Developing Creative Capacity

Earlier on the Thrive blog, we discussed three tips to fueling creativity and innovation in your organization. You can read the post here if you want the whole picture, but the three fuels discussed are information, structure, and commitment. You must have these three things if you are to have any sustained success in developing creative ideas or thriving through innovation. In recent experiences these three fuels have continued to be confirmed as critical to success, but there is a fourth dimension to success in these areas that was not explored in this last blog post. Although these factors are important, if organizations do not plan for creative capacity in their organization then there will be no forward momentum in this area.

Creative capacity refers to the amount of time specific resource that an employee has free to devote to the creative or innovative process.

Creative capacity is difficult to manage. It’s one of those “soft items” that makes many traditional managers and leaders very uncomfortable. We don’t talk about this in business school, and it sure doesn’t fit into traditional views of managing employees. Managers may typically feel that allowing for creative capacity in their staff teams is wasting time. There will often be few concrete direct links to performance improvement when allowing for creative capacity, but the fact is it is a non-negotiable if you plan to have innovative success. Employees must have the unstructured and unscheduled time available to be creative. It is very naive for managers to request that their teams be more creative without allowing for extra capacity to accomplish this.

The difficulty then for organizations is how to effectively manage this time. If it is to be unstructured than how can leaders effectively manage performance results of this investment. Obviously we can’t just throw performance management to the wind, but traditional metrics won’t work in these highly unstructured situations. Measuring creative ideas per hour is not going to get you very far. The answer to effectively managing creative process in an unstructured environment lands on three key factors; leadership, culture, and hiring. Organizational leaders must establish expectations of how this time is used and lead by example, showing employees how they use the time. Secondly, creative process must become part of the culture and rewarded. If employees know that innovative ideas will be rewarded and creativity praised, they will work towards this end. Thirdly, hire people who enjoy being creative. They will naturally use this time to form new concepts, solve problems, and develop creative solutions and products.

Finally, we must explore the questions that is the elephant in the room. How much time, or creative capacity, must we allow employees? The ultimate answer to this is going to be dependent on each organization and the specific needs that exist. Author Daniel Pink is a proponent of the 20% time. That is, allowing employees 20% of their paid time for creativity and innovation. This has worked significantly well for many large organizations, including Google.  Many of us use Gmail, which was one of many products at Google developed during 20% time. Your organization may or may not need this much time, and it would most likely not be wise to start out here. Assuming 20% is probably about as much as most organizations would want to commit, it might be effective for your organization to start with just 5% creative capacity. In a 40 hour work week, that is only 2 hours. Here is a plan for starting to develop creative capacity in your organization:

1. Allow employees 2 hours a week for unstructured creative or innovative work.

2. Establish expectations for how this time will be used. Don’t apply metrics, but do let employees know that it will be monitored for overall effectiveness.

3. Give employees guidelines of some potential projects, ideas, and problems they could work on. This will give them content to start with.

4. Read “Fueling Creativity and Innovation” here on the Thrive Blog for more guidance.

5. Consider hiring Thrive to help you develop and implement an effective plan.

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5 thoughts on “Developing Creative Capacity

  1. Toby Lindsay says:

    Interesting, yes and… how do you help leaders, founders and directors move to a place where they can let go, allow mistakes and be trusted. I think creating the conditions for the emergence of creativity and innovation is great work to be doing. I also think there’s some stuff on power and risk in there – great stuff, cheers for the thoughts! PS just firing off here, will reflect n follow up. 🙂

  2. micahyost says:

    Hey Toby, great thoughts here. The commitment from senior leaders is huge. I mentioned in another post the fact that creativity and innovation can give some managers a nervous tick! We are so used to pulling the plug on things that aren’t performing. We really need to redefine the metrics and standards of performance we use for innovation and, most importantly, commit to its success. Keep the thoughts coming!

    • Toby Lindsay says:

      Cheers Micah, yup so right and that makes me think this kind of development and change really requires some good quality support/challenge/understanding of what, can be, a nervy shift for managers and leaders. Yes, a new framework to understand what performance, in the innovation/eorg looks like, and keep pushing and understand this is a journey – being a pioneer should be, nay must be,sometimes unsettling. We simply can’t know how it will turn out…

  3. David Brooke says:

    I have just read this post and your earlier post with interest. The points that you make certainly make sense and I would like to add to them based upon my experience.

    As we grow up we learn that being a dreamer or coming up with ideas can isolate you (take Dyson for example). We learn that it is easier to follow the norm and conform rather than to challenge. It is fundemental to understand this and accept therefore that (in the majority of cases) undoing this process is also a learned behaviour. I think it is also fair to say that some people will never regain or have the capacity or inclination to unleash their creative potential. This therefore suggests that managers should be aware that allocating the time and conditions to be creative might not result in the out put that they want. And more importantly that those individuals could be just as important to the organisation as the ones that do thrive under the conditions.

    Of all the words that you have used in this Blog I believe that Culture is the most important but ironically also the hardest to define. It is for this reason that I would like to throw into the discussion two further variables that affect an organisations creative capacity. That is the size and age of a company.

    I use the example of Innocent (smoothies) whome I have worked with and Nestle who I have worked for. The first was founded by people who opitimize innovation and creative thinking a point that is reflected in the’field like’ office environment from fake grass on the floor to plastic cows and picnic tables as meeting rooms. The second is a global organisation that has been established for over 100 years and is annually accountable to shareholders. I’m interested in how you would appraoch an organisation differently based upon its size and age? Is it possible to change the culture in such a large organisation?

  4. micahyost says:

    Great comments. Culture is always a difficult one, and most difficult in long standing organizations with multiple generations. Culture can surely be changed in large and existing companies but it takes persistence, commitment, and very effective change management. This is why hiring a consultant can be so helpful in these situations. Often this consultant serves more as a project manager, overseeing the intricate details of a culture change project. I have written a few posts here on this blog in regards to culture work. You might read the post “Develop People, Develop Culture”. Things like internal promotion, training and development, employee orientation, recruitment, defined core values, and reward systems all need to be diligently and thoroughly reviewed for effective culture change in long standing organizations. The important thing here is that changing a culture is not a luxury for organizations in my opinion. Change must happen if success is to be sustained, and it must happen at a quicker pace now than it ever has before. This is why developing creative problem solving and an innovative workforce is so incredibly important for any organization, whether it be 5 years old or 100 years old. Outside of our blog, you might also try reading a book called “Switch” by Dan and Chip Heath, as well as a book called “Managing Creativity and Innovation” put out by the Harvard Business Review. These are both great resources on the subject. Thanks so much for the comments David. Keep them coming! You’re a sharp guy.

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