Businesses are banking on innovation as a top way to stay relevant and edge out the competition, a strategy that looks like it will pay off. According to a report from Accenture, 54 percent of large companies expect new business — including both novel products and entry into previously unexplored markets — to generate more than half of total revenues within the next few years.
And for the most innovative companies, a focus on driving innovation is already paying off: for the six percent of companies who have demonstrated the strongest ability to embrace organizational change, a whopping 75 percent of revenues stem from business activities that didn’t exist prior to 2015.
But before businesses can innovate, they must first develop their ability to discover and act on new ideas with speed and confidence. “Innovation is the implementation of a new or significantly improved product or process that creates a value,” says Linda Naiman, an organizational creativity consultant who has worked with a roster of enterprise and Fortune 500 companies that includes American Express and Cisco. “But you cannot innovate without creativity.”
The challenge: most businesses are sitting on vast stores of untapped creativity. Just three in 10 adults say they are “living up to their creative potential,” according to one global report.
“Leadership needs to support creativity, otherwise it’s hard to make it happen,” Naiman says. “The discovery skills that support creativity — observing, associating, networking, and experimenting — are all behaviors. If companies can enable these behaviors, they will develop their creativity.”
Enabling creative behaviors is a common struggle though. “There’s a lack of process, there’s a lack of knowledge about the mindset and skills involved in creativity. Creativity isn’t necessarily valued in the day to day, or there’s too much red tape,” Naiman says, outlining some of the obstacles she frequently sees.
But there are three key ways companies can begin to unlock creativity within their organizations and promote behaviors that lead to greater creativity.
1. Make Time for Creativity
More than a third of U.S. workers say they only have time on the job to think creatively or to discuss new ideas just a few times a year, and 14 percent reported that they are never specifically afforded creative time, according to a survey from Gallup. And yet it’s hard to dream up new products and solutions when you’re scrambling just to get all your day-to-day tasks done.
“Creativity and innovation need to be brought into daily practice, not just reserved for a workshop or corporate retreat,” Naiman says. From Gmail to Slack, there are numerous well-known examples of innovations borne out of policies to free up employees’ time to experiment with and pursue projects not immediately tied to their job objectives.
But you also don’t need a formal free-time policy to start to create space for creativity, nor does opening up time for creativity increase the risk that other important work will fall to the wayside. More than 40 percent of respondents to Smartsheet’s State of Automation survey, for example, reported that they spend at least a quarter of their time each week on manual, repetitive tasks that could be reduced via automation. Enabling such technologies — from automated report generation, to automated status updates, to data capture — is one way organizations can make more time for creativity without letting other work slide.
2. Help Employees Connect the Dots
In the words of Sir Richard Branson, one of the world’s most famous innovators, “always be connecting the dots.” What does that mean? “Associating,” says Naiman. “Making connections between questions, problems or ideas, or seeing patterns that other people don’t see between disparate data.” Seeing those unexpected connections can then lead to new ideas.
The more information employees have, the more dots they may be able to connect. But it’s not always easy to get inspired by endless spreadsheets full of numbers. Data visualization tools such as real-time dashboards, charts, graphs, and other aides, can help people make better sense of large amounts of information, making it easier to spot patterns, trends, and other creativity-sparking insights that might otherwise stay out of reach.
3. Remove Barriers to Work Execution
“Creativity without action is just being imaginative,” says Naiman. In order for companies to benefit from creativity, they have to have the resources and processes in place to act on fresh ideas.
First, “remove the barriers that prevent people from doing creative work,” Naiman says. Examples of red tape that can interfere with creative execution include communication silos, especially across teams and departments, lengthy approvals and/or budgetary request procedures, and a lack of clarity around roles and processes. An effective work execution platform can ease or eliminate these and other barriers.
Companies that are able to tap into employees’ creativity outperform their counterparts, research shows. But to leverage this critical differentiator, it’s time for businesses to think beyond brainstorms, and take steps to enable creativity as an everyday organizational objective.