best in people. More than a motivational carrot, finding and fulfilling a purpose is a fundamental human need. Think back to that analyst. Being able to draw on her passion for food and change the cafeteria was reward enough.
Once leaders are able to abandon these myths, they’ll see barriers start to break down within the workforce and, as a result, increase the core capacity of their people.
Nilofer Merchant is a renowned business strategist and innovator on a mission to reinvent work so that it actually works. A bestselling author, TED mainstage speaker, and recipient of the “Future Thinker” Award from Thinkers 50, Nilofer says few companies will survive unless they understand what she calls “onlyness” — the experience, talent, perspective, and purpose lying untapped in the workforce.
Through her impactful talks, she reveals new ways of connecting our ideas to the world, and empowers leaders to unlock the vast source of innovation too often overlooked in their own people.
Interested in learning more about Nilofer and what she can bring to your next event? Email us at [email protected].