Creativity: What is it and how can leaders help develop it?

It can be challenging for leaders to develop and harness creativity in others. Dave Evans explores some of the ways creativity can come about, as well as tips for encouraging it.

Is your workplace bubbling with creativity, or, at least, quietly simmering with it? Even if it is, all too often that spark can be ignored or crushed, rather than developed by a company. A good leader can spot a creative mind; a great leader can harness it, encouraging ideas and understanding how to get the best out of the best.

First, let’s consider creative talent. It’s fair to say creative people are often almost embarrassed by their creations. You might ask ‘how did you achieve that?’ and the creative shyly shrugs. They don’t know. It just happened. It’s almost effortless.

Then they start feeling guilty about it. Should it have taken more time, did they put enough work into it? What tends to be happening, sub-consciously, is that a million thoughts crash together at precisely the right time to produce a creative piece that adds value to a company. 

How can you manage someone like that? How can you recognise that creative streak? More importantly, how can you channel that creativity in a way that benefits the individual, the team and your business as a whole? 

There are two key misconceptions about creative talent: that you can’t learn it; and that it’s limited to the arts. 

Let’s look at the latter point first. Believing that your industry isn’t the right fit for creativity is often the first obstacle to overcome. Creativity is a shape-shifting chameleon, as at home in an artist’s studio as it is in an office environment – and any successful company, from tech giants like Microsoft and Apple to a training company, puts creativity at the heart of what they do. 

With the former – either you got it or you ain’t – several studies show [1] that it’s a combination of both. Believing that creativity is solely bred through nature, not nurture, is a mistake that ably highlights an uncreative mind at work.

Creativity is just a different way of thinking, and you can train others to break free of those mental constraints through encouraging fresh perspectives. As Picasso once said: ‘Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not?’

It begins with a change in your own mindset – accepting that failure is an option. JK Rowling shopped her boy-wizard book to 12 publishers before Harry Potter was picked up by Bloomsbury. Van Gogh sold zero paintings in his lifetime. Technology leaders all predicted the iPhone would bomb.

The creative world is littered with failure, so you’re in good company. Not everything will work, but all it takes is one idea…

As a leader, you’ll instantly recognise the fact that there are two conflicting interests here. As an example, this mirrors Hollywood: movie producers are forever at war with their directors – one bound by pragmatic considerations (usually financial); the other enthusiastic about the creative possibilities (at whatever cost).

There has to be give and take, on both sides. This is often where leaders unfamiliar with developing an individual’s creativity will stumble; while there’s a willingness to innovate, as all effective training organisations [2] must, it’s not always clear how best to go about it. 

However, we live in a data-driven world and business insights also allow you to create parameters in which to channel the work of the creative, while giving them the freedom to experiment. Rather than keeping your talent on a tight leash, consider pairing them with others who complement their own particular skillset.

Collaboration, the simple act of bouncing ideas around, can lead to far superior creations. After all, it wasn’t just one man who created Facebook as we know it – it took time and discussion with others to refine Mark Zuckerberg’s initial concept.  

Ideas come to us at peculiar times. They don’t work on a nine-to-five schedule with lunch in-between. This is another area in which to stimulate creative minds and thoughts. If you have the space, consider installing a break-out room free of distractions; at the very least, allow time away from the grind for an idea to blossom. 

So, your talented employee has come to you with an idea. They need your buy-in to make it a success. Your response at this point will dictate how the creative responds not just in that moment, but for as long as they’re in your employ.

While academics from John Hopkins and Cornell University [3] suggest that an element of rejection can bolster creative thinking, shoot enough ideas down and the ideas themselves will dry up. 

In the first instance (or even the second, or the third), don’t tell them what they need to do; encourage them to discover how to improve on a project by asking open questions, such as: 

  • How can this be bettered?
  • If you had to change one aspect of this project, what would it be?
  • What do we hope to gain from this? 

Instead of criticising creative ideas, motivate others to be critical of their own work in the manner of author William Faulkner, who urged writers to ‘kill all their darlings’. 
Finally, regardless of outcome, reward those who conceived the project.

Very rarely are they doing it for their own personal glory, but to boost the business as a whole, be it a new marketing angle or simplifying an internal process. Encouragement ensures further creative ideas aren’t taken off the table; that the next one might be a smash hit. 

To develop creative thinking in your training business, use this summary:

  • Re-think how you think
  • Take risks
  • Use data to promote better output
  • Collaboration is king
  • Encourage ideas and encourage improvement of those ideas
  • Give talent the space to think, create and refine
  • Reward creative proposals

Correctly developed and encouraged, creativity offers businesses a competitive advantage over their rivals. How will you develop your team’s creative talent? 

[1] Does Creativity Come From Nature or Nurture?

[2] The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Training Organisations

[3] Outside Advantage: Can Social Rejection Fuel Creative Thought?


About the author
Dave Evans is managing director of accessplanit, the learning and training management software house. He can be contacted on 0845 543 0229 or


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