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NURTURING NEEDED

Creativity is vital to your company’s recovery. Good leaders can foster it.

REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Let the creative ideas bloom.
Bhushan Sethi
By Bhushan Sethi

co-leader, global people & organization, PwC

Consumer behavior and demand has changed so drastically in the last few months that many businesses need to consider new ways to achieve their goals, whether that means developing new products or services, pivoting to a new operating model, or augmenting existing services.

Solving for that, and the hundreds of other new challenges companies are facing in the Covid era, will take creative ideas and innovative solutions from the people closest to the work: your employees. Their creativity can help drive your recovery, including your ability to identify new sources of revenue and keep your people employed.

I’m seeing the need for new ideas play out in just about every industry right now. Think of your favorite local restaurant. How can they cater to customers who are only comfortable eating outside or want curbside pickup in addition to the people who still want to dine inside? Or consider the healthcare company that started using telemedicine during the crisis and now wants to do it at scale. How can they help patients and doctors embrace that form of healthcare long term? And what about insurance companies? How quickly can they conceptualize products to address new or heightened risks?

Creative thinking is at the heart of it all.

The innovation bred by creative thinking is also critical to tackling other large societal problems. Businesses can and should be involved in addressing challenges like systemic racism or figuring out how to help millions of unemployed people to reskill, upskill, or get back into the workforce. These are complex problems that require creative thinking and new ideas from the business community to help create meaningful change.

But most organizations may not be giving their people what they need to develop their best ideas. In PwC’s latest Workforce Pulse Survey, only 29% of employees rated their organization’s tools and resources for creativity as “very effective.” Meanwhile, with 63% of finance leaders saying changes to products or services will be most important to rebuilding or enhancing their revenue streams in the recovery, companies have never been so dependent on their people’s ability to innovate.

How leaders can help

With so much riding on creativity, how can you help your employees become more innovative and imaginative? Focusing on three areas may help: your leadership behaviors, the tools and resources you provide, and the metrics you use to measure performance.

Behaviors: Employees should feel like their ideas are valued and can be taken seriously, and that it’s okay to experiment and try something new, even if it doesn’t pan out at first. Leaders can help by being inclusive and by modeling the behaviors that will help encourage a creative culture. Invite people from all backgrounds and staff levels to participate in brainstorming sessions, and work to create an atmosphere where everyone feels like their ideas are welcome. Give people the time and space in their workday to be creative, permission to innovate, and confidence that they won’t be penalized if an idea fails.

Empathetic leadership, including caring about people’s well-being, can also make a difference. It’s not easy for employees to be creative when they may be anxious or stressed, as so many may be right now. Encourage people to take time off (and show them it’s okay by doing it yourself) so they can return to work recharged and ready to tackle new problems with a fresh outlook.

Tools and resources: For true collaboration and creativity, think beyond basic tools like smart boards and videoconferencing. People need physical spaces that help encourage design thinking, where they can get hands-on and messy, while virtual teams need technology and resources that enable genuine collaborative interactions. With 54% of CFOs planning to make remote working an option for many teams, helping people to learn how to be creative and collaborative in a virtual environment will be particularly important.

Don’t assume you know what your people need to be creative. Ask them directly through pulse surveys or other methods of gathering feedback.

Metrics: If you really want to make creativity a priority, consider implementing metrics that tie people’s performance to ideation and to the value their ideas create. Measuring people on productivity and output is unlikely to motivate them to come up with new ideas and could even stifle creativity—it’s often faster to do something the way they always have, and if they’re being measured on output, they may be reluctant to take the time to brainstorm or experiment. But what if they were measured on the ideas they brought forth and the value created by those ideas instead? They may likely be much more motivated to be innovative.

People often associate creativity with tech companies seeking the next breakthrough innovation, or with certain industries, like media or the arts. But creativity, imagination, and a willingness to experiment are now mission-critical for every organization. If you want to recover and emerge stronger, start by giving your people what they need to generate leading ideas.

Bhushan Sethi is the joint leader of PwC’s global people & organization practice.

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