Creativity is more important than efficiency

We want to be more productive, but perhaps that's leading us to measure the wrong things, says workspace expert Zoe Humphries.

by Zoe Humphries
Last Updated: 31 Oct 2018

Business and Government commentators have been fretting over the UK ‘productivity puzzle’ for years, as study after study has shown us languishing at the bottom of the European league tables. But why this obsessive focus on productivity? With the much-anticipated quarterly output figures failing to rise significantly for 10 years, is it time to question whether we’re fretting over the right measure in the first place? 

We live in an age where innovation is the key driver of progress, as businesses face an ever-shifting business landscape along with the need for fast decision making involving incomplete, contradictory or changing information. Constant innovation is vital, with studies by the OECD and Nesta showing it accounts for 25 to 50% of labour productivity growth. But is solely focusing on productivity the best way to innovate? Or should we be focused on creativity instead?

In his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida predicted that creativity would become a fundamental economic driver; that it would determine how the workplace is organised, which companies prosper or disappear, even which cities thrive or decline. His ideas may have been ahead of their time, but fast-forward to 2018 and creativity is rapidly becoming a key differentiator, enabling companies to innovate, compete and drive growth.

Added to this is the rise of automation and artificial intelligence, which promise to completely restructure how work is carried out. Machines are already taking on a large proportion of the transactional and process driven work currently done by humans, potentially leaving large swathes of the workforce with nothing to do. Creativity is necessary for these people, as they’re required to take on activities that can’t be done by robots – namely solving new problems and generating new ideas.

Yet despite its importance, our own research suggests that too much focus on efficiency and output could be stifling the creativity required for innovation to occur and for people to compete in an automated world. A recent Steelcase survey found that UK workers are creative less frequently than their counterparts in the US, France and Germany, while more than half of the workforce (52%) would like to be creative more often. And when asked to name the biggest barriers to creativity, employees named heavy workloads (42%) and organisational process (35%) as the biggest issues they face.

So, perhaps instead of focusing on who is getting the most done, organisations should shift how they measure and achieve success. Creativity doesn’t just happen; it needs to be encouraged and supported in the context of a creative environment, where others are being creative too. That means nurturing a culture of self-expression, factoring creative time into everyday activities and designing the workspace to facilitate creative thinking.

Today’s productivity obsessed world means many businesses are too focused on ROI and too nervous about unpredictability to give employees the freedom to stretch their creative muscles. Creativity needs time and mental space to flourish, which doesn’t sit well with rigid timelines and deadlines. Restrictions and boundaries are the enemy of creativity, which demands exposure to ideas from different industries and walks of life. It can’t be rewarded in the same way as more traditional workplace targets, nor isolated to one person; it takes a community for creativity to really thrive.

All these restrictions and barriers have become wired into the way we work today, which is why organisations have to reimagine the workplace, to encourage the habits and behaviours where creativity can flourish. Neuroscience tells us that creativity requires both divergent and convergent thinking, i.e. generating many ideas and possible solutions, before assessing these and deciding on the best one to execute. In turn, these needs drive external behaviours, which feed the brain with the information it requires to think creatively. Employers must create an environment where these internal and external behaviours are positively encouraged.

In a world where change and uncertainty have become the norm, and where technology is infiltrating so many aspects of work, employees must be empowered to draw on what makes them human. The power to be creative is within everybody, but organisations need the courage to allow it to flourish. Doing so won’t just drive greater innovation and business growth, it will also help build a more fulfilled, engaged and productive workforce, ready and confident to face the future.   

Zoe Humphries is senior workplace consultant, Steelcase

Image credit: Steve Johnson/Pexels


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