Does Encouraging Creativity in the Workplace Improve Innovation?

Let’s start by defining creativity as thinking of new ideas and innovation as implementing new ideas. The assumption has always been that if we want to deliver innovation in terms of new products, services, processes, etc. then we need lots of creativity in order to generate ideas. Creativity is the ‘front end of innovation’. It is how we fill the pipeline that generates a flow of new products. It follows that we should take actions to encourage creativity in the workplace if we want more innovation.

A new paper by Ozge Cokpekin (PhD candidate) and Professor Mette Knudsen of the University of Southern Denmark produces research which tests and challenges these assumptions.   The authors carried out a survey of 147 small firms in Denmark.  They compared the effectiveness of these companies in product and process innovation against seven well-known factors for encouraging creativity in the workplace.  The seven elements were based on the work of Teresa Amabile and her 1988 book, A model of Creativity and Innovation in Organisations.  The seven factors are:

  1. Organizational motivation is based on four items: the level of the firm’s forward facing strategy towards the future, the extent that the firm follows opportunities rather than maintaining the status quo, the extent that the firm encourages its employees toward creative attitude, and the level of flexibility in the management systems to accommodate the desired behaviour.
  2. Resources includes all resources necessary for achieving innovation.  Five items are measured: availability of time to explore new ideas, expertise of employees to handle problems creatively, availability of material and information resources, and training opportunities.
  3. Challenge measures the extent to which employees are emotionally involved in their tasks. The goal is to measure how well employees’ capabilities match with task requirements so that employees feel intellectually challenged
  4. Freedom refers to the freedom of employees to plan their work and choose their own means to accomplish an assigned task.
  5. Idea support indicates how supportive and constructive the management is for idea generation and development. It also measures how much support the firm receives from its employees for the initiatives taken to assess the dynamism in the firm.
  6. Proactiveness refers to the attitude of the firm towards risks and opportunities in contrast to conservatism; how experimental and tolerant towards ambiguity the firm is, and how fast decisions are made to avoid missing opportunities.
  7. Idea time refers to the extent to which employees use time provided as a resource to work on new ideas, test spontaneous new opportunities, and deal with a heavy and complex workload. The variable captures the actual usage of time rather than the availability (availability is measured in the resources variable).

They used statistical methods to correlate the seven factors with product or process innovation.  The results can be summarised as follows.  Organizational motivation, resources and idea time are positively correlated with product innovation.  Freedom is negatively correlated.  When it comes to process innovation only one factor was positively correlated – organizational motivation.  The levels of challenge, idea support and proactiveness seem to make no difference to product or process innovation outcomes.

These results are surprising, especially the finding that the more freedom for employees the less product innovation.  The authors believe that in small firms, ‘Increasing freedom and providing little task instruction may distract employees’ attention from daily tasks, create confusion and cause them to forget time and rules. In contrast to allowing freedom, formalization of work tasks enhances the likelihood of promoting innovation by allowing best practices to diffuse among employees.’

There is further analysis of the reasons for the differences between product and process innovation.  The authors conclude as follows. ‘The results demonstrate that creativity is related to the organizing priorities and abilities of management and has a strong impact on product innovation. The paper encourages managers to exercise freedom cautiously to ensure that operations are carried out effectively, while employees are provided sufficient guidelines to achieve product innovation.’

The authors acknowledge that the small sample size from a relatively homogeneous population of small companies is a limitation of the study.  Nonetheless the results make for provocative discussion on what levels of stimulus for creativity and freedom of action should be allowed or encouraged in the pursuit of innovation.

Full Paper: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi…

By Paul Sloane

About the author


Paul Sloane held senior positions at IBM, Ashton-Tate, MathSoft and Monactive. He is the author of over 20 books which have sold over 2 million copies in total. Titles include How to be a Brilliant Thinker and The Innovative Leader. He speaks, writes and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and lateral thinking. He also facilitates innovation camps for major corporate clients. For more information visit www.destination-innovation.com

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