Why You Can’t Force Creativity at Work

Parks and Recreation - Season 6
PARKS AND RECREATION -- "Second Chunce" Episode 610 -- Pictured: (l-r) Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, Adam Scott as Ben Wyatt -- (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Colleen Hayes—NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The MPW Insiders Network 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 give your employees time to be creative at work?” is written by Leesa Eichberger, head of brand marketing at Farmers Insurance.

Research shows that we foster creativity when we allow our minds to wander. And yet, corporate America demands jam-packed days full of meetings and deadlines. How can the two co-exist?

Throughout my own career, some of my most innovative ideas have percolated while I was immersed in an ocean swim or running at sunrise—not while sitting at my fluorescent-lit desk, banging my head against a problem.

So if everyone spent their days running and swimming, would they get more done? Of course not. There’s a delicate yet important balance between doing intense, focused work, and taking time away from the “heavy lifting” to let your mind wander. When you have this balance, creative ideas have a calm space to be heard—and I’ve often seen them lead to the most innovative solutions.

So while I ask my employees to do the focused work that comes with developing strategies and action plans, I also encourage them to do things that aren’t necessarily “work,” like using our innovation lab to explore new technology, while they are at work. This may seem counterintuitive coming from a senior executive—shouldn’t we want our employees to work harder all of the time? For me, it comes down to a simple tradeoff: Building in “brain space” gives my team a deeper sense of engagement, which often leads to truly great results in productivity, innovation, and even happiness.

The problem, of course, is finding enough time to get work done—while also finding time to think creatively. I believe the solution is for leaders to create that time, for themselves and their employees.

Encourage outside interests
While many companies are embracing LEGO walls and poetry chalkboards, and others go so far as offering paid “playtime,” I personally find pigeon-holing a specific “brain break” just as stifling as no break at all.

Whether it’s a mid-day foosball session, joining the office “11-story step climbers” at 11 each morning, a club for triathletes, or paid time off to participate in charitable work, I see highly talented, competitive people on our team benefitting by taking part in all of these recharging activities during business hours.

This is the art of culture-building: demonstrating to the team that these activities are sanctioned and important. Over time, employees who participate bring more diversity of thought and fresh thinking when we regroup as a team.

Here’s a good example: One of our graphic designers recently enrolled in an advertising class. While this is indirectly related to his daily work, he now comes to the office excited to share his knowledge. Why is that? Easy: The class has helped him see his work from a fresh angle. It’s reinvigorated his love for his work, and as a side bonus, it’s brought an exciting new energy to the entire team.

Another successful creativity-booster we tried, which was a huge hit: innovation spark sessions. During the two-day event, we brought in outside speakers to give us crash courses on everything from virtual reality to climatology, and many other topics that were well outside of the regular “insurance universe.”

After wearing VR goggles and playing some insanely fun games, a whole host of “big thinking” ideas came pouring out of our team. Now we see the value of exploring surprisingly disparate topics to help trigger new ideas. The impact of this innovation work on my team is still alive, months after the event.

Provide flexible deadlines to allow for creative leeway
Deadlines are a fact of life in our jobs. I try to look at them from two sides: First, a deadline can create a necessary sense of urgency that drives the creative process. There’s something to the expression, “If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done.” On the flip side, deadlines can be arbitrary and an impediment to great-quality work.

I try to hold myself and my team to the same standard: When I look at a completed project, I want everyone involved to feel a sense of pride. However, if the deadline is a blocker to that goal, we look for ways to adjust the timing or adjust the deliverable. I would rather extend a deadline than put out mediocre work, and sometimes we get the leeway to do just that.

Employ an “ideas first, measurement second” mindset
Data and numbers drive business decisions in most of today’s successful companies. And while our organization is highly data-driven, I’m a firm believer that the best creative ideation comes when we don’t initially worry about measurement.

This was a critical key to the success of our recent “Dog Diving” YouTube campaign. It started off as a brainstorm around how our brand might capitalize on buzz around the Olympics—and a unique idea was born: What if we incorporate a synchronized swimming competition for dogs?


This video series didn’t lend itself to our traditional methods of brand measurement. We debated and researched and couldn’t settle on benchmarks that made this an easy go/no-go decision. Finally, we realized the concept was too breakthrough to not try. And, it ended up creating positive awareness about the brand.

The moral for me is if we limit ourselves to ideas that can be benchmarked—especially using existing measures—we’ll never execute truly innovative ideas. Sometimes it just makes sense to look for the best measuring stick second. We might find it’s a metric we already have in place; other times it requires us to research new systems and tools.

While it might be hard to immediately measure the ROI on creative time at work, I saw a quick and significant shift in energy when we started encouraging it at Farmers. I know that some of our most iconic ads have emerged from teams that have been given free time to pursue their ideas.

Try it with your team, even if it’s something small. At the end of the day, every employee is undeniably unique. So as leaders, it would be crazy for us to think we can prescribe a single creativity-building formula that’ll work for an entire team. What we can do, though, is give them the time and strong, enthusiastic encouragement to do so—even when they’re at work.

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