Creativity and the Workplace | The Coaching Institute

Creativity and the Workplace

By Wendy Dunstan, Rise Coaching

The first thing that comes into most managers' minds when they hear the words "creativity" and "workplace" combined is either a) someone is cooking the books (as in creative accountancy) or people are just goofing off.

The reality is something far different

It has been shown that workplaces where creativity is not just tolerated, but encouraged, have not just a more profitable bottom line, but their staff are happier, lower staff turnover, increased business flexibility, reduced leave of absence - in essence those things that a truly motivated and forward thinking business wants and needs to thrive. These are places where discussion is encouraged, boundaries are challenged and everyone is constantly striving to improve those things that impact not just their sphere of influence but the company as a whole. It is a place where these practices are not just given lip service, but they are truly a part of the company's overall business plan, its ethics and its moral code.

So how do we encourage creativity in the workplace?

A good place to start is to consciously open the lines of communication in all directions, between individual staff, between managers and their staff, and most importantly between the various departments. More money is lost from "misunderstandings" between departments than most companies would like to admit. This communication does not have to be formal. It could be something as simple as encouraging conversation over a coffee, at the watercooler, around someone's desk or in some other less structured atmosphere. Remember creativity cannot be forced, it has to bubble up out of the unconscious for most people, and often a chin wag over the new widget we are making can turn out to be a major coat saver in the long run.
We are not advocating a completely laissez-faire workplace, but that keeping people in their place, tied to a desk or kept in a box generally does not encourage the flights of fancy from which great ideas come.

During my 20 years of employment in a range of companies, I have seen evidence of these cost savings many times in workplace situations. A few years back a company I heard of was going to bring out a new product line which contained nuts. Marketing had started its workups, R&D had the trial recipe ready to go, but it wasn't until someone mentioned the ingredients to the QA department at lunch that they went "Hang on - have you guys thought about Nut Allergens?" "Huh??" was the reply. The person from QA went on to explain that nuts had just been listed as an allergen in the Food Standards Code and if they were to make that product, they would have to change all of the packaging for all of the lines they made unless they could prove that there was absolutely no traces of nut protein present in ANY of their other products - a very costly process requiring a lot of downtime after each production run, long, expensive cleaning regimes, extra (costly) testing etc. This would definitely close some of their markets and impact the bottom line.

So the QA guy and the R&D girl grabbed a bloke from marketing who happened to be passing through and while continuing to eat their lunch, they pulled apart the whole idea and brainstormed ways around it. As the conversation continued, people flowed in and out of it, dropping off their pearls of wisdom as needed then continuing with their lunch. After about 2 hours, they had worked out several ideas for how the product could be made without impacting on any other product lines at a minimal cost. The ideas were sent forward to senior management who then looked deeper into the issue and made a more informed decision. (There were also questions asked about how a project could get so far without such an important constraint being picked up earlier!)

However, the most important, creative thinking had been done in the lunchroom. And by a group of which none of the people were managers! They were a mix of middle and line staff who knew the guts of the business but felt comfortable talking in the lunch room about the situation however many of these people would have felt too intimidated to speak up if the conversation had happened in the board room.

This was an example of spontaneous creativity at work.

But how do we think creatively?

Dr Kobus Neethling, the world renowned expert on creativity and developer of the Neethling Brain Instruments divides the thinking brain into 4 areas, R1, R2, L1 and L2. These correspond with particular types of thought patterns. Each of us use each of these thought pattern types over the day, but we tend to "live" in one of them. So a CEO of a bank you would hope to be an L1 type as these are highly dollar driven, meticulous, looks to the nitty gritty…. Whereas someone who is in childcare you would hope to be more R2 - caring of the person - the who not the what or how. Below are the 4 main areas and examples of their thinking types:


Likes working with facts
Precise and exact
Logical and rational
Performance driven


See whole picture - not detail
Likes change - trying new things
Does several things at one time
Always looking for alternatives
Enjoys challenges and risks
Intuitive about new ideas
Future oriented


Prefers traditional thinking
Likes detail
Likes security and safekeeping
Sequential and chronological
Punctual/ time conscious
Organised and orderly


People focus
Intuitive towards others
Expressive when communicating
Caring and supportive
Experiences strong emotions
Likes personal interaction

(courtesy of the Thinking Network)

What Neethling found was that those who are predominantly R1/R2 are more easily able to think like their L1/L2 compatriots, but the reverse is not so true. Also R sided folk tend to be more forgiving of the L sided people - someone who is a bit messy will accept someone who tidies up around them whereas someone who is obsessively tidy will be driven completely insane by a R sided persons messy desk.

The other interesting thing Neethling found was that the more successful companies tended to have L sided folk in senior management and the R sided folks a little further down the food chain. But the other factor was that "most of the innovations and improvements that truly worked and improved the bottom line came from the R sided people - the dreamers who had been given the opportunity to be allowed to think and act creatively"!

"Creative people can perform miracles but they are always in danger of crucifixion" - Paul Torrance

His example was where a company increased its passionate (creative) people by 10%, there was a 200% increase in productivity. Now I don't know of a business that wouldn't want that sort of improvement!

Passion (I love to do this) leads to Energy (No-one will stop me) leads to Productivity (more $$, stable employment, happy shareholders)

The creative process however requires "tinkering". These could be doodles on the back of a napkin, someone spending 10 minutes staring off into space while their brain takes a product apart, a maintenance working having the freedom to "play" with a new setup and thus workout where possible hang-ups might happen further down the line. Tinkering has been almost banished in many workplaces as it is seen as "time wasting" or "goofing off".

But wouldn't you agree that if an employee felt that secure in their job to tinker with a new product or piece of equipment, that they may just know what they are doing? How many times has downtime been avoided because one of the maintenance staff had a "play" with a new piece of equipment before it was installed and then when it failed - he knew just where to fix it? What could the cost have been if he hadn't? Isn't this an example of creativity at work?

  • by taking an extra look he has made himself familiar with the item
  • he has possibly found other ways the same item can be utilised
  • he may find ways where other parts could be substituted if something failed
  • he has been able to substitute a different part to create a bandaid fix because of his knowledge, rather than the equipment being offline for hours/days while replacement parts arrive
  • he has saved the company $$$ - lost time, lost productivity, costly call outs for repair staff, wages for staff standing around plus other knock on effects
  • he feels increased worth in himself and his job by exercising his ability to "think outside the box" and that he was listened to and trusted!

Creativity is needed all around, in all industries and businesses and it isn't as costly as you may fear. Think of the improvements that can be gained and the increased profitability that is waiting to be accessed. Remember - anyone can be creative, but if you don't have the courage to make the changes needed to give it opportunity - it won't happen.

Have the freedom and the courage to be different!

"Who dares, wins" - Winston Churchill

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