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We tend to talk about creativity as if it were like an on-off switch: either you are creative or you are not creative; either an idea is creative or it is not creative; either a business is creative or it is not creative. But the truth is that creativity is a spectrum that ranges from not at all creative to overwhelmingly creative and possibly on to insanity. Thus, when a creativity consultant bounces into the conference room and tells you that everyone is creative, she is correct, everyone is creative - unless they are dead, and dead people seldom participate in ideation sessions. However, all people are not all equally creative. Not all ideas are equally creative. Not all companies are equally creative. Some are much more creative than others. Sure, this is obvious and may seem trivial, but it is important when it comes to organisational creativity and innovation.
Unfortunately, there are to my knowledge, no widely used and accepted scales for measuring and ranking creativity of people, ideas or companies. Indeed, in researching this article, I only came across papers citing a need for a creativity scale or measurement system, such as this and this (PDF). In a way, that's not surprising, creativity is fiendishly difficult to measure.
Bosses these days love to say they need creative people and, if their businesses are going to survive in this fast changing world, their ideal employees of the future must be creative. Considering the only people who are not creative are corpses, this is certainly true. I am sure bosses around the world would agree that their employees should be alive and functioning.
Instead, bosses should work out how creative they want their employees to be. Do they want people who have occasional original ideas, but mostly prefer to: stick the tried and tested ways of doing things, keep to the status quo and discourage change? Or do they want arty types flowing with ideas, many of which are daft, who tend to question the status quo, criticise accepted ways of doing things and introduce ideas that make others uncomfortable?
In truth, most bosses want people who fit somewhere between those two extremes and are probably closer to the former than the latter. Indeed, when I speak with people in the recruitment and executive search field, they tell me that they are instructed to hire creative people, but their more specific instructions are to hire people who have loads of highly relevant experience, rather than diverse experience, which pretty much ensures the eventual hiree will be similar to her colleagues in terms of education, background and experience. That implies that her thinking will not be much different to that of her colleagues. She will likely be moderately creative and have ideas similar to her colleagues'. She will be a good fit, but is unlikely to rank high in the creativity spectrum.
Limited Room for Improvement
For better or worse, people can learn to be somewhat more creative and they can certainly learn to unleash latent creativity, the truth is, highly creative people's brains are wired differently and function differently than the brains of less creative people. So, even if a moderately creative person could be turned into a super-creative person, the conversion would radically change the way her brain works which, arguably, would turn her into a different person with different intellectual strengths and weaknesses than she had before the transition. I do not think many capable people would actually want that, do you?
This means that if a company's top management want their employees to be more creative, they can invest in training to help the moderately creative become more creative and they can hire highly creative people, but they cannot turn their workforce into creative geniuses.
If it is challenging to measure the creativity of individuals, it is even more challenging to measure the creativity of teams. Nevertheless, team creativity is also on a spectrum. This is something I see in my workshops, where I typically divide people into teams to work on creativity challenges using techniques I teach them. Every team produces results. Some results are super creative. Some are moderately creative. Some are boring. Every now and again, I make a team that blows my socks off with their creativity. I would like to think that is entirely due to my awesome workshops. But, between you and me, that creativity is more about the team's dynamics and members. Indeed, I have noticed two characteristics of highly creative teams that come together in my workshops - and presumably elsewhere.
First, exceptionally creative teams tend to have at least one super creative member. Her wild ideas motivate others to think more wildly.
Second, the most creative teams tend to have diverse members. Often, my workshops are held during annual meetings where staff from various offices globally meet up. And I always divide workshop participants into teams randomly to ensure that people are not working with their closest colleagues. Teams of randomly selected members tend to be nationally and culturally diverse. That leads to diverse thinking.
Incidentally, I can always identify highly creative teams, before they present their results, in any workshop. They are the teams that laugh the most. That's because the laughter comes from the suggestion of an outrageous idea that, in a normal meeting would be considered ridiculous, but in a creativity workshop in a comfortable environment and being lead by a half crazy guy, is an inspiration. When people start laughing, their ideas get crazier and crazier, which indicates a high level of creativity.
Creative Teams Have their Places
While super creative teams are ideal in creativity workshops and in super creative companies, they are less welcome in companies that only want to be a little bit creative. This is something managers need to work out: how creative do they want their teams to be. If the answer is very creative, then managers should aim to make teams as diverse as possible and try to ensure that their most creative people are spread across various teams. If managers prefer to keep creativity to comfortable levels, on the other hand, they should fill teams with similar, likeminded individuals who are unlikely to stir things up with wild ideas or uncomfortable questions about existing processes.
Most managers, of course, will opt for something in the middle.
I was at a conference some time ago when a creativity consultant, who was also speaking, moaned about recently leading a brainstorm in which he instructed the participants to be as creative and crazy as possible. A senior manager was sitting at the back of the room and said, "But make sure the ideas are not too crazy." Not surprisingly, this upset the consultant - and rightfully so. Brainstorming aims to generate a large number of ideas which ideally span the creativity spectrum from not at all original to highly creative, the manager can later choose the ideas that are at her preferred level of creativity. So, he should not be demanding minimal creativity before the idea generation starts. Moreover, research has shown that managers typically choose ideas that are in the middle of the spectrum: creative, but not too creative. But few managers read creativity research papers.
Nevertheless, it is sensible for managers hiring creative consultants and facilitators to decide what level of creativity they really want. Frankly, if that level of creativity is not very high, these managers should probably not waste their money and time on consultants and facilitators. Instead, they should invite ideas from their moderately creative teams.
This is a problem that I see again and again. Organisations hire people like me to lead workshops to develop ideas. If the workshop is held away from the office, participants are forbidden from using their phones and the facilitator is competent, these workshops can result in truly creative and sometimes awesome ideas. However, when participants return to their desks, waiting emails, voicemails and meetings, their wildly creative ideas from the workshop held the day before, are just too creative. So, the super creative ideas are pushed aside. They are great ideas, but they are too creative for their companies. Needless-to-say, running workshops for high ranking employees to develop ideas that are too creative to implement is not an efficient use of time or money.
To overcome this problem, I introduced idea implementation planning to my workshops and this has helped ; at least to some extent. Sadly, what often happens is that ideas are initiated, but get caught up in corporate or government (I occasionally work with governments) bureaucracy and fail to be implemented. In one case, years after I ran an anticonventional thinking workshop generated some powerful ideas, those ideas were still awaiting approval from a government department!
So, there is no point in pushing people to develop highly creative ideas when those ideas will not be accepted by the organisation. Instead it makes more sense to teach people to use their creativity to solve problems via conventional means, suggest incremental improvements to processes and find ways to make their own work easier. Only a moderate level of creativity is needed to accomplish this. And creative thinking workshops can train people to use their creativity more effectively.
Companies too sit upon a spectrum from moderately creative to highly creative and this correlates with their level of innovation. After all, innovation is the implementation of creative ideas in order to generate value. If companies have highly creative people on diverse, highly creative teams that build highly creative ideas and implement them, it is inevitable that those companies will also be highly innovative.
Indeed, this is essentially what a culture of innovation is: it is a culture that encourages a high level of creative thinking and implements the results of that thinking. Such companies are more likely to hire highly creative people with diverse backgrounds and, importantly, these creative employees are likely to stay with their employers. If there is one thing a highly creative person loves, it is an environment that welcomes and uses, rather than squelches, her creative thinking.
Ultimately, this is an issue the management team need to work out: how innovative do they want their companies to be. If the answer is "very innovative" but their companies do not hire people with diverse backgrounds, do not establish diverse teams, do not encourage exceptionally creative ideas and fail to implement or even take seriously outrageous ideas, they cannot be innovative. Changing from being an averagely innovative company to a highly innovative companies means becoming a highly creative company. Getting to there requires big changes in hiring, team-making and acceptance of new ideas.
On the other hand, if the answer is, "we're cool with our current level of innovation," then managers should not worry too much about creativity. Hiring highly creative people into moderately creative companies and discouraging their non-conforming ideas will make neither the hirees nor their colleagues happy. I know, I have been in that situation.
What all this means is that as a manager, it would behoove you to make decisions about the level of creativity you want from your direct reports, your teams and your companies and change (or not) your policies accordingly. The result will be creativity you and your colleagues can be comfortable with.
Collective outcomes soar when top performers mingle with less adept colleagues.
Big data is helping us learn much more about what drives sales in the digital environment. The traditional service sector, however, remains very much a "black box". A physical sales environment, such as a clothing store or restaurant, is subject to even more intangible elements than e-commerce sites or apps - perhaps chief among them are the extremely nuanced and significant interactions between customers and staff. Attributing customer purchases to actions taken by an individual employee is ambiguous enough without considering how additional subtleties, such as cross-employee interactions and influence, may affect outcomes.
To resolve the obscurity around how skill in the service sector translates into sales, my co-author Tom Tan (of Southern Methodist University) and I conducted a study that led to a recent working paper, "When You Work With a Super Man, Will You Also Fly? An Empirical Study of the Impact of Co-workers on Performance". Taken together, our findings yield two meaningful takeaways: With algorithmic assistance, it is possible to quantify an individual employee's innate ability as well as his or her sales performance; but, crucially, stats pertaining to individuals don't necessarily tell you much about what will be in the till at the end of the night. The critical factor is team performance, which can often be more, or less, than the sum of the parts.
Crunching the numbers
We collected point-of-sales data for three restaurants (all part of the same casual-dining chain) in the Boston suburbs from January 2011 to June 2012, including detailed information about each party and its server. Our data set covered 226,350 meals across the three locations over the 18-month observation period.
The choice to study restaurants was quite deliberate. The restaurant industry - which employs more than 14 million people in the U.S., most of them servers - has the lowest labour productivity in the entire service sector, as well as one of the highest staff turnover rates. There appears to be ample room for restaurant managers to improve how they engage with and organise their employees.
Restaurants are also ideal for studying cross-employee effects because servers differ widely in their abilities, can influence customer spending via cross-selling and upselling and work alongside multiple peers in the same shift - unlike department stores, for example, where salespeople in different departments work largely independently of one another.
Having established a baseline skill level for each server, we found that the servers' sales performance during a given shift would rise or fall depending on who happened to be working with them. Low-skilled servers seemed capable of punching above their weight when the overall skill level of the team was higher. Importantly, this contagion can be charted in an inverted U-shape, meaning that when a shift was stacked too thickly with superstars, the other servers performed below their capacity.
The data doesn't tell us why the contagion occurs, only that it does. But based on research literature, we can conjecture that for less skilled servers, observing more proficient colleagues kindles a competitive spirit and provides a role model to emulate. A certain amount of anxiety about not meeting the higher overall performance standard may also cause them to up their game. If the standard is set unreasonably high, however, intimidation or negative self-comparison may make them stop trying, creating a drop-off in productivity.
One thing we can glean from the data is that these cross-employee "spillover effects" are sensitive to physical proximity. When low-skilled servers were stationed close to high achievers, their performance improved even more.
The perfect team
Considering that the usual profit margin for restaurants like the ones we studied is only 3 to 9 percent, managers will want to know whether spillover effects can be a tool for improving the bottom line.
Indeed, our study implies that managers can leverage spillover to increase overall sales without having to invest in either hiring or training. Needless to say, in an ideal world all servers would be excellent. However, since we know high performers are in short supply in this industry, the question for managers becomes how best to use them - whether to cluster them during the busiest shifts or to spread them around more widely. Because we found that the inverted-U shape also holds true for entire teams, our conclusion is that heterogeneous teams - teams comprised of both high-ability and low-ability employees - generate higher sales numbers than those with a narrow range of abilities. Businesses should therefore construct their teams so that their collective ability level never becomes either too high or too low. Mingling the superstars with the low achievers carries an especially big sales boost for smaller teams; by extension, placing less adept individuals within larger teams is a good idea because it dilutes their depressive effect on sales.
If the restaurants we studied had optimised their teams' ability levels across all shifts, we estimate that they would have enjoyed 2 to 3 percent higher sales, a difference that, in this sector, could divide success from failure.
Treatment of top performers
Capitalising on spillover may require managers to change how they engage with the high performers on their staff. For example, compensation schemes may be altered to better reflect and reward superstars' contribution to their peers' improved sales performance. Taking spillover into account gives a fuller picture of the returns on investing in higher wages for top performers. Moreover, because visibility and proximity intensify spillover, managers may consider placing their high performers where they can be seen by all, thereby heightening their impact on the maximum number of employees.
Serguei Netessine is The Timken Chaired Professor of Global Technology and Innovation at INSEAD and the Research Director of the INSEAD-Wharton Alliance.