What do people need to be creative on the job?
Creativity doesn't look the same as productivity. Productivity is goal-oriented, organized, deadline-driven and measured by results. Creativity, on the other hand, is messy and open-ended. During the time it takes to blossom, it may not look like a lot is going on.
You can see right away why you and I, small business owners trying to run profitable companies, might have some trouble with creativity. It's not that we don't want innovative ideas and solutions; we are just so focused on productivity. But creative thinking and the resulting changes may well be key to your business’ survival. Lack of creativity keeps us entrenched in the past. Innovative thinking will help our small businesses to grow and flourish in a nebulous future.
Once you recognize the importance of creativity, you're down to the nitty-gritty of making it happen. Here are three key steps for encouraging fresh thinking in your small business.
Step One: Delegate With a Directive
Employees (at least the smart ones) know that being productive is essential to keeping their jobs. So it's up to you to explain that creativity isn't the same as productivity, but it's an important part of your business, too.
Then, on a regular basis, you need to provide an aim for the creative energy. I prefer the term "directive" rather than "goal," because your point shouldn't be to measure, schedule and box in the creativity. It should be to provide an area of focus. Assign a different directive to each department, or, for small businesses, a single directive for the whole company for a period of time.
You must communicate regularly, or this delegation-directive system will fail. Have a regular meeting or send out a weekly email. Keep it short and sweet. The point is simply to bring creativity (and the current directive) back to your employees' attention.
Step Two: Time, Space, and Opportunity
You cannot pile responsibilities and deadlines on your employees and then expect them to respond positively to your request for creativity. There has to be a place for creativity on the calendar. Consider closing earlier or opening later and ask your employees to spend that extra time playing around with the current directive. Alternatively, you can ask employees to block out time for creative puttering (an hour a day or an hour a week) or designate one half-day a week as creative time. If you're staff's schedule is not so flexible, try removing one "productive" project from each employee's list and replace it with the current directive.
I use the weekly half-day approach for ensuring creative time in my business. Wednesday afternoons are for playing with ideas, brainstorming, reading, sitting down at the desk (or walking around the block) with nothing on the schedule but creativity. Scheduling creativity will only work if you remember not to assign results.
People can learn to be creative on demand if you're not breathing down their neck, expecting them to hand over a certain set of results. The only requirement for creative time should be to put the productive work aside and focus on the current directive.
Step Three: Give Rewards
There's likely to be some resistance to creativity, because employees may view it as just one more thing to do. Deal with that resistance by offering rewards on a regular basis. Cash is best; it's the only true one-size-fits-all gift.
You can give a reward to whoever comes up with the "most creative ideas" for the current directive, but that can backfire. If you have employees who easily come up with whip-smart ideas on the fly, they'll always be grabbing that reward. Not so motivating for the rest of your team.
Instead, give the reward to whoever is most consistent in spending time on creativity. It's simple enough for each employee to make a note in their calendar or keep a log of creative time. When you give the reward for time spent, not for a single idea, you're encouraging the creative process. And that's the goal: training your employees to be actively and consciously creative.
That's how creativity becomes a habit in your small business, and that's how it carries you into the future. When you have a whole team of people who can sit down and think creatively on a specific problem, area, product or development for your business, you're better equipped to compete in the future.
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