Creating the environment for creativity to evolve is a key responsibility of leaders

"The greatest enemy of creativity is common sense."

- Pablo Picasso

 Creativity as a success factor in competition

Ed McCabe, who shaped the advertising industry in the 60s and 70s of the last century, believed creativity was one of the last legal ways to gain an unfair advantage over competitors. The ability to see and do things in new ways is more important today than ever. This applies to the establishment of new business models as well as the adaptation of established companies to changing environments.

Your boss thinks you should see a doctor when you share that you have a vision? In a world of constantly new challenges, ever shorter innovation cycles and new business models emerging, that belief should change quickly.



We often tend to believe that the act of creating is what defines creativity. We think of painters working on timeless masterpieces in a bright studio covered with paint or a composer who works all night, building the perfect symphony. And while this may be true, it is usually what you do not envision that drives much of the creative process.

Creativity goes well beyond the field of application of art. Creativity is everywhere – also for leaders. Independent thinking that deviates from the norm and the willingness to experience are  the most important ingredients for understanding of creativity.

And while creativity might be helpful for leaders, the ability to create an environment in which others can develop their creativity is just as important. Creativity is a learnable skill which is becoming increasingly indispensable. 

The creation of a suitable environment as a minimum requirement

 In the absence of creativity, conformity or even banality occurs. In a dynamic environment, this can mean a quick end to entrepreneurial business models. But how can leaders create and promote creativity, especially if they are not well equipped with it themselves?

 Creativity cannot be managed. But framework conditions can be created in which creativity can develop as freely as possible. The right atmosphere is important.

 Positive feelings, such as joy, gratitude, interest, pride or hope, broaden our perception and our thinking and thus promote our cognitive flexibility and creative thinking. Conversely, stress reduces our ability to think freely, unconventionally and creatively. The reduction of stress and the creation of space for positive emotions thus directly promotes an atmosphere in which creativity can arise and develop. Creating such an atmosphere is a central leadership task.

 In traditional leadership models, executives often see themselves as the most important source of inspiration with the aim of setting trends. Often this is exactly what stifles the creative development of employees and colleagues. A much more effective understanding of leadership in the creative process is the role of an appreciative listener who asks inspiring questions and enjoys the resulting answers.

Innovation is seldom the result of one great inventor. Typically, creativity is the result of good cooperation with important contributions from various partners. Involving these different people, overcoming hierarchical hurdles, curbing the top dogs and correctly positioning and promoting creative lateral thinkers is essential.

Diversity and equality are important sources of creativity in teams. The more heterogeneous groups are made up in terms of origin, gender, education, professional experience, the more diverse the approaches and the possibilities of the associations that arise from them. Lived diversity, possibly involving suitable external partners, increases the creative potential of groups.

Giving your teams sufficient time next to their daily tasks and a protected space are particularly important in the early phases of creative work. Sophisticated process management, efficiency orientation and bureaucracy easily choke off the creative process. Only in later phases, when innovative ideas are to be turned into concrete products and services, a controlled transfer to commercial responsibilities and processes becomes relevant. When handing over new products and services, the right timing is crucial.

 Creativity and innovation thrive on breaking taboos and inevitably cause mistakes. Creating a safe environment in which mistakes are generally allowed is another essential leadership task. Making mistakes early, recognizing them quickly and correcting them consistently, significantly reduces possible follow-up costs.

Taking all this into consideration, leaders should remember that using a 40-hour workweek to measure creativity is like using a thermometer to measure how much someone weighs. Creating just for the sake of productivity will always be a fundamental mismatch. Yes, creativity also requires discipline but it most of all means having the freedom to explore your surroundings, your interests rather than sitting at a desk or in a windowless meeting room.

 If the creativity in teams is to be promoted, such framework conditions are critical. Leaders are becoming “facilitators”, whose success lies in particular in helping their employees to develop their talents in order to achieve a common goal.

 Creativity can be learned

Leaders can not only learn to create suitable framework conditions for the development of the creativity of others. They can also strengthen their own creativity.

Creatively or thinking differently begins with acting differently. Associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, playing and the targeted use of networks can be learned and trained and promote creativity. 

  • Start to associate. Association is the linking of questions and problems from different subject areas that are at first glance unrelated. This linking of different topics can be practiced and used in a targeted manner in order to create something new. The more regularly we absorb and process new knowledge, the more we practice our brains to call up this knowledge and to combine it anew.
  • Always question the status quo. By consciously questioning the status quo new things can arise.. The more inspiring and provocative such questions are, the more they encourage creative thinking. Deliberately introducing fictitious limitations in what-if scenarios or dissolving existing limitations helps to break away from ingrained thought patterns and to look at opportunities and risks differently. Try to formulate new questions every day in order to question the status quo and consciously accept contradictions.
  • Become inspired. New insights can also be created through the targeted observation of the behavior of your customers, suppliers, competitors but also people and businesses who are totally outside of your normal environment. Observing third parties as they master challenges or consciously adopting the perspective of a third party in order to check one's own position without bias often enables new insights.
  • Experiment intellectually or physically. This is a powerful way to try new ideas and get feedback quickly. Forming specific hypotheses and checking their validity helps to derive new product or process ideas. Trying out prototypes or pilot projects allows errors and weaknesses in products and processes to be identified more quickly and in a more controlled manner. The more decentralized such experiments are carried out, the more experiments can be carried out with little effort and potential for damage.
  • Broaden your network. A network of personalities that are as diverse as possible and with different backgrounds broadens our perspectives. The wider and more diverse you can make your networks, the more impartially you use it and the more your perspectives are being questioned, the more new impressions arise. Targeted selection of creative people as sparring partners promotes creative thinking. Regular meetings with selected lateral thinkers also can help you to generate or question ideas.
  • Don’t forget to play. As we get older, we tend to play less and as George Bernard Shaw rightly said: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” Playing as we may remember from our own childhood is a great way to learn, grow, develop, experiment and be creative. One of the biggest side effects of being playful (and creative) is that it helps us move into a “growth mindset”, helping us see obstacles as challenges that we can overcome.        

Creating things is just a small part of what creativity is all about.

Being creative does not start and end with the time spent on working on new ideas, projects or products. Creativity lives in the space between our daily routines, it is always in the background, drawing on our experiences, knowledge, interactions and whatever is happening in our lives at various moments. This, together with creating a suitable environment for the best possible development of your team’s creativity, establishing and promoting a creative process in your company as well as training your own creativity will strengthen the competitive position of your company.

Authors: Barbara Kearney & Jan Kiel


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