Research done on creativity in the workplace (including my own) showed multiple factors that affect employee creativity. Some are at the organizational level, some at the team level, and some at the individual level. One of the most prominent organizational factors, if not the most prominent one, is autonomy. Studies showed a one-way relationship between autonomy and creativity. Employees need autonomy to be creative. They don’t need the autonomy to decide which project to work on, but they must have the autonomy to decide how to execute the project.
This makes sense. In fact, when I tell people that I studied why are people more creative in startups than in mature companies, they tell me that it is due to “culture,” “climate,” or “autonomy.” It’s a lot more than that, but for now I’ll focus on autonomy.
However, since employee autonomy is “granted” (or denied) by management, the consensus is that whether the company provides such autonomy or not is completely up to that management, where the employee is the recipient of that autonomy (or the victim of its lack thereof). Obviously, there is nothing the employee can do about it, if management decided to deny the desired autonomy.
But when you think about it, management is made of people, just like you and me. For them to give you the autonomy you need, the need to first trust you. Would you let one of your employee full autonomy on their first day on the job, not knowing whether this could blow back in your face? Would you let your child play with something dangerous before you know you can trust her?
In reality, there is a vicious cycle between trust, autonomy, creativity, implementation, innovation, and results.
Assume that management trusts the employees. As a result, they will give the employees the autonomy they need. That autonomy plays an important role in the employees’ creativity, as was proven before. Management, continuing to trust the employees, will also allocate resources to implement those creative ideas. Creative ideas + implementation = innovation. If the ideas were truly creative, and implemented as needed, that innovation will have significant market value, which will drive company results, specifically financial. And what do you think those financial results will do to the trust that management has in the employees? That’s right–trust will go up, and the vicious cycle (actually, quite a pleasant one, in this scenario) will continue to grow, as employees will be trusted with more autonomy, be more creative, and deliver more innovative products.
Of course, this cycle can work the other way around, too. When management does not trust employees, they will not get the autonomy they need. They will be micro-managed, and under those circumstances you shouldn’t expect creative ideas. Management will likely not apply enough resources to implement those seemingly creativity-lacking ideas, which will prevent the company from being innovative, deny the positive financial results of innovation, and only prove to management why employees shouldn’t be trusted…
But note that both scenarios started with the level of trust that management has in the employees (and thus the autonomy they grant them). If this is indeed a cycle, it can be started in other places, as well.
What if employees take initiative to their own hands, without being officially granted the autonomy they need. I’ve done it before, and so have many others. Self-granted autonomy may work almost as good as management-granted autonomy to deliver creative results. Focusing on “quick-and-dirty” demos rather than full-blown projects requires less resources, and therefore can be hidden “under the radar” from management, until a customer is interested, and the project has to surface up to management approval.
Of course, at this point, management can get upset over this self-granted autonomy, but for the most part, they care about the company more than their own egos (one would like to believe so), and this cycle, which ended with a customer being interested, will build management trust in the employees, and replace that self-granted autonomy with official, management-granted autonomy.
So, you see, a culture of creativity can start with you. It doesn’t have to start with your boss.
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Dr. Yoram Solomon is an inventor, creativity researcher, coach, consultant, and trainer to large companies and employees. His Ph.D. examines why people are more creative in startup companies than in mature ones. Yoram was a professor of Technology and Industry Forecasting at the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, UT Dallas School of Management; is active in regional innovation and tech transfer; and is also a speaker and author on predicting technology future and identifying opportunities for market disruption. Follow @yoram