5 Ways to Give Employee Creativity the Space to Fly


Getting into the creative flow


I've been obsessed with flow lately. My interest started several years ago. I was finally beginning to find it more consistently, so my interest became an obsession, from reading books to binge-watching Youtube. Like a moth to a flame, I would be on it if there was something to learn about flow. Initially, I was attracted to flow because I can easily fall out of the flow. I'm an INTJ Myers-Briggs personality (which I believe the INT stands for Insanely Notorious Thinker 🤦🏼‍♀️). Whether overthinking, design thinking, or just plain dreaming with my head in the clouds, sometimes my thinking mind makes life seem like an out-of-body experience. Being present in life is essential if you want to flow with it. Yoga has been a tremendous help in getting me out of my mind and into the present. Even though yoga doesn't advertise as a tool for flow, I find it a very effective teacher. So, one morning this week, as I was cueing up my morning yoga practice, I thought to myself 🧐 "I wonder if they have any classes specifically about flow?" And there it was Tip Toe into Flow. So I pressed play. ▶️


Creating a Safe Space for Creativity


Very quickly, I found myself entering familiar poses, but there was a tension, a focus, and alertness that I had seemingly lost from my early yoga beginnings. Why might you ask? True to its name, the class had added being on your tip toes to the majority of the poses. Specifically, the balancing poses. So there I was in flying warrior three (image pictured above) precariously on my tiptoes. Abs in, hams and glutes tight, arms engaged, and my one standing ankle trembling. Yes trembling. If you saw my cankles 😂 you'd think, man, that woman has some strong ankles, but nope this position proved otherwise. Gripping with every fiber of my being, I glanced up at the iPad. Side eyeing the instructor, thinking, "when are we getting out of this position!?" only to catch her lose her balance and fall out of the position. In the unrattled peaceful way of a yogi, she said, "It's ok if you wobble or fall out of position. I want to create a safe space for you to try new things." And that's when the inspiration for this post hit me. How might leaders create a safe space for employee creativity to fly?


Skip the Art Class - Get to the ❤️ of it


While many think of creativity as painting, singing, sculpting, or writing, creativity goes far beyond taking an art class. Sure, you can receive great inspiration from these, but they are not the most important. If we long to create a better world, a more beautiful world, we can't leave that up to only the "artists." To delegate this power to so few professions means that happiness is found only at the library, concert hall, or museum. To shift our perspective of creativity, we must first shift how we think about it. Elbert Hubbard, a 19th-century writer and philosopher, gives us the inspiration to look at it in a new light.


Art is not a thing, it is a way. -Elbert Hubbard.

While an art class, night singing karaoke, or sculpting class may make for a few good laughs and a fun team bonding exercise, they do little to empower, enhance and make employees eager to grind another day. Creativity, on the other hand, has the power to do all of that and more. I wrote about the impact this part of ourselves brings to organizational and individual productivity here. So if you or your employees talk about bringing their whole selves to work, it's a must-read. So let's get to the ❤️ of it. Today's workplace is in crucial need of creativity to solve the myriad of challenges it faces. So skip the art class and do this instead. Give employees a safe space for letting their creativity fly.


S is for Start with a Vision Question?

This one comes from my leading by design playbook, where I use the innovative principles of design thinking as a leadership practice. The "How might we?" question famous in design thinking. Today's organizations face many challenges, so there are hundreds of possibilities to what this question might be based on your leadership role. "How might we give attentive care to our patients when we are short-handed?" would make a vision question for a shift supervisor at a hospital. While a CEO asks, "How can we grow our business during the current inflation without layoffs?" A good vision is best when it's about the direction you want to go but seems to be facing overwhelming odds in achieving the vision. Why? Because this is when people are inspired, motivated, and can make the greatest impact. It's the greater purpose everyone is looking for in their day-to-day work. It's palpable - they feel the weight of the challenges, and the vision of throwing off the weights and flying is inspiring.


P is for Performance Aside

Creativity will enhance performance. And from my experience will blow your mind in how much. Yet creativity is not about performance. Performance comes with pressure, plans, and powering through. Creativity is about playfulness, purposefulness, and pivoting towards the most promising next step. While your vision question could be, "How might we perform in the top 10% of our company?" creativity should not be how can you be creative in reaching your individual KPI. Save those discussions for performance reviews. Instead, dig deep into the collective team regarding performance by engaging the Empathy phase of design thinking. What's working, what's not working, and how can we improve it (i.e., what's missing). How (👈🏻 creativity keyword) can we bring the essence of what's working into the areas that aren't. You'll find a list of things that support performance but are indirectly related. Training, effective communication, outdated or cumbersome processes, and many others will be expressed. This is where your employees' creativity and untapped potential come into play. Of their suggestions/ideas, what would they be excited about creating or doing? You may think that people won't be interested or that it will distract them from their daily work. However, the research tells otherwise. Employees allowed to tap into their creativity and strengths, even in the smallest way, outperform in their day-to-day tasks. Author of Lead from the Heart, Mark C. Crowley, shares the research and a personal story in this episode of Cultivating Potential podcast. The bottom line is that creativity isn't about passing or failing in performance. It's about experimenting with all the elements that have the potential to enhance performance.


A is for Affirm their Strengths

To continue the example given above. Let's say one team member with the Strength Finders strength of strategic thinking, including analytical, input, and ideation has reviewed a cumbersome process and revamped it. They have done an exceptional job using their creative gifts to improve the process. However, they don't have the strengths of influence (Woo, Communicate, Activate), something another team member loves to do. Allow team members to utilize their strengths in creating the solutions. And more importantly, affirm the way they shined in using them. 😍 You'll likely even find some areas of growth. Real growth that excites them and allows them to thrive at new levels. Along with strengths, employees will bring their experiences, passions, and other elements to express their creativity. Pay attention to what lights them up and take the time to affirm their unique creative gifts. Everyone will be flying, lighter and freer.


C is for constraints

One of the myths about creativity and innovation, in general, is that it requires a huge budget. Truth is creativity flourishes in constraints. Orson Welles, among the greatest and most influential filmmakers, said it best:


The enemy of art is the absence of (financial or physical) limitations. - Orson Welles

And that has been my experience using design thinking as a leadership practice. Likewise, it's been documented for decades in design thinking by the coined phrase - minimum viable product. Therefore, it's important to set expectations from the beginning. In my first career in management, I would start every creative team endeavor with the statement - we have zero budget and do not have the ability to change any technology systems - now, how might we...?


E is for Ease factor

In addition, to the ease factor of employees using their unique gifts and strengths, creativity by nature has a certain ease factor to it. Creativity is not coaxed or forced. Creativity flows. If you're gathering the team in a room to brainstorm a solution and no one is getting out until it happens, then you're not going to arrive at a truly innovative solution. Allowing space in your team's calendar to not think is ideal. Perhaps taking a midday walk or letting them off an hour early to take in their favorite class at the gym before picking up the kids. I have a video on 7 Reasons Why Self-Care and Innovation Goals Align. It's 10 minutes and worth watching in this time of extreme employee burnout.


Creative Opportunities Come with Conscious Connection

In conclusion, just as the creative inspiration for this post came from a conscious connection to the challenge I was facing in my morning yoga, so do your greatest opportunities. Where are you trembling? What is so challenging in this moment that you feel like you just might fall over? This, my friend, is the best opportunity to create a safe space for your employees (your team and YOU) to fly! And I would love to talk with you about how design thinking can give you a step-by-step process for creating a safe space to try new things.

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