The reason your employees are not creative is you!

Raymond Hannes
6 min readJun 4, 2021

The main objection I get when I say that every company can and should innovate is: ‘Our people just aren’t creative’

And that’s where I call bullshit!

The reason your employees are not creative is you!

Creativity… essentially everyone has the potential to be creative. If you want to unlock creative behaviour, you have to remember this simple formula:

B = MAP

This is a formula that we use a lot in design thinking. This formula, conceived by the behavioural scientist BJ Fogg, is explained as follows:

“Behavior (B) happens when Motivation (M), Ability (A), and a Prompt (P) come together at the same moment.”

— Source: BJ Fogg

There is a balance between these three variables that has to be managed for a certain behaviour to happen. Each variable is equally important to get right.

Motivation

Motivation is probably the most difficult to grasp. In the last year I have been working with a group of psychologists at Sprankel & Co, and they have given me a better understanding of the concept of motivation. They train managers to become more effective leaders through the principles of positive psychology (if you are interested, you can find their website here).

One of the theories that they work with is the Self-Determinition theory (SDT). An oversimplified description of the theory is that there are 2 types of motivation. Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation comes from external sources, for example external demand, Goals, grading systems, employee evaluations, awards, and the respect and admiration of others.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within and is the natural, inherent drive to seek out challenges and new possibilities and is a result of satisfying the 3 basic psychological needs; Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness.

There is a lot of research that shows that almost all extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity. In other words, the more extrinsically motivated someone is, the less creative they become. On the other hand, there a lot of research that shows that people are more likely to be creative when they are intrinsically motivated. But as humans we are complex and not driven by only one type of motivation. It is therefore appropriate to view motivation as a continuum:

Source

As a leader, you should find a balance between using extrinsic motivations to reach a goal while respecting the psychological needs of the individual or team and leveraging their intrinsic motivation. If you combine an extrinsic motivator with a high level of Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness you get something that the Self-Determination theory describes as “Integrated Regulation”. Integrated regulation looks a lot like intrinsic motivation, but it is still classified as extrinsic because the goals that are trying to be achieved are for extrinsic reasons.

Take for example setting goals. Goals are an extrinsic motivation, but you can set goals for innovation and creativity as a company if at the same time you give employees lots of autonomy in how to achieve it.

The same can be applied to evaluations. As a leader, you have to be careful in how you evaluate creative efforts. Regularly giving Positive feedback is a way to promote creative behaviour. That does not mean that you should flood people with compliments. You can have critique. Critique actually improves creativity if it is brought in a manner what we call in design “optimistic”. One trick you can use to give critique is LCS or Like, Concern, Suggestion. You start with something you like, then give your concern and follow it up with a suggestion. It’s an easy way to help people improve on their ideas.

Finding the balance between extrinsic motivation to achieve your companies strategic goals and intrinsic motivation that captures the inherent satisfaction, enjoyment, and interest of employees is key to motivating employees to be creative and innovative.

Ability

Ability is a combination of Capability (The person’s psychological and physical skill set and abilities), Time, Money, physical and mental Effort, social deviance, and routine.

Capability

Everyone is capable of being creative and innovative. We can however make the process of creativity and innovation more effective. By using tools and frameworks like design thinking, business model canvas, and lean startup you can help people channel their creativity into effective and efficient innovation processes. In other words, creativity and innovation can be presented as a discipline, capable of being learned. By training your people, you can help them be more effective innovators and creative thinkers.

Time

Creativity takes time. If people have a full calendar, it is almost impossible for them to let their creativity loose. Allow your people to schedule downtime to be creative as part of their work.

Money

Money is a weird concept in the creative space. Research shows that if money is used as a reward, it actually has a negative effect on creativity. This is an example of extrinsic motivation, and it almost always has a negative effect. Ownership however is an intrinsic motivator. If you promise people a percentage of the revenue or shares in a company, it becomes something that does stimulate creativity. The mind works in mysterious ways.

And the availability of money for people to for example experiment it is also a strong enabling factor in the creative process. That is why some companies give anyone with a good idea a small budget to do experiments.

Physical Effort

For some people the physical effort of creativity can be high. For example, people with disabilities. Their perspective can be an amazing viewpoint for innovation, but if they are unable to express their ideas physically it can be a barrier for effective creativity and innovation. This is an extreme case, but sometimes it is as simple as not having a surface to draw on when you have an idea.

Mental Effort

Do you have mental space to be creative of is your head full of deadlines, unanswered emails, stressful situations at work? These are all detrimental to creativity. Do you ever wonder why the best idea’s come when you are in the shower? Meditation, mindfulness and physical exercise are great tools to let go of unhelpful thoughts and stimulate creativity.

Social deviance

Going against the social norm or what is normal or desired in a company is difficult. If your ideas require you to deviate from the social norm, they become a lot harder to execute. Creating a safe space where it is allowed to deviate is essential!

Routine

Like anything else, the more you practice, the better you get at it. The same goes for innovation and creativity. So prepare for a long term initiative. The longer you practice innovation and creativity within your organization the better you become.

Prompt, Trigger, or Opportunity

Even if someone is motivated and has the ability, they need a prompt, trigger, or opportunity to start the creative process. In the creative process, this often means making people aware that they have either a burning desire or a burning ass. In this case, creating awareness is the prompt.

A burning ass is a sense of urgency. Take for example the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic created a sense of urgency that sparked innovation and creativity. We have seen a flood of new business models, vaccines that were developed in record speed, and we have seen that people found new ways to work anywhere in the world. Urgency can be a prompt to innovate as long as people are motivated and have the ability to do something about it. However, it can also be a cause for stress which could be detrimental to the creative process.

A burning desire is an opportunity that people cannot ignore. A trend report can for example be the prompt from where the burning desire originates. Understanding that there is a growing awareness of sustainability can prompt you to think of new ideas to promote a more sustainable lifestyle.

Creating awareness of a problem or opportunity are strong prompts for creativity and innovation, but there are other ways to prompt people to become creative. What was your prompt?

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