Should you be creative at work?

Lightbulb in ice cream cone

Creative arguments

It is a fact widely known that I like to argue. Debate might be a better word because a good debater must understand both sides of the argument. I’d like to think I open my mind enough to consider opinions that are not my own. But let’s face it; sometimes I’m just right.

Last week I got into a debate with a friend about whether everyone should feel a sense of creativity at work. To me, it was a cut-and-dried case. Why shouldn’t an engineer talking about water sewage systems feel free to think differently about how they work or communicate with the client? (Of course, if you’ve worked with me and Beth you know that the limits or bounds of that creativity will depend on the audience.) Using one’s creative imagination is what makes us human. More than that, creativity is what powers progress. Without creativity there would be no art, no cars, no Instant Pot, no White Out, no Post-It notes, no nothing.

Creativity is required to imagine a thing in a different form or even a thing that doesn’t yet exist. In the simplest of writing terms, this could be putting your list of requirements into bullets. In a broader sense of creative thinking, this could be having those requirements printed on pieces of candy and dropped from a balloon bouquet on to someone’s desk. (Ok, yes, I once did something like this.)

Everyone I have ever met is creative in some way. But I find that many are too nervous to try something new at work. Maybe they are scared of the ire of their supervisor, or perhaps they feel they just don’t have time.

My sparring partner insisted that sometimes, just keeping your head down and doing it the same as you did it yesterday is preferable. If a bridge needs to be built, for instance, do we really want the engineer to get creative with the math around weight loads? That engineer works for a firm that gets paid by estimating the hours of work the project will take and charging a project fee. The thinking is, doing the job the same way you did it last time is efficient and profitable because you know how to charge for the time.

As she was describing this I began to see the argument from the perspective of the firm’s leadership. Get the job, get the job done, and then get the next job. But another image came busting through my head of a sad-faced engineer punching a clock, then sitting hunched over a desk looking miserable for 8 hours.

This, my friends, is the first stop on the road to quitting your job and finding yourself living in a van and selling lawn ornaments at summer festivals.

In my mind, being creative at work takes all kinds of shapes and holds limitless possibilities. Maybe it turns out that there is a more efficient way to build that bridge and with a little experimentation you find a quicker, more reliable method. Maybe transforming that report from dense paragraphs filled with words like “utilize” into an easy-to-read story of the project means it will actually get read by the client.

What do you mean?

Perhaps it’s the definition of creativity and creative thinking that was keeping us apart.

My friend and I went back and forth until:

I asked her, “What exactly is your definition of creativity?”

She said, “Problem solving.”

And I said, “Exactly.”

To say you have to solve a problem means that something in the equation needs to be different than it was yesterday. You can’t do exactly what you did before. Something has to change and that means experimenting, trying and failing until you get it right. To me, that is creativity.

Is creativity one of those undefinable things that you just know it when you see it?

A basic definition from Robert E. Franken in his book, Human Motivation, is:

…the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others.

The folks at 99 Designs suggest that:

Creativity is the ability to transcend traditional ways of thinking or acting, and to develop new and original ideas, methods or objects.

These definitions prove us both right. Creativity is both solving problems and entertaining ourselves.

What counts as creative?

When they hear the word “creativity,” many people can only imagine a painter or an actor or that kid who decides to put elephants in her drawing of a happy family.

Here are things I think are creative:

  • Plumbing
  • Drywalling
  • Choose the playlist for a road trip
  • Making any kind of art
  • Cooking with or without a recipe
  • Building houses of cards
  • My father figuring out how to put all the old telephone parts he collected to good use
  • The way dogs sleep half on and half off their beds
  • Finding a back way to get downtown faster in rush hour
  • Making a zoom meeting not boring

The list is infinite because creativity is a part of pretty much everything we do or dream of.

Creative confidence

If you only do what you did yesterday and do it exactly the same way, then the world will never move forward. To change your method in hopes of a better outcome takes a certain amount of creativity, and yes, courage. That’s why I feel so strongly about building the Creative Confidence of my students and clients.

When working with our Story Mode clients, Beth Nyland and I prove time and again that it only takes 3 minutes to have a creative breakthrough.

I’ve been accused of being judgmental about this notion…that I think every act needs to be creative, rethought or changed in some way. I don’t.

Let me put it this way: I’m arguing that if we are never encouraged or don’t feel free to think creatively at our jobs, then not only will we be bored out of our minds, but what we produce will boring and ineffective. We spend so much time at work that to feel so constrained– assuming we can never deviate or try something new–is heartbreaking.

One of our Story Mode mantras is to Love the Limitations. You know that when you are producing something for work, there are bound to be limitations. But it is precisely because of those limits that we can use our creativity and think like innovators. It shouldn’t have to take courage; it should feel fun, like a good challenge, like eating that sundae with 10 scoops so you get it for free.

I vote for a new workers bill of rights that puts creative thinking front and center…an amendment giving ourselves permission to be creative, to try something new, to fail, then find the answer.

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