Unlocking Human Creativity at Work: Closing the Gap
Do people feel free to dream, improve, innovate, and be creative at work? Sadly, the answer appears to be not so much.
Current state of creativity
According to Gallup research, only 29% of workers strongly agree that they are expected to be creative or think of new ways to do things at work. When Gallup asked employees, ‘What would you change about your workplace to make it better?’, 41% selected Engagement or Culture. A sample improvement suggestion: “They should grant more autonomy in the work to stimulate everyone’s creativity.”
An Adobe study on the case for creativity in the workplace revealed that 32% of employees don’t feel comfortable with creatively thinking in their career.
Workhuman reported in its 2019 International Employee Survey that companies have greater opportunities to “leverage the previously untapped creativity and innovation of people — to prioritize humanity and emotional intelligence at work.”
The dilemma of organizational structure
Why is human creativity at work largely ignored and untapped when it’s so incredibly valuable?
James Hutchin, senior research fellow on the faculty of risk and healthcare management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, believes that the organizational structure of firms doesn’t always encourage this way of thinking, especially in middle management.
“In the 19th century, if I was making furniture, I might learn how to make a table one day and a chest or a drawer the next day. If a customer came along and said they wanted a desk, I could figure it out [based on my experience and knowledge].”
Now, in a task-centric system that no longer produces generalists, workers struggle to approach problems holistically or to use inferential thinking, both of which are approaches in the creative-thinking/problem-solving mindset.
Work Shift author Lynda Gratton reinforces that idea: “You have to add something to the work of the machines, and that will mean combining STEM or technical skills with an artistic bent or design capabilities or the ability to understand networks. Stand-alone skills will be less in demand.”
The psychological toll of cubicles
In his book Shop Class As Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford writes about “the contradictions of the cubicle,” where objective standards are hard to come by where there isn’t anything material being produced, and managers are reduced to watching the states of mind of their subordinates and serving as therapists. In such an environment, no one should be surprised when creative energy fades.
Some workers find that being creative at work is risky behavior. A University of Illinois study found that being creative is a personal experience that exposes workers’ personal viewpoints and preferences, inviting the judgments of others (including managers).
Rejection of an idea may be taken quite personally, impacting psychological safety. It’s a challenge that study co-author Jack Goncalo says is “dangerously close” to repudiating employees as people.
The growing creativity gap
And there is a giant, growing gap between the demand for human creativity at work and the supply currently on offer. The Economist Intelligence Unit survey of five Asian countries and three industry sectors found that creative thinking and problem-solving will be the skills of most value to future workplaces.
The World Economic Forum says that creativity is one of the three most critical skills required to thrive in 2020 and beyond. Amazing leaps of technology in fields like artificial intelligence, blockchain, virtual reality, nanotechnology, robotics, and 3D/4D printing will place demands on people for creative problem-solving and opportunity-spotting as never before in history.
Bloomberg research shows that creative problem-solving, communication, strategic thinking, and leadership are the most desired but hardest-to-find skillsets.
Kim Korn and Joe Pine argue in their book Infinite Possibility that with our newfound ability to digitally shape-shift time, space, and matter (with tech like VR, augmented virtuality, and the like), the age of limitless creative innovation is already upon us. Workers may already be aware of creative solutions to problems and just haven’t been asked for their opinions or given the time to explore and experiment.
Fostering creativity in workplace culture
Gallup research reveals that a work culture combining expectations to be creative with available time and freedom to take risks elevates the number of workers who feel empowered to create from two in 10 to seven in 10.
And that freedom to explore is priceless. Experiments are crucial to success, even experiments that fail, because failures always produce new learning.
Google, for example, has run countless experiments that have failed—and innovation doesn’t exist without failure. As Thomas Edison famously said: "I have not failed. I've just found ten thousand ways that won't work."
Examples abound: Gmail was an internal product made by a Google employee. W.L. Gore & Associates, for example, is widely known as “the world’s most innovative company.” At Gore, everyone is free to innovate. The open sourcing of innovation at Gore led to the creation of entirely new businesses in Elixir guitar strings and Glide dental floss.
Ideo is an entire company built on creativity. Co-founder David Kelley, in a brilliant TED talk called How to Build Your Creative Confidence that has been viewed more than six million times, talks about dedicating his life to helping as many people as possible regain their thwarted creative confidence and think of themselves as innovators. In Kelley’s words, to “have people realize that they’re naturally creative, and those natural people should let their ideas fly.”
Historical context of creativity
Science historian James Burke noted that one year after the 1781 patent on the sun-and-planet gear system to convert the piston power of Watt’s steam engine into rotational power to drive a shaft, the economic growth curve in Britain began a steep and sustained upward climb.
More recently, in the 1980s, the debut of baby carrots disruptively transformed supermarkets, the carrot industry, and consumption patterns throughout the United States.
3M established a “bootlegging” policy to give people time to work on projects of their own choosing and invented the eponymous Post-It note, now producing over 50 billion per year.
Nand Kishore Chaudhary, the founder of Jaipur Rugs, gives carpet weavers in some of the poorest villages in India the opportunity to design their own carpets based on life scenes from their own communities.
Embracing change for creative growth
An entire enterprise ecosystem designed to listen for, detect, surface, and deploy innovation from any point at any time would seem to have an inherent advantage in creating order-of-magnitude change.
A recent study suggested that, because change can be disruptive, managers solicit more voice from workers when they feel a sense of personal control over effecting change coupled with a long-term perspective. That sounds more like organizational self-management than capitulation to the hierarchy.
Organizational designs and management approaches that impede creativity will become fossils in what’s been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Intriguingly, the World Economic Forum categorized two of the top ten skills of 2025 (Active Learning & Learning Strategies; Resilience, Stress Tolerance & Flexibility) under the rubric of Self-Management.
The path forward
Closing the gap between the freedom of workers to create and the crying need for their creativity is more than an economic and technological imperative; it’s also about honoring the nature of humanity itself—the moral case.
The humanity of business lies in its very ability to foster innovation and creativity. Caring about people is, in large part, caring about their ability to create for which we have evidence going back millennia to prehistoric cave paintings, sculptures, and tools. The desire to create is one of our deepest human needs, on a psychological par with the physical needs of food and shelter.
When we consider the dismal employee engagement statistics measured by Gallup and others year after year, what do we have to lose by following the survey responder’s suggestion to “grant more autonomy in the work to stimulate everyone’s creativity”?
The correct answer is we have nothing to lose.
On the other hand, we have the future of work to gain. Perhaps we should follow the innovation examples of W.L. Gore, 3M, Google, and others and give people the time, space, and psychological safety to freely experiment, and create, for the benefit of all.