How to be more creative at work

Creativity can be elusive, especially in businesses short on time and under pressure to deliver financially.

Albert Einstein gave a pessimistic view when he said that “the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” But in an increasingly crowded corporate environment, genuine originality has never been so important. Private equity manager and former Dragon’s Den star James Caan argues that, without creativity, businesses “have no way of differentiating themselves from their competitors.”

Here are three ways to encourage it in the workplace.

Nothing kills free-thinking like a tight deadline. And many of the most innovative companies, including Apple and LinkedIn, allow employees to dedicate one day (20 per cent of the working week) solely to work on their own, open-ended projects. The 80:20 ratio of task-based to free-thinking time has proved popular among many of the tech giants, yielding successes like Gmail and Google Maps. Others, however, have tried shifting the ratio in an even more radical direction. London-based startup Makeshift reportedly allows employees to work on their own projects for up to 100 per cent of their time.

But there’s evidence that setting aside too many hours for purely open-ended pursuits can be counter-productive. A 2011 study led by Janina Marguc at the University of Amsterdam found participant’s “conceptual scope” increased after they had been asked to solve anagrams and other laborious mental tasks. Just as musicians work with structural requirements like verses, bridges and choruses, creativity can thrive within boundaries – sometimes workers first need to find themselves inside a box, in order to think outside it.

A straightforward strategy to encourage creativity in business is through financial incentives. Law firm Eversheds, for example, runs an internal Innovation Forum, offering £500 each month for the best new business idea suggested, and £20,000 for the top idea over the year. James Allen, founder of creativity training company Creative Huddle, notes that Scottish & Southern Energy runs a staff suggestion programme called License to Innovate. One year, an employee came up with a new type of drill for laying cables, which saved the firm around 600 days of road closures in its first year of use.

But author Dan Pink argues that the link between financial incentives and creativity is complex. He cites an experiment by scientist Sam Glucksberg called the Candle Problem. Participants were split into two groups, and given a lateral thinking task involving a candle, some matches and a box of thumbtacks. One group was offered financial incentives for completing the task quickly, and the other was just told to do so. Financially incentivised groups consistently underperformed, taking an average of three and a half minutes longer than other groups to work out the solution. Pink’s explanation is that “rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus.” He argues that, while incentives have their place, businesses should also embrace a wider range of strategies to increase creativity, including granting greater autonomy on tasks, and encouraging employees to work on projects that matter to them.

Innovation consultant Jeffrey Baumgartner has argued that creativity in business is often a matter of pulling different ideas together to form a new way of thinking about a problem, and that this process can be expedited by working in a diverse group. To stimulate original thought, he recommends bringing in employees of different ages, academic training, cultural background and business departments to work together on a project. A finance professional is likely to approach an issue differently to someone in sales, and this could stimulate creativity, he argues.