Creativity in the Workplace and the Middle Market Company: An Interview With Harvard's Teresa Amabile

Middle market companies rely heavily on innovation as a way to differentiate their offerings from larger competitors, often through tailoring their products and services in order to meet customer demands. This by-product of creativity in the workplace is important to succeed. Fostering individual creativity, thus, is the key to achieving success. Large-size companies can simply throw big budgets at their problems, but middle market companies must leverage the creativity of their people to develop solutions.

Failure to foster creativity could have dire consequences for a middle market company. First, your employees become less engaged. Productivity will assuredly decline, and you run the risk of having your employees taking their talents elsewhere.

Teresa Amabile, director of research at Harvard Business School, has spent the last three decades exploring the ways in which companies of all sizes can support creativity in the workplace. The National Center for the Middle Market talked to Professor Amabile about specific ways middle market companies can facilitate creativity in the workplace.

NCMM: Are middle market companies at an advantage or disadvantage, relative to larger companies, in implementing your ideas for fostering workplace creativity?

TA: Middle market companies might be at an advantage because they can often implement change - improvements in the work environment for creativity - more quickly than larger firms. They could also have advantages over smaller firms because they likely have the depth and breadth of expertise that small firms lack.

NCMM: Do most managers, in middle market companies or elsewhere, understand the factors that really motivate their employees, especially the creative ones?

TA: We gave bosses a list of five employee motivators and asked them to rank them in importance. We included progress in this list of motivators, but we also had the usual suspects like incentives, recognition, clear goals, and interpersonal support.

The progress principle was not obvious to managers, in terms of their responses to the survey. They actually rated "making progress" dead last. Only 5 percent ranked progress as number one, and we know from our research with employees that "making progress" was number one by a huge margin.

NCMM: What are some examples of managers effectively fostering workplace creativity?

TA: In one situation, a team had a limited time frame to solve a problem with $145 million at stake. What those managers did was to clear the decks for that team, to get people off the treadmill. The team ended up producing a truly creative, workable solution to the problem. You have to protect their time, sometimes physically separating them.

People can do this as individuals. One person went to the room where they stored boxes and stayed there for the day and really got into a flow state. Time must be protected and focused. You have to feel like you're on a mission. You have to understand why it's important to get it done now. Meaningfulness is important, as is understanding the urgency, buying into it, and being able to focus.

NCMM: What else should managers be doing to create a climate of workplace creativity?

TA: Managers and employees need to work together to constantly prioritize, to figure out what is truly important - what we can forget about and what we can push to the back burner in order to reduce time pressure. My colleague here at Harvard Business School, Leslie Perlow, found that at a software firm it was powerful to simply declare quiet time for a couple of hours in the morning, maybe two or three times a week. No meetings, no interruptions, no answering emails. People were way more productive. They also felt less stress and more satisfied with their work.

NCMM: What is the one thing managers and employees can do today as individuals to enhance workplace creativity?

TA: Protect at least 30 to 60 minutes each day for yourself and your people that's devoted to quiet reflection on the work. In some companies, a day a week is set aside.

NCMM: How do you define creativity?

TA: Creativity is simply doing something novel and appropriate. It doesn't need to be solo, either. There's a lot of interesting work being done about collaborative creativity. It's a matter of leveraging diversity (of perspectives, of backgrounds), because that can add tremendously to the resources a team has to draw upon. But managing diversity is tough because people don't often communicate effectively if they're coming from different perspectives. It's important to help teams overcome those differences and facilitate their ability to join their ideas together and build their ideas together.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education. Circle him on Google+

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