We live in a world that’s obsessed with ‘getting stuff done.’ Everyone wants to know how to be more productive, as evidenced in the popularity of life hacks, ‘hustle culture,’ and books about forming effective habits. 

And yes, productivity at work is important — it’s why we do what we do here at Wrike, after all. But does this emphasis on becoming better, faster, and stronger leave any room for creative thinking at work?

Being creative is often associated with the arts, while innovation is a buzzword of the tech world. However, fostering a culture of creativity and innovation can benefit companies of all shapes, sizes, and areas of expertise. Developing new processes, improving workflows, and solving problems are all forms of creativity.

In this article, we’ll explore how to innovate at work and whether productivity and creativity can coexist.

What is creative thinking at work?

If creativity and productivity seem like polar opposites to you, that’s because they represent two different ‘sides’ of our brains.

Most of us go about our working days with what’s called a convergent mindset — we’re thinking logically and focusing on finding the best solutions for problems and tasks. 

Creative thinking at work requires a divergent mindset, in which your brain generates ideas by exploring many possible scenarios. 

It can be difficult to shift between the two mindsets quickly. Think back to a time when you were asked to brainstorm ideas unexpectedly after spending most of your day answering emails or analyzing data for reports. You needed time to get the creative juices flowing, right?

The focus on the convergent mindset at work — getting everything done to a high quality in the shortest time possible — leaves only small pockets of time for divergent thinking.

Why the quest for peak productivity is killing creativity

There’s no doubt about it: Innovation is vital to long-term business success. A survey by BCG discovered that 60% of organizations that are committed to innovation report a steady increase in sales of products or services. 

The COVID-19 crisis has made the need for innovation especially apparent — according to a study by McKinsey, 90% of executives believe that the pandemic will fundamentally change the way they do business over the next five years. However, only 21% feel that they have the expertise, resources, and commitment to pursue new growth successfully. 

Why is this? Well, many organizations are more concerned about staying afloat during a time of upheaval than they are about rocking the boat even further. Keeping operations running is the priority, so innovation and creativity are put on the back burner.

However, even in times of greater stability, innovation can be impeded. Research by Steelcase found that when asked to identify the biggest barriers to creativity, 42% of workers pointed to heavy workloads, while 35% said they were hampered by organizational processes.

It’s easy to see why companies think of innovation as something they might get around to if they can find the time. Creativity is harder to quantify than ticking tasks off a to-do list, and there’s no guarantee that the hours spent brainstorming or researching will have a positive outcome. But to truly succeed, organizations need to start viewing creativity as a vital part of their business processes.

Is the Quest for Peak Productivity Killing Creativity? 2
Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

Fostering a culture of creativity

Your company culture plays a key role in cultivating innovation. If employees believe that they can’t deviate from the way things are done or speak up without criticism, they won’t feel comfortable sharing new ideas.

The academic Teresa M. Amabile identified three components of creativity — creative thinking skills, expertise, and motivation — along with the six categories of managerial practices that affect them:

  • Challenge: Are employees matched to jobs that play to their skills and expertise? Do their roles stretch their abilities in a positive way?
  • Freedom: Do employees have autonomy in how they approach their work?
  • Resources: Do workers have everything they need to complete their work, be that money, time, or expertise?
  • Work-group features: Are your teams made up of people with diverse perspectives and backgrounds? 
  • Supervisory encouragement: Are new ideas encouraged or met with skepticism? Is failure accepted or punished?
  • Organizational support: Does the organization as a whole value creativity?

If you want to reap the benefits of innovation, you must prioritize creativity alongside productivity. Answering the above questions will help you identify areas where your company can improve.

How to be creative at work — while getting stuff done

Innovation requires support and encouragement from the top down. Here are some practical steps for balancing creativity and productivity in your organization.

Block off calendar time for divergent thinking

It’s all well and good to encourage your employees to be creative — you also have to give them the time to do so. Most of us don’t have hours and hours to let our brains run wild, but carving out even 30 minutes a week to dedicate to creative thinking is a great start. Studies suggest that fatigue can improve imagination, so some divergent thinking could be a way to liven up the afternoon slump.

Create spaces for the sharing of knowledge and ideas

Your workforce is teeming with knowledge and expertise just waiting to be shared. Break down silos between teams, encourage inter-departmental communication, and give employees opportunities to learn from each other. A collaborative work management system like Wrike acts as a single source of the truth, allowing team members to collaborate and share information easily, wherever they are.

Build an inclusive team environment

For creativity to flourish, team members have to believe that their voices will be heard. Leaders and managers need to be approachable and transparent. Remind employees that there are no bad ideas and all perspectives are welcome.

Support employees in taking risks

Risks, mistakes, and outright failure are part and parcel of the creative process. Team members will not be forthcoming with new ideas if they feel they will be dismissed straight away — or chastised if they take a chance on something that doesn’t pan out as hoped.

Make it clear to employees that the organization values innovation just as much as hitting sales targets or meeting deadlines. Be receptive to feedback, ideas, and suggestions, and recognize big thinkers for making an impact.

Be flexible

Sometimes, a break from routine (and the conference room) is needed to stimulate the mind. Companies like Facebook and Twitter conduct ‘walking meetings’ to jumpstart the creative process — Apple founder Steve Jobs famously preferred to take meetings on foot. Being flexible also means giving team members the freedom to decide how they work best, whether that’s a hybrid working model or setting their own office hours. 

It may be difficult at first, but finding a way to balance creativity and productivity will benefit both your teams and the entire organization in the long run. Interested in seeing how Wrike can help? Start a two-week free trial today.