The one thing that’s blocking your creativity

August 21, 2015, 2:40 PM UTC
Photograph by Mitch Weiss

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization? is written by Kerry Healey, president of Babson College.

Before the age of the Internet (I can feel my children rolling their eyes), uncovering developing trends in the workplace usually meant picking up the telephone to cajole strangers into talking to you about their work lives and then visiting them after. Interviews and site visits typically took months. Trends gathered momentum more slowly and creative solutions to emerging problems were often flourishing in one locale, while traditional responses remained entrenched in others.

I know this because as a graduate student, I was tasked by the U.S. Department of Justice to seek out the most creative “best practices” emerging from police, prosecutors and other criminal justice practitioners across the country. I saw first-hand how a lack of connectivity and sharing hindered creative and innovative solutions from developing and spreading.

Nowadays, trends develop rapidly online and news of creative solutions spreads spontaneously — and instantaneously — around the globe. But the lessons I learned about creative problem-solving from those early, in-depth conversations and visits with criminal justice professionals continue to influence my management style and approach to spurring creativity in the workplace.

Unless your job has an explicitly creative focus, creativity in the workplace most often reveals itself as innovative problem-solving. For entrepreneurs — Babson College’s special focus — creativity is an essential ingredient for success, because each day presents new and often unexpected challenges that require agility and vision to navigate. But for the majority of people who work in larger organizations, especially those nested within complex systems or long-established institutions, an employee’s ability to contribute creatively in the workplace is often limited or non-existent.

See also: How to reward good (and bad) ideas at work

Enabling and encouraging every employee to contribute to creative problem-solving leads to greater productivity, better management policies and higher levels of employee engagement. A Gallup Employee Engagement poll from 2011 found that 71% of American workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” from their work. However, Babson research finds that those who are thinking and acting entrepreneurially inside organizations of all types and sizes are flourishing and deeply connected to their work. Luckily, empowering “intrapreneurs” — or creative problem-solvers — is simple to do. All it requires is time from those at the top and a genuine willingness to listen to others’ ideas.

Every summer at Babson, I conduct round-table listening sessions with each department to provide an important touchstone for policy-planning and goal-setting. I ask everyone the same questions:

* What opportunities do you see for the college or your department in the coming year?
* What problems or concerns do you see that I might not?
* How can I or your supervisor help you do your job more easily and effectively?
* How can we strengthen our community and make working here more fulfilling?

Through these open-ended and frank discussions, I gain tremendous insights into the daily workings of the college and am able to encourage the exploration of many ideas and proposals — within the departments or college-wide. Most importantly, the listening sessions empower everyone on the staff to think creatively and to take responsibility for the direction of the college. We document the suggestions, work to quickly empower employees to act on ideas, and I am always sure to note when a new initiative or successful policy change originated in the listening sessions.

While lieutenant governor, I used a similar approach to keep in touch with municipal leaders in the 351 cities and towns across Massachusetts. I devoted each Friday to round-table discussions with mayors and municipal officials to surface concerns about the impact of state policies on cities and towns and to hammer out creative solutions on which we could partner. The sessions began contentiously, but as it became clear that I would act on their suggestions and return to listen again and again, the partnership led to numerous constructive policy innovations.

Whether you are leading a large business enterprise, an institution of higher education or a government agency, open discussion, partnership, and mutual ownership of problem-solving is critical to empowering creativity in the workplace. Here’s one of my favorite suggestions from this year’s listening session: “No Meetings Wednesdays” so that staff can have more time to reflect and be more creative.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization?

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