In the bath. Walking the dog. On holiday. Trekking in the mountains. Swimming. Sailing. Fishing. Anywhere but work.

This is what people say when asked where they do their creative thinking. But they go on to say that implementing change – in the form of innovation – is primarily something that happens at work, within teams. Major changes involving shifts in attitudes and behaviours and the learning of new skills are the stuff of their work experiences.

Workplaces may be too busy, hectic, pressurised, social and urgent for creative thinking – but that is often precisely the kind of environment that encourages the implementation of innovation. Perhaps this paradox is part of the reason why organisational leaders are so desperate to understand how to promote creativity and innovation at work.

Researchers throughout the social and economic sciences have been reaching for their metaphorical guns to blaze away at this target, but it is psychologists who have made most progress. So what have we have discovered about how to promote creativity and innovation in teams at work? Here are six tips.

1 Recognise that creativity and innovation are not easy
Conflict is a common characteristic of innovation, observable principally in resistance to change.

Nurses have spent years fighting with doctors for the right to prescribe a limited number of medications and to perform simple surgery. Innovation, by definition, represents a threat to the status quo. For a team to implement innovation successfully, its members must manage conflict, with the attendant emotional pain and difficulty. They must overcome resistance to change. They must persist in ensuring the successful implementation of their innovative proposal. And they must accept that, after all that, the innovation may turn out to have
been a mistake.

Creativity can be seen as the development of new ideas. Innovation implementation is the process of applying those ideas. Using this distinction between creativity and innovation implementation, it becomes clearer that
creativity is more a characteristic of individuals, while innovation implementation tends to be accomplished by teams. There is evidence that people are most creative when they work alone.

So what kind of team-based work environments are most likely to encourage creativity and innovation?

2 Pick creative people with wide experience and knowledge, put them in a supportive environment and challenge them
Creativity requires individuals with creative characteristics who feel free from threat and pressure and who work in a supportive environment.

People need to feel “safe”. Experiments have shown that higher levels of stress lead to greater reliance on habitual solutions. Psychological threats to “face” or identity are associated with more rigid thinking. And Kruglansky and Freund (1983) found that time pressure increases the rigidity of thinking on recruitment selection decisions.

Suggesting innovative ideas can make people in work settings feel vulnerable, because we tend to experience our workplaces as “threatening”. Colleagues who respond with aggressive questioning, joking or who ignore the proposal can leave the innovator feeling defensive, so reducing the future flow of ideas from within the group.

Such competitive postures crush idea production. Learning and innovation will occur only when team members trust other members’ intentions. This manifests itself in what Harvard professor Amy Edmondson calls “team safety” – a belief that well-intentioned action will not lead to punishment or rejection by the team. “The term is meant to suggest a realistic, learning-orientated attitude about effort and error,” she explains. “Safety is not the same as comfort; in contrast, it is predicted to facilitate risk.”

We innovate most when we are under pressure. The assertion that necessity is the mother of invention is based on sound understanding of human behaviour. Implementing change in organisations is hard work – there has to be a strong spur for action.

For example, our studies of manufacturing organisations found that those with a small share of the market for their principal product were most likely to develop new products subsequently.

Innovation also requires diversity of knowledge bases, professional orientations and disciplinary backgrounds. Bringing doctors, nurses, counsellors, social workers and physiotherapists together in a primary healthcare team is associated in our research with high levels of innovation in patient care. These diverse perspectives can lead to some radical innovations such as telephone triage systems which make nurses the initial point of medical contact for patients rather than doctors.

3 Give the team members interesting jobs
Jobs that stimulate individual innovation are likely to score highly on the following characteristics.

• Skill variety. The degree to which a job requires different activities in order for the work to be done, and the degree to which the full range of skills and talents of the person working in the role is used.

• Task identity. The extent to which a job is not a small part of a larger task, such as adding a label to the packaging of a product, but instead involves employees in the manufacture of the product throughout the process, or at least in a meaningful part of that process.

• Task significance. The job’s impact upon other people within the organisation or in the world at large.

• Level of autonomy. The amount of discretion vested in employees. This also determines the extent to which people are creative and innovative in their work.

• Task feedback. People who receive feedback on their performance are more likely to become aware of the performance gaps. This also implies that they have clear job objectives.

4 Emphasise team creativity, not only productivity, and make them stop work
One of the implications of our findings is that organisations need to encourage teams by focusing on creativity and innovation as important performance outcomes, rather than only on productivity.

Another key indicator of innovation in work teams is reflexivity. This is the extent to which members collectively reflect upon the team’s objectives, strategies and processes – as well as those of the wider organisation – and adapt them accordingly. Teams that do this well continually renegotiate the way they work to improve performance.

One plastics packaging production team succeeded in changing the way it operated to allow managers to discuss product specifications, pricing and delivery dates direct with customers. Productivity and quality improved and the time from customers placing their orders to delivery was cut by two-thirds.

5 Encourage constructive conflict and dissent, and treasure team errors
Diversity of views generates the friction and energy for innovation. Teams need some grit to fashion pearls. Such a conclusion is clear from studies of decision-making and “constructive controversy”. Dissent can stimulate team innovation when it occurs in a co-operative context. It allows individuals in small teams to change the views of the majority by being consistent and persistent.

Edmondson found big differences in how intensive-care nursing teams managed medication errors. In some teams, members acknowledged and discussed their medication errors – giving too much or too little of a drug, or administering the wrong drug – and discussed ways to avoid repeating them. In others, members kept the details to themselves. Learning about the causes of these errors as a team – and then devising innovations to prevent future errors – were possible only in those teams that discussed them.

6 Does the organisation inspire the team?
Organisations can create an ethos within which creativity is either nurtured and blooms into innovation or is starved of support. Employees frequently have ideas for improving their workplaces and processes, products or services. Where the climate is characterised by distrust, a lack of communication, personal antipathies, limited individual autonomy and unclear goals, the implementation of these ideas is inhibited.

One indicator of innovation is research and development expenditure. There are strong correlations between such investment and team innovation. But there is considerable variation in how much companies commit to R&D. The highest commitment in industrialised countries is shown by companies in Denmark, Canada and Finland. Britain and Italy invest least.

Across the world, companies use a range of schemes to support team innovation. The US-based firm 3M, which produces Post-it Notes and adhesive tape, has 30,000 employees. Its technical staff are encouraged to spend 15 per cent of their time “bootlegging” – working on pet projects that they hope will become new products for the company. They are given the time to pursue these ideas and, if necessary, they can apply for money to buy equipment or hire extra help.

For an idea to be taken further at 3M, it must win the backing of one member of the board. Once this occurs, an inter-disciplinary venture team of researchers, engineers, marketing people and accountants is set up to push the idea further. If a director is not willing to support the idea, it returns to the drawing board. But teams are not penalised for failure.

Most organisations include a commitment to innovation in their philosophies, but the practical realisation of their commitment is often poor. Transforming someone’s good idea into a new product, service or form of organising can be a hard, conflict-ridden process. Just as we have training, appraisals and reward systems in place to manage performance, so we need systems to manage team innovation by harnessing their creative and innovative predispositions.

One of the striking findings from research on managerial job change is how the mental health of those who moved into jobs with fewer opportunities to be creative declined more than that of those who became unemployed. The challenge for personnel specialists is to create climates and cultures that enable team innovation – it is good for employers and employees alike.

Creativity checklist
• Does the team have clear, challenging and engaging objectives?

• Do team members interact frequently, exchange information freely and vigorously debate their diverse views?

• Is there a strong sense of warmth, safety, optimism, fun and support in the team?

• Do team members enthusiastically support their ideas for improved ways of working, new products or services?

• Do team members take time away from work together to review their team objectives, strategies and ways of working and to generate ideas for innovations?

• Is the physical work environment pleasant, attractive and comfortable?

• Is the team leader optimistic, inspiring, facilitating and empowering?

We innovate most when we are under pressure. The assertion that necessity is the mother of invention is based on sound understanding of human behaviour. Implementing change in organisations is hard work – there has to be a strong spur for action.

Employees frequently have ideas for improving their workplaces and processes, products or services. Where the climate is characterised by distrust, a lack of communication, personal antipathies, limited individual autonomy and unclear goals, the implementation of these ideas is inhibited.

Further reading
Michael West, Developing Creativity in Organisations, British Psychological Society, 1997.

Amy Edmondson, “Psychological safety and learning behaviour in work teams”, Administrative Science Quarterly, No 44, 1999.