How can leaders promote creativity in their companies?
Everyone is creative. You just have to look for ways to bring it out, lift it up, and reinforce it in order to reap the rewards of a happy, wildly productive, and innovative workforce.
Having worked at a variety of companies, I've seen how a playful office environment that accommodates different work styles is one of the keys to engendering creativity. At PicMonkey, where I work now, we have open office space as well as small pods for when people need quietness or intense ideation sessions with another colleague or two. We have whiteboards on practically every surface that's vertical—walls, cabinets, doors, room dividers—and people really use them to think, share, and doodle.
For my company, a design and photo editing platform, there's a direct correlation between people's creativity out of the office and the ways they're able to make use of it once they show up at work. So it's essential that everyone feels warmly encouraged to strut their photography and design stuff. We share our creations on a Slack channel and I pick out a few awesome ones to discuss at our weekly all-hands meeting. It's always inspiring to see amazingly creative output coming from everyone in the company, independent of the department they’re in.
Leadership by slide deck is not my thing. A central tenet of mine is empowering teams right down to the individual. Teams that get their direction in too much of a top-down fashion often feel stifled and uncreative. Set goals but leave the strategies and tactics to the team—then you'll get strivers, reachers, and innovators to the table with their sleeves rolled up and ideas flowing.
There's also great value to convivial activities that get people hanging out, trying new things together, going out of their comfort zones, and having fun. At PicMonkey, we've done creative activities like painting lessons, photo walks, and terrarium building together, in addition to the classic morale events like bowling, parties, and taking core samples from the Filchner-Ronne ice shelf (okay that's an exaggeration; we've never gone bowling).
I do hold a possibly iconoclastic idea about creativity, which is this: It's not totally about blue-sky openness and letting your mind wander and feeling free. Results are important!
Deadlines are your friend! They're both forcing functions that provide a structural backdrop to your work. Creativity most often springs from the limitations people are given. This is not to suggest that we should artificially create highly constrained problem spaces for people to work within—no. I'm saying, instead, that purpose plus structure drives ingenuity.