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abel d soto
abel soto "Happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort."—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Inauguration Day, 1933

BUSINESS LEADERS must manage and support creativity in their business just as they would any other asset in their company. Two key questions however are at hand now: How  and why  should business leaders promote and encourage creativity?

Business executives all over the world share the same belief that innovation is a team sport. It's a business behavior that is indispensable in any company or corporation. Likewise, creativity, a quality more traditionally associated with artistic endeavors, has been slow to find its acknowledged place in the business world. Yet any entrepreneur can attest to the creative power required to build or establish a certain cultural mindset in a company or a workplace where this mindset never existed before, especially in a business environment where traditional paradigms never change and stay the same for decades.

But if creativity is integral to business, and to entrepreneurship in particular, how exactly does it occur? Where does this unicorn-like creature come from, and what exotic conditions will help it thrive in captivity?

Three professors in Harvard Business School's (HBS) Entrepreneurial Management unit who focus on the study of creativity recognize the romantic allure of believing that creativity is a rare quality bestowed on a chosen few, but we all agree that this notion has been debunked long ago, and rightfully so.

Although this may still sound absurd to a lot of business leaders today, we cannot anymore deny the fact that creativity does have a reputation for being magical. Likewise, business leaders have to throw this myth in the trash bin: "Creativity is associated with the particular personality or genius of a person—and in fact, creativity does depend to some extent on the intelligence, expertise, talent, and experience of an individual."  Of course it does. But it also depends on creative thinking as a skill that involves qualities such as the propensity to take risks and to turn a problem on its head to get a new perspective. That can be learned.

Harvard studies on creative business suggest that most managers are not in tune with the inner work lives  of their employees. They just couldn't care about that. They think it's too personal to just be concerned with personal matters. But how would they instill in their employees the importance of thriving in diversity of cultures, disciplines, and backgrounds—the intersection where creativity is most likely to occur? How would they assimilate synergy or collaboration—a very important quality in any business endeavor—in their company's cultural landscape if they never advocate and encourage their employees to be creative? It is an undeniable fact that creativity is an imperative quality in collaboration.

Another driver of business productivity, motivation, is the locus of creative business. The desire to do something because you find it deeply satisfying and personally challenging, inspires the highest levels of creativity, whether it's in the arts, sciences, or business. This is not a simple written statement of factuality that should be taken so lightly by business leaders today. This is a cultural mindset that needs to be propelled with intensity and enthusiasm in a business environment among companies and corporations—whether private or government.

When I was still taking up Managing the Arts Program at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), I, together with my classmates in the Managing the Arts Program at AIM, conducted a study among 238 professionals from seven companies in the high-tech, consumer products, and chemicals industries, as a way to delve deeper into the link between motivation and creativity. Without revealing the focus of our study, we asked the subjects (all of whom were working on projects requiring creative effort) to fill out a daily electronic diary form that required numerical answers to questions about their work that day, as well as their emotions, motivation, and work environment. We also asked them to describe what they'd done that day and to include a brief description of one event at work that stood out in their minds. (Participants were asked to refrain from discussing the diary content with colleagues.) By the end of the study, we had collected nearly 12,000 entries, what we describe as a "wonderful treasure trove of data." 

We have a window into how concrete events affected knowledge workers' thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and motivations. We call this "inner work life,"  and we found that it directly influences creativity and other aspects of performance in business productivity.

Previous laboratory studies have demonstrated the causal relationship between emotion and creativity. Our group research in a real-world setting bears this out, with positive emotion tied to higher creativity and negative feelings linked to lower motivation and creativity. (Data for our study are based on diary evidence that a subject actually did creative thinking that day, not on his or her self-evaluation.) The diary findings also showed a positive carry-over effect in creativity and productivity, one day and even two days after a worker reported being in a good mood.

The question at hand now is this: What can managers and entrepreneurs do to promote a healthy, positive inner work life among employees? A pat on the back or a company Ping-Pong table is always welcome, but what we discovered in our study was much simpler: People have their best days and do their best work when they are allowed to make progress. And this progress would always entail creativity, the courage to take calculated risks in order to produce significant results.

Big breakthroughs are great, but what I found out was that even incremental progress evokes a powerfully positive inner work life. In my Managing for Creativity course, we were asked to consider how we will establish a work environment that will support the creativity and intrinsic motivation of others. Our research suggests that most managers are not in tune with the inner work lives of their employees; nor do they appreciate how pervasive the effects of inner work life can be on performance.

This is what needs to be strongly emphasized today among business executives and leaders: Fostering a positive inner work life, then, can be as easy (or difficult) as this: Support employees' progress in their work every day. Set clear and meaningful goals for them; provide direct help, versus hindrance; offer adequate resources and time; respond to successes and failures by drawing on the experience as a learning opportunity, not just a moment to praise or reprimand; and establish a culture where people are treated with respect.

Studies of creativity at business schools is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back to the 1980s or so. It's very new in one sense, yet the presence of creativity in entrepreneurship is as old as entrepreneurship itself. At Centre for Arts Foundation, Inc., where I took up my certificatory courses in Performing Arts and Creative Writing, we define entrepreneurship as the pursuit of opportunity beyond the resources you currently control—so, obviously, creativity is a big factor. Creativity always employs the skill and strategy of making the most out of what you have at present. And in business, this principle is never considered a cliché: Minimize the cost; maximize the benefit. This is where creativity always enters the picture in the business world.

Mukti Khaire, a professor at HBS Entrepreneurial Management, said that there's a construction of creativity that involves many other actors  in any company or business establishment. And this needs to be acknowledged and recognized at the soonest time by business leaders in order for them to succeed in their business endeavors.

At AIM, we were taught that as a manager, you need to create a culture that will convince people to kick off the filters they're used to applying and to think more broadly. Radical innovation should never be discouraged, but should actually be encouraged by managers. Ironically, while the emphasis in these types of transitions is frequently on developing the capabilities needed to attack new markets, it is the shift in the mindset of employees, and most of the time conventional and traditional managers, that can prove most difficult. They hate paradigm shifts. They are afraid to leave their comfort zones, thinking that they will always be comforted by these comfort zones forever.

A lot of managers nowadays are afraid to take risks, to venture into something new. But they need to be reminded of this very simple yet significant truism: Nothing stays forever in the world of business; if managers and business leaders want to stay in business forever, they should start right away to make it their business to look at the creative side of business.

[About the author. Abel D. Soto took up his certificatory double major course in Creative Writing and Performing Arts at Centre for Arts Foundation, Inc. in Quezon City. He also finished the Managing the Arts Program at the Asian Institute of Management in Makati City. He is a resident of Bacolor, Pampanga.]

-Posted: 10:35 AM 1/26/09 | More of this author on eK!