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The secret to unlocking creativity at the office

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

FiftyThree works to foster creativity in employees. (Courtesy FiftyThree)

FiftyThree's managers work hard to foster creativity in employees, from hiring to everyday tasks. Here, it's new iPad stylus, called Pencil. (Courtesy FiftyThree)

Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams were just small town teachers in Woodland Park, Colorado, when they came up with an idea they believed could change the way many students are taught.

They wanted a way to avoid boring lectures and tedious homework. So they tried something rather revolutionary. They “flipped” the school day for their secondary school students. Instead of kids spending their day in the classroom listening to lectures, they watched pre-recorded lessons at home and then did “homework” together in class the next day.

Immediately, students were more engaged. Grades went up. Parents were thrilled. After a local television news crew did a story on the so-called “flipped classroom” model, educators from around the world called to ask for advice on how to pull it off. Bergmann and Sams are now teaching seminars to educators in Sweden, Norway, Dubai, China and beyond.

The idea never would have happened if Bergmann and Sams didn’t have administrators who were willing to allow them to run with their creative ideas. Few are fortunate enough to get support from the top for exploring fresh, new ways to solve old problems.

“We never felt like we needed to ask for permission to do something,” Bergman recalled. “We were trusted, and we could disagree with our principal if we thought we had a better way.”

That open, trusting environment is also what leads to creative — and often wildly successful — ideas in offices. Without that environment, inspiration often is usurped by day-to-day tasks. But the best leaders, such as the principals and district administrators in Colorado, find a way to breed creativity in their teams, as well as develop their own inventive sides. Both are enough to get middle managers noticed as people who would do better at the top.

Dispelling myths

The first step is to dispel a myth that goes something like this: Some people just aren’t creative. Actually, said executive coach Charles Day, imagination can be developed just like any other skill in business.

“Everybody has the ability to be creative in one way or another,” said Day, a Londoner who now works for The Lookinglass, a management consultancy in New York City. “The key is to figure out how to unlock it in your employees.”

Too often, though, managers figure creativity can be bred by throwing a bunch of over-caffeinated workers into a big room for a brainstorm session.  But think about the last time you did that. It’s a fair bet it ended with wild or impossible-to-accomplish ideas that don’t meet your company’s goals.

“Creativity thrives when it has context,” Day said. “It’s really not this free-form process most people think it is.”

Instead, managers must be sure they’ve created an environment where ideas can flourish.  The foundation for that: trust. Without trust employees won’t bring ideas to the boss out of fear that they’ll be criticised for taking a risk instead of doing their assigned tasks.

There are simple ways to make employees feel trusted. When someone asks for time to develop a new idea, be reasonably generous. If the idea fails, don’t give the impression that the time was wasted or next time the employee won’t trust you with what might be the next big breakthrough.

The next step is to help creativity bloom. Kandarp Mehta, a professor in the entrepreneurship department at IESE Business School in Barcelona, believes nudges help breed creative employees. For instance, Mehta uses improvisation exercises during seminars with high-level executives to hone their abilities to think creatively on the fly. 

“Our sensibilities are common blocks to our creativity. We don’t expose ourselves to different experiences, and that prevents us from being able to react quickly when things change during negotiations,” said Mehta.

During his classes, Mehta brings in artists and designers to teach students creative skills and to show them that the inspiration needed for painting isn’t far off from the creativity needed to develop ideas in business.

Creativity on the resume or CV

More and more, businesses are looking for workers who have skills unrelated to what they do for work. At the New York and Seattle-based computer design firm FiftyThree, co-founder and chief executive officer Georg Petschnigg asks prospective hires to do presentations that showcase their core discipline and whatever other creative skill they possess.

The hiring technique has apparently worked. There’s the FiftyThree engineer who plays the trombone and a designer who makes independent films. But it’s also paid off for the bottom line. FiftyThree developed Paper, Apple’s App of the Year in 2012, and has gotten stellar reviews for its new iPad stylus, called Pencil.

“Internally, we need to make sure FiftyThree is the kind of place where people can create,” Petschnigg said.

Once they’re in, Petschnigg said, it’s the job of managers to be sure everyone has a clear understanding of the company’s values and goals. FiftyThree also puts on regular seminars where artists come in to teach employees new skills. There was the sketch artist, for instance, who taught Petschnigg’s employees how to draw fashion illustrations.

“It might seem strange to teach a bunch of engineers how to do fashion sketches,” Petschnigg admitted. “But creativity happens when boundaries are crossed.”

Bergmann’s creative idea for the Flipped Classroom has earned him attention from Colorado to South Korea. And Bergmann and Sams are no longer school teachers. They’ve co-authored books on their idea and are now on a regular lecture circuit around the globe.

“I’m going to Dubai and somebody the other day asked me if I’d ever been there before,” Bergmann said. “Dubai? I was a teacher for 24 years in public school. Vacation for me was maybe driving to Texas for a few days.”

The idea Bergmann and Sams had seems so simple, really. But it never would have happened if his school district hadn’t created an environment where new ideas were welcome, Bergmann said. 

“If we were in a big school district with lots of bureaucracy, this would never have happened,” Bergmann said. “This worked because we had a principal and a superintendent willing to listen.”

Leaders, take note: great ideas happen in workplaces where creativity is encouraged by managers willing to take risks.

Creativity happens when boundaries are crossed. — Georg Petschnigg