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Unleashing Creativity

To take advantage of employees’ innovative efforts, managers must first learn how to encourage and nurture them.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Bottom LineAlthough the forward-thinking and innovative efforts of employees drive many elements of corporate strategy and success, managers lag behind in their ability to support such creative endeavors. They must give employees the resources to take on their own pet projects, and turn them into corporate assets.

Unlocking employees’ creative potential has long been recognized as a key component of management. As far back as the 1940s, managers at Lockheed Martin’s groundbreaking Skunk Works facility encouraged their engineers to record their new ideas by drawing and writing on the walls. Fast-forward to the modern era and employees at the animation pioneer Pixar can, through classes at Pixar University, broaden their skills in drawing, painting, sculpting, or screenwriting. And at Google, employees are encouraged to spend up to 20 percent of their time working on pet projects that don’t require management approval.

Whether generating novel ideas for the fun of it, or coming up with innovative concepts for their companies to cash in on, creative employees can play a vital role in stimulating forward thinking and freshening up the corporate outlook. But for that process to work, managers must provide the right platform for their subordinates’ creative expression. And according to a new study, most managers fall woefully short in their varied attempts to support or facilitate their employees’ creativity.

The authors of this paper examined eight managerial competencies that have been recognized as promoting creativity and innovation, and measured whether supervisors’ success or failure at implementing these competencies corresponded to organizational outcomes. After providing their demographic information, employment history, and record of management training, a diverse group of 1,337 supervisors from 19 countries took an Internet-based test designed to gauge their abilities to elicit creativity.
Managers who successfully demonstrate these managerial competencies:

1. Challenge their subordinates by giving them difficult or impossible problems to solve, ambitious goals to attain, and the support needed to manage stress.

2. Encourage broadening, which means providing employees with training in subjects or topics well outside their comfort zones.

3. Encourage capturing, that is, urging people to preserve their breakthrough ideas and giving them the tools (whether sophisticated computer programs or pocket-sized recorders) to do so.

4. Manage teams appropriately by assembling diverse groups that use brainstorming and other techniques to maximize their creative output.

5. Model the core competencies of creative expression by walking the walk; for example, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd had his assistants accompany him from meeting to meeting so they could record each new idea on a large chart.

6. Provide adequate and appropriate resources to enable creative functioning.

7. Provide a diverse and changing physical and social work environment that keeps employees on their toes.

8. Provide positive feedback and recognition to people who contribute new and important ideas.

Managers cited their ability (or lack thereof) to provide the requisite resources as the most important factor driving their employees’ creative efforts. This makes sense, the authors posit, because having the right resources lies at the heart of creative work, and thus represents an “especially rich area of management which overlaps with several other competency areas.” For example, having ample resources can enliven a diverse work environment, the right archiving devices help people set down their new ideas, access to talented colleagues with different areas of expertise leads to more outside-the-box thinking, and instructional or educational software can help employees branch out in their abilities. If, as Steve Jobs famously said, “Creativity is just connecting things,”  resources appear to be the ties that bind employees’ innovative efforts.

As Steve Jobs famously said, “Creativity is just connecting things.

But unfortunately, managers have some work to do if they want to spark the imagination of their workers. The authors found a wide range of variability in the managers’ test results, and the scores were particularly low for six of the eight skill areas.  Overall, the scores ranked highest for two competencies—giving feedback and encouraging broadening—that managers themselves said had relatively little value. But the scores plummeted in the two areas that appeared to be of the highest value: providing resources and managing surroundings to ensure a diverse and ever-changing workplace. Ideally, the authors note, these findings should be reversed, and management should be best at applying the most valuable skill sets.

Strikingly, female managers outscored their male counterparts across all eight of the competency areas. This could owe something to the cultural and genetic characteristics that lead women to be more supportive, on average, than their male colleagues. It could also imply they take a more holistic approach, realizing that creative output depends on many different levels of organizational strategy and setup, from conducting evaluations to designing office space.

Finally, the findings underscore the value of schooling managers in the methods needed to unleash their subordinates’ creativity. Managers with training in such methods posted substantially higher test scores, the authors report, even though their development sessions didn’t necessarily focus on the eight areas studied. And the more managerial training, the better, leading the authors to conclude that “measuring and training relevant managerial competencies will likely result in more creative output by subordinates.”

Source: How Is Creativity Best Managed? Some Empirical and Theoretical Guidelines, by Robert Epstein (University of the South Pacific), Katrina Kaminaka, Victoria Phan, and Rachel Uda (all American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology), Creativity and Innovation Management, Dec. 2013, vol. 22, no. 4

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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