Creative Thinking

How to Develop Creativity at All Levels in Your Organization

By Liz Alton on February 20, 2019

Knowing how to develop creativity is an asset. It's a process that some organizations are better at than others, for a variety of different reasons.

Marketing pundits say creativity is the key to innovation, and that creativity plays a crucial role in differentiating both brands and individual careers in the technology era. But there's some ambiguity as to who owns creativity. Is your chief marketing officer your brand architect? An outside agency partner or visionary? The people doing day-to-day execution?

One thing is certain: A creative vision sets the stage for big brand wins. And, respectively, a stale execution can kill even the best ideas.

Different people will play key roles in bringing that creative vision to life, and if you're not using all the creative assets at your brand's disposal, you may be missing both key perspectives and opportunities for pushing boundaries. Basically, this strategy is crucial in shaping the impact your brand has and how it shows up in the market. So if it's fumbled, your brand will be the one taking a hit.

So how do successful organizations foster creativity, and what role does inclusiveness play? Let's take a closer look.

How to Develop Creativity—and How to Stifle It

At one time, I worked for an organization that had two mythic figures in the C-suite. One was a C-level leader who had pioneered significant innovative frameworks early in his career and built a whole practice around them. The second was one of his protégés, with the kind of Ivy League education and global fellowships that commanded immediate respect. He combined a background in engineering and business for one of the best commands of systems thinking I've ever seen.

Together, they had the potential to spark amazing ideas—and more importantly, to inspire new generations of creative thinkers around them.

The younger executive took on a title along the lines of "Chief Knowledge Officer." The idea was that he would create the systems to foster better information sharing and innovation across a global company. Yet, as the two leaders butted heads, here's what unfolded:

The older executive was threatened by the idea that innovation sat elsewhere in the organization. In reality, his job had become setting the vision, managing the board, and overseeing a huge global organization. But because he viewed innovation and creativity as an individual pursuit and a sign of intellectual status, he held the reins too tightly on new idea development and became distracted from the most critical tasks of his role.

Meanwhile, the knowledge officer believed that creative development at the company began and ended on his desk. Younger colleagues who tried to develop new ideas were shot down. Creative takes on emerging problems were overlooked. More time was spent finding holes in contributions than in soliciting new ideas. As you can imagine, the flow of contributions faded and the collective momentum of the organization suffered.

I was at the very bottom of the ladder, just watching the dynamic take shape. But as I've moved along in my career, I revisit this example over and over again. There was so much creative leadership potential—and so many striking possibilities for innovation seeded throughout that business. But misconceptionsabout what creativity is, how it's developed, and even why it matters in the organizational context caused everyone to miss a key opportunity.

Conversely, research shows that organizations that take an open and inclusive approach to fostering creativity benefit in nearly endless ways. And it can have a large-scale impact on the companies that invest in getting it right, from developing blockbuster products to disrupting industries with entirely new service models.

artist being creative

Image attribution: Tim Mossholder

Washington Technology offers an excellent summary: "Creativity is more than dreaming; it's about tolerance for ambiguity. It's about having a curious mind, having more questions than answers, and having a belief that 'there must be a way'. In learning cultures, people challenge the status quo, and it's a good thing. This helps to recognize potential inefficiencies. Bridging seemingly not connected elements in new ways and seeing patterns where they were invisible before are seeds for innovation. The culture must be such that people don't hold back their ideas, but they're nurtured and developed. Because even the most creative idea is not an innovation unless it's put into use, shared, and scaled."

So how do organizations proactively create this kind of culture?

Confronting the Creativity Myth

The first step in learning to systematically develop creativity is confronting misconceptions and myths about who is—and who isn't—creative.

One way companies can inhibit creativity is by falling into the trap of the "creativity myth." As the Harvard Business Review notes, "One of the most damaging myths about creativity is that there is a specific 'creative personality' that some people have and others don't. Yet in decades of creativity research, no such trait has ever been identified. The truth is that anybody can be creative, given the right opportunities and context."

Don't fall into the trap of overlooking great contributions by labeling certain employees—or jobs—creative or not. Instead, recognize that everyone has their creative zones of genius. Tapping into these zones is less about broad categorization and more about finding where people shine. For example, I'm hopeless at design, struggling to even distinguish certain colors or what's distinct between two logos. But given data and a strategic problem, I'll come up with endless ideas on how to solve the issue.

One client of mine seriously struggled with an account executive who they felt wasn't tapping into the creative possibilities for client campaigns. Yet when I sat in on just one call, two things emerged. First, it was a combative environment with difficult personalities, which made creativity a challenge. Second, the AE in question was endlessly creative in soliciting ideas, building consensus, getting diametrically opposed individuals to work together, and fostering new approaches to communication that kept the account on track. Her creativity was, in fact, enabling the agency's impact at a much higher level.

Ultimately, organizations can encourage creativity in a few specific ways:

  • Staying away from the absolutes of labeling certain employees or certain roles as creative or not;
  • Developing a culture that invites, recognizes, and celebrates the myriad ways that creativity can appear in different roles;
  • Spending time—either as part of the review process or as part of mentoring and professional development—identifying different employees' zones of creative genius and strengths, in order to recognize and foster them;
  • and establishing a baseline where creative ideas and insights are solicited throughout the organization.

Being open to different types of creativity, and how they manifest in a range of contexts, can help companies bring creative vision, strategy, and execution to all levels of the organization.

Create White Space for Your Brain

If you're wondering how to develop creativity, the answer may not be "doing more." It might actually be doing less—and finding ways for your team to have a little breathing room.

As Forbes notes, "The best-selling author Alan Cohen once wrote: 'There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither.' Sometimes your mind just needs to unplug from processing and skim past volumes of information in the form of internet articles and posts, text messages and other miscellaneous materials."

Allen Gannett, Skyword's Chief Strategy Officer and author of The Creative Curve, interviewed 25 creative leaders for his book to better understand whether creativity is raw talent or whether it could be strategically cultivated. In an interview, he explained the importance of quiet time to let right-hemisphere-driven inspiration bubble to the surface, over the noise of the louder left, logical hemisphere.

In a nutshell: Quiet allows the insights percolating at a deeper level to come into view. He explains, "This is why we typically experience 'aha' moments in times when not much going on—when you're in the car or the shower or your commute. It's not that your commute is particularly inspiring; these are moments when your left hemisphere is quiet. At the end of the day, 'aha' moments, inspiration, flashes of genius, all these things are just mythical words we've added to this form of processing we do in our right hemisphere that just happens to be subconscious. It's just biology, it's not magic."

For organizations that are looking to further expand and democratize creativity, there are a couple of opportunities here. The first is simply educating your team on how to foster creativity and the role that downtime and reflection play into it. Creativity can end up like another item on the to-do list—"be creative" or "foster innovation"—and it can feel like more effort is needed. Sharing Gannett's book with your team is one way to spark insights and new thoughts around what the creative process looks like.

The second opportunity is to look at the way your company's schedules are organized. Employees who are booked down to the hour with meetings, deliverables, and an unrelenting pace aren't going to have the margins and white space for creative inspiration. They're going to be leaning so heavily on their left brains to stay organized and keep up a pace where creativity may inevitably suffer.

Be realistic. If you're demanding—or even hoping for—innovation and creativity, are you giving your team the space to let it occur?

creative white space

Image attribution: chuttersnap

Embrace the Power of Practice and Breaking Down Examples

Another key theme Gannett focuses on is the power of practice—and the power of finding models that you love, which you can break down to understand how they work.

This is something I learned first-hand when I began writing fiction novels. Someone suggested taking books I loved and outlining them. Even as a lifelong reader and a proficient writer, somewhere along the way I was struggling with telling my own stories. The pacing was off. I read one informational book after another, attended seminars, and got coaching.

Then one day, I sat down, frustrated, and was able to break down a 50,000-word novel into its component parts. I did the same thing a few times, and it was the single best education I ever received in writing for my genre. It wasn't magic, it was, as Gannett explains, biology.

Through this practice, the art of telling a great story suddenly made sense. It showed me on an intuitive level what story beats typically come at a certain point, and built my intuition for understanding how five red herrings make a mystery plot too simplistic, but twenty make it overly complex.

Forbes calls this concept "developing your pattern recognition skills," and describes it this way: "One way to foster creativity is through recognizing patterns in what we observe. For example, if you read a lot of detective novels, you might realize that detective fiction uses a finite number of motifs and (you may) be able to predict the outcome of stories with similar premises. Of course, some people are better than others at picking up patterns quickly, but you can sharpen your pattern-recognition skills in a variety of ways by studying math, nature, or art."

At any organization, breaking down examples is extremely important, as we often have much to learn from others. So ask yourself:

  • Are you helping your teams consume the best materials in your industry?
  • Are you offering access to case studies, coaching, conferences, and other formats to study what's working and what's not?
  • Do your formal processes—from product development to content writing—involve deconstructing examples you'd like to better understand and leverage in your own process?

Ultimately, there's no single right answer for who owns creativity in an organization or exactly how to develop creativity. Personally, I find a lot of inspiration in the Allen Gannett approach: that creativity isn't the bastion of one highly gifted person or elite thinker. Instead, it's something that can be cultivated, practiced, and fostered—like any skill.

More importantly, as you think about the implications for your organization, it's smart to look at whether you've done everything possible to develop creativity. By taking an inclusive approach, being realistic about the way you resource your team, and confronting the assumptions and mindsets that may be holding you back, you'll be taking a meaningful step forward in fostering creativity and innovation throughout your organization.

Featured image attribution: Ricardo Gomez Angel


Liz Alton

Liz Alton is a technology and marketing writer, and content strategist, for Fortune 500 brands and creative agencies. Her specialties include marketing, technology, B2B, big data/analytics, cloud, and mobility. She's worked with clients including Adobe, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Twitter, ADP, and Google. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an MBA. She is currently pursuing a master’s in journalism from Harvard University.