Creativity in the time of COVID – how do businesses nurture creativity?

I once had a boss who often said to me that she was too busy to be creative. The loss to the world of advertising was that if she wasn’t so busy managing accounts and clients she would be a creative genius.  Even as a green but keen graduate I found it a slightly ridiculous statement. However, years later, particularly after the last two years, I wonder whether she said something profound without even realising it.  

Dec 17, 2021

By Neil Davidson

Work isn’t always working 

The pandemic has raised questions about why we work and how we work, and there’s no shortage of buzzwords that capture this: the great resignation, lying flat and LARPing are just three examples.  Working from home may have triggered much of this questioning but it’s also clear that WFH isn’t necessarily the cure-all hoped for either after the release many experienced at first.  WFH has removed the stresses and strains and dead time from commuting, but the payback has often been finishing the day with a brain fried from endless Zoom calls. WFH has been time efficient and rewarding for some but energy-sapping for those whose organisations haven’t yet managed the onslaught of back-to-back meetings. 

How can work be effective, rewarding, and creative? 

For many individuals and organisations the greatest challenge is the need to execute and deliver while also being innovative and creative. This is a general challenge but through the pandemic it’s also been hard to switch off as everyone has experienced the draining effects of Zoom calls and the lack of separation between work life and home life. Is there much left after full-on days for taking a step back and thinking differently, and what can you do about it? Even when we do find the time to do this thinking how do we then balance the subsequent need to exploit this thinking and make it happen? 

It’s worth saying that I’m not just talking about creativity in a narrow sense, including businesses producing ideas or job titles, but the creativity essential in every organisation to thrive in these challenging times.  Creativity needs to be seen in this wider sense as recognising ideas and solutions to challenge how things are done.  Innovation depends on creativity and organisational creativity relies on innovation to make things stick. 

How do you tame the beast of relentless execution? 

It’s important to recognise that relentless execution can be a dominant expectation in organisations, but it creates these unhealthy imbalances that kill innovation and creativity, so numbers are hit through squeezing the pip short-term.  The reality is that there’s then no juice in the orange for the innovation and creativity needed for long-term success. 

The thinking around the concept of dynamic ambidexterity recognises that the logics of exploration (discovering what is yet to be known) and exploitation (utilising what organisations have already known) are different and suggests ways to manage them, including consciously separating exploration and exploitation in individuals and organisations (we all muddle this up too often), creating a culture of reward and encouraging failure and being less objective driven and controlling in guiding exploration.   

Culture creates creativity 

Every situation is different, but creativity can be both protected and triggered by some belt and braces solutions and, of course, some more creative ones, not forgetting that culture has a massive influence on this. It starts with assessing where the organisation sits in exploration and exploitation and whether these are imbalanced, as well as whether there is a culture that encourages both, particularly exploration. It then moves in to putting on deliberate structures, processes and rewards based on research and frameworks that already exist to help with this. 

We all need balance 

As with most things, it starts and ends with the individual, but the good news is that there is a lot of good insight into the subject to move it on from the old ‘just take the afternoon off and do something creative.’  Is your role clearly targeted to exploration or exploitation, or is there an unrealistic imbalance in it? Is it possible to realistically manage this or does it need fixing, and is the same true for your team? 

The good news is there is a lot of research, insight and tools to help crack this.  Get in touch if you are interested in finding out more.