Imagine All the People ...

Has creativity disappeared from your workforce? The onus is on employers to help put workers’ imagination back to work.

June 1, 2014

Illustration by Travis Rothe.

There is a growing concern among the executives I’ve spoken with that employees aren’t as creative as they could be. Survey data predominately backs this concern.

We at the Institute for Corporate Productivity, or i4cp, asked more than 300 respondents in 2013 about the importance of innovation versus how effective their organizations were at promoting it. Results showed that perceived importance was well short of effectiveness. Put more simply, companies know creativity is important, but they aren’t very good at being creative.

If the question is: 'Why aren’t my employees more creative?' the real answer may be that they actually are. Perhaps the better question for employers to ask is, 'What type of creativity do I want to see?'

A study authored by Beth Altringer of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences found that formal efforts to stimulate internal entrepreneurship at global organizations, regardless of industry type, fail 70 to 90 percent of the time.A failure rate that high can’t be explained simply by chance or macroeconomic factors; there must be reasons why employees are not being innovative.

One answer could be that the nature of creativity has changed in the United States. Because of extremely low manufacturing costs and changes in market behavior, iterations and upgrades to existing products are more profitable than creating entirely new lines. Another possibility is that employees are stymied by barriers in the workplace that inhibit the type of creative thinking that needs to occur.

Free Time to Innovate: A Good Idea?

Giving employees free time to work on their own projects is both one of the most well-known ways to stimulate creativity and also one of the most controversial. 3M Co., Google Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. all have programs in place to encourage innovation by giving employees the time and space to work on their own projects, but the most common question I hear is, “Are these companies successful because they give employees free time, or are employees given free time because the company is successful?”

It is a tough question to answer because creativity and innovation are hard qualities to quantify, but neuroscience research does back up the idea that creativity is increased in a virtuous circle by autonomy. In addition, the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s research has shown that about 6 percent of companies give between one and 10-plus hours per week for employees to work on projects outside their scope of work, so the practice may not be as exceptional as thought.

If there is still skepticism about whether free time for workers might work at your organization, there is no need to institute a massive policy change — a pilot program instituted in one department for a fixed length of time can be enough to determine effectiveness.

—Cliff Stevenson

While researching the topic, I asked: “What are the greatest impediments to innovation at your organization?” The two leading responses were “insufficient resources” at 56.3 percent and “no formal strategy for innovation” at 51.5 percent. Insufficient resources are a common justification for the failure of many corporate initiatives, including leadership development and performance management, but that does not make it any less worrisome.

If we consider time and money to be interchangeable as resources, what it really boils down to is investment: Are companies deciding that the cost of fostering creativity is not worth the possible gains from more creative employees? More likely these resource limitations are not deliberate, but are repercussions of the Great Recession that caused most organizations to do more with less.

The other top barrier identified in the survey, which was also shown to have a negative correlation to overall market performance (i.e., organizations that are lower tier in terms of revenue and market share were more likely to have these impediments) was “no formal strategy for innovation.” The good news about this response is that it is more easily remedied than finding additional resources. In order to foster creative employees, there must be a prescribed method for generating, promoting and acting upon creative ideas. Some organizations have built-in creativity boosters: departmental trade shows at Flextronics International; unstructured free time at tech firms Google Inc. and IBM Corp.; and Friday afternoon “art hour” at Foursquare offer specific, companywide techniques for cultivating creativity.

Barriers at the bottom of the list, the least common answers, included policy restraints and concern that new products might compete with existing product lines. Few employers will tell their employees not to be creative, but there is a large difference between what’s stated in company policy and what can be realistically expected considering the need for employees to consistently perform their jobs.


When asked “What obstacles do you face in terms of your individual creativity?” the two leading answers were insufficient time (61.6 percent) and workplace distractions (51.4 percent). Some of this falls into the pervasive “do more with less” philosophy.

These are not really problems that are specific to current workplace conditions and, more importantly, they are not problems that will likely go away. The more diagnosable issue is that employees aren’t being asked to create a product, they are being asked to do the work previously done by four people in half the time it took just 10 years ago. For example, in 2011 the U.S. had the third-highest gross domestic product-per-hour-worked rate in the world, yet the average unemployment rate for the year was 8.9 percent.

But when looked at from that perspective, having severe resource and time constraints is both the impediment and the enabler of invention, because employees have been forced to find new ways to get their jobs done, be it through new processes, more efficient communication routines or other creative/innovative shortcuts.

If the question is: “Why aren’t my employees more creative?” the real answer may be that they actually are. Perhaps the better question for employers to ask is, “What type of creativity do I want to see?”

Creativity varies by industry; for example, service, electronics and the defense industries rely on different types of creativity at different times and within different departments. And yet, there is a sort of general “creativity” that is often lamented in its absence among U.S. workers, a dearth that may be described as a lack of critical thinking/problem-solving skills. Books such as “Academically Adrift” cite numerous studies that point to a gap between employers who want more critical thinking and the capabilities of workers entering the workforce. Assuming that humans haven’t fundamentally changed in the past 10 years, the fault lies somewhere in our academic institutions and/or the structure of our organizations.

The i4cp study, “Human Capital Practices That Drive Innovation” focuses mainly on ways that high-performing organizations (high performing in terms of revenue growth, market share, profitability and customer satisfaction over a five-year period) create cultures that promote creativity and idea generation. The survey the report is based on reached over 340 respondents from over 35 industries, of which 55 percent were from global or multinational corporations. During the course of this research, one of the statements respondents could agree or disagree with was “Being creative or innovative at work is important to me.” Out of everyone surveyed, from all industries and regions, 89 percent either agreed or strongly agreed with that statement. So lack of desire can be ruled out as a possible obstruction to creativity; the real issue is much more likely to be external factors that are stifling creative efforts.

Now, there are certainly some internal impediments to creativity, but many of these are irrelevant in most employees’ day-to-day jobs that center on efficiency, productivity, and maintaining relevance. To combat this, employers need to find a way to break the routine for their workers if they wish to open the door to more inventive ideas.

For example, companies can choose to give their employees free time to do with as they wish. Unstructured quiet or reflective time can help the brain shut out distractions and create the environment in which insight is often found. 3M is well-known for its “15 percent time,” a specific time period devoted to personal reflection and inspiration. IBM and Hewlett-Packard are other companies that have followed suit with that approach. Certain types of structured problem-solving, such as brainstorming sessions or hierarchical meetings have been shown to be less effective and can be replaced or combined with other freer individual approaches.

Lastly, happier employees are more likely to create and promote solutions to tough problems. Avoiding strict and authoritarian cultures where individuals are motivated by fear has been shown to have a positive impact on idea generation, as shown in many of the studies Dr. David Rock references in “Your Brain at Work.”

Time and money are the foundations upon which creation happens, but employers are looking for ways to help foster creation without using funds or giving away free time. This is one of the downsides to the analytics age — each hour can be quantified for its value, and the result may be that creative problem-solving simply isn’t worth the time. It may even be possible that groundbreaking innovation isn’t required at this point in time, and that the types of changes we are seeing are too minute to even qualify as innovative (although they are).

Knowing that creativity is important and will continue to be so, combined with the fact that employers are seeing a shortage of creative workers in today’s labor pool, both for- and nonprofit organizations should now be looking for ways to change their policies and structures to help generate creativity. Both individuals and organizations agree that the No. 1 barrier is a lack of time and money. However, there are examples of successful companies that willfully removed these excuses and gave their employees the freedom to create.

The responsibility now lies with the companies to better understand what contemporary creativity looks like, so that the best ideas are encouraged. When that happens, my guess is that many employers will find that creativity has been happening all around them, but they’ve just been too busy to notice.

Cliff Stevenson is a senior research analyst for i4cp. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.