You face many constraints as an employee: time, resources, regulations and culture, to name a few. And our productivity-obsessed work culture can make it easier to focus solely on navigating these constraints than tapping into your creativity. It’s a completely understandable and universal scenario. You become so overwhelmed with your to-dos, it’s difficult to see the art of the possible.
The Cost of Killing Creativity
But this isn’t great news for you or your organization. When efficiency comes at the cost of innovation, it:
- Degrades the quality of the result, solution or service
- Makes work less engaging for employees
- Squeezes people out of the agency
Productivity doesn’t need to come at the expense of creativity. We spoke to Carlos Rivero, former Chief Data Officer for the Commonwealth of Virginia, about what it takes to unleash creativity despite constraints and to-dos. We distilled the following best practices from our conversation in September 2021.
For managers and supervisors…
Be a relief valve when constraints are pressing down.
“My role as a leader is to serve my team and give them the resources they need to do the work they need to do. And sometimes, those resources are lifting constraints and catching bullets,” Rivero said. For instance, the belief that people needed to be in the office was one constraint that kept employees glued to their cubicles. But during the pandemic, employees have proven they can be productive without that constraint. So, Rivero doesn’t require them to be in the office. Everyone on his team works remotely.
If you’re a supervisor or manager, what are some constraints you can help relieve for your colleagues?
Model a psychologically safe environment.
Everyone has a right to be heard, but they don’t always have the opportunity. “That kills innovation and productivity faster than anything else,” Rivero said. Employees have ideas to share, but when they’re not heard, or they don’t go anywhere, it chips away at their creativity and psychological safety.
A psychologically safe environment allows people to share ideas without fear or second-guessing. Not every idea will be implemented, but to show that they value creative and innovative thinking, leaders should explain why an idea may or may not work. This is where communicating the mission is imperative. Don’t stop letting people see the big picture and their contributions to it.
Take time off work.
“To be perfectly honest, my wife and I have this conversation all the time,” Rivero said: Does one ever really stop working? It’s difficult to erect a mental barrier after 5 p.m. that thwarts every thought about work. And sometimes, our best ideas come when we’re not working.
Rivero thinks about it this way: During the course of your day, you ingest a stream of input. And when you’re off work doing chores or on a run, your brain finally has a chance to pause and process all that input. Creative solutions then coalesce to the forefront of your mind.
This puts breaks in a much more respectable place. “When you take a break from the day-to-day, you come back not just with new energy, but new thoughts, new ideas and new concepts,” Rivero said. “As a society, we need to value off-work time, not just because it’s time away from work, but because of how it can fuel your ability to be creative and productive at work.”
So, when’s your next break?
Be aware of your environment’s impacts.
It took more than a decade of experience for Rivero to arrive at this piece of advice: If your environment doesn’t support you and your creativity, you need to change your environment.
“It’s really simple, but it’s very hard to do,” Rivero said. “I get it. It took me 15 years to get to that point where I realized the environment wasn’t good for me.”
His moment of clarity came after he took a leadership evaluation that told him he was an introvert. “Anyone who knows me knows I am an extrovert through and through,” he said. He was so jaded with putting himself out there and not being heard, it had changed his authentic personality. It was time to go.
“In many cases, we just have to be aware and help other people become aware of when the environment isn’t conducive to your growth and development,” Rivero said. Check in with yourself and see what’s within your power to change.