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How has the Covid Pandemic impacted on creativity?

and what can we learn?

· Organisational

They say disruption can have both negative and positive effects, so what impact has the pandemic had on organisational creativity? That was the question asked by the US based consulting researchers, Marysia Czarski and Laura Barbero Switalski.

They spoke to 22 corporate leaders across North and Central America and Europe from a wide variety of industries to determine what, if any, impact the 2020 worldwide phenomenon had on creativity and innovation.

Their findings provide some key insights into how we can harness these challenges to drive creativity across our organisations. But they also point to the challenges that staff encountered in their objective to maintain their productivity.

The authors used a Creative Change Model (1) to help frame the interview process and drew attention to three elements that enable creativity: that is

The Person- the individual or team who bring their skills, knowledge, experience and motivation to create results.

The Process- that interacts with the person using thinking stages, tools and methods to develop solutions in response to the challenges posed.

The Environment- both the physical and the psychological environment, whether it be the workplace and the culture in which we live. The environment can both facilitate and inhibit the creative outcome and points to the importance of leadership practices in creating conditions.

The summary indicates that people, process and environment work together as a system for creativity. This system needs to become part of a strategy that is applied everyday to work, at work.

The Person

The Positives

  • Humans are adaptable and resourceful and rose to the challenge presented by the pandemic.
  • Intrinsic motivation drives a creative response, especially when we tap into and communicate a sense of purpose to solve problems.
  • Teams rally together and engage to create collaboration.
  • Empathic leadership is a valuable core competency, making time for and checking in with staff and listening to customers.

The Negatives

  • The year was like a pressure cooker, working harder, with high risk of burnout from ‘working from home’.
  • The intensity places a higher emphasis on wellbeing. Your capacity to be creativity is dependent on managing stress and meeting your psychological needs. (see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs)
  • Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and related fears of job insecurity undermined our capacity for novel problem solving and thinking.
  • The increased need for empathy and support was hard to fulfil for both employees and leaders.

Take Home Message

In time of crisis, and under the right conditions, people can step up and give their best to produce creative results, rallying together and focusing on a common cause. By the same token, the pressure at work has been as high as ever, limiting human capacity for creativity.

The Process

The Positives

  • Covid gave us permission to break the rules. This allowed people to approach challenges in a faster, more flexible, unconventional way. It can liberate us from old ways, beliefs and constraints resulting on a change in ingrained mental models and opening up the possibility for sustained change.
  • The new has generated more productive practices and a new way of working.  Remote working from home environments has changed the standards for effective meeting and working and wasteful practices like travelling , micro managing, slow decision making etc.
  • Creative thinking is enabled with clarity in priorities and directions and with well-defined problems. Covid provided a clarity of focus and with this a clear problem to solve for and a defined vision of the outcome are key drivers for the creative process to unfold.

The Negatives

  • Creative problem solving, with clarity, focus and facilitating problem identification, ideation, prototyping, experimentation,  is all much messier online. Simple meetings, engaging by sitting around a table brainstorming ideas are difficult to replicate online without a deliberate creative process.
  • Covid focussed us on efficiency as a means to productivity, often resulting on less creativity. Staff did the best they could, often without a deliberate approach and missing the opportunity to raise the bar with creative productivity.
  • Clarification is critical in a busier work environment and a time of major uncertainty. Moving towards a ‘new normal’ means having a clear set of priorities to enable organisation to focus on the most relevant and meaningful and leadership will be tested if this challenge is not understood.

Take Home Message

A well-defined, focused process with role clarity is critical for success in an organisation’s innovation efforts. On the upside, the Covid-19 disruption has helped to change old assumptions about the way things ‘are done around here’ and challenge and shift paradigms, leading to new, agile ways of working. On the downside, time to reflect and learn from these wins, including more structured and deliberate creative process, seems to be needed to continue to push the boundaries of new thinking something that is essential in order to thrive in a world that continues to rapidly change.

The Environment

The Positives

  • Growing team trust has been enabled through the virtual zoom connections straight into people’s homes, observing their families and personal spaces. This builds authentic human connection of the team, assisting to build mutual support, a sense of safety and assist creativity.
  • Increasing autonomy for staff, as the virtual offices enable staff/teams to work independently, breaking down the formal structures of the office. An organiaational climate that enhances freedom to think and act boosts people’s intrinsic motivation, reinforcing the interplay between Person and Environment.
  • New challenges give rise to more experimentation, solving these quickly and promoting a good enough, more agile  (rather than perfect) approach. Teams can try out ideas, seek immediate feedback, learn and improve, thereby reframing failure as an opportunity to learn. This deeply important reframe is critical to creativity and innovation thriving.
  • Remote work has enabled democratisation, enhancing diversity of contribution. The virtual world with its different online/offline approach and platforms enables more space for different ways of thinking and personalities, as well as creative expression.

The Negatives

  • The offline remote working environment can also erode trust, as people work alone at home and communication channels hide body language and non-verbal cues. They miss the networking, social interaction that builds relationships and its harder to build trust with new people. Creative collaboration is more difficult with people you don’t know well.  
  • Our imagination suffers during a pandemic. Spontaneous creativity from informal and serendipitous chats around the water cooler are lost. Virtual meetings with an emphasis on results and decisions are less likely to enable idea time, and there’s less allowance for playful imaginative thought. Plus zoom burnout is real.
  • There's limited room for real debate and healthy creative conflict and these add up to reduced creativity. Efficiency and speed take prominence over healthy and constructive debates; understanding subtle cues is more difficult through virtual communication and the pressure of time and assumptions not being well thought through all led to the lack of considered and thoughtful debate.
  • Limited inclusion from younger or newer team members can be felt when there’s no time to consult, get their ideas of they may lack confidence to step up and contribute. Important diverse voices can be left behind limiting their creative input.

Take Home Message

While organisations for the most part have adapted to a remote environment to get a lot of the task-oriented aspects of their work done, some have struggled to understand how to continue to create the conditions for creative work to thrive in the new digital environment. There are dimensions in an organisation’s environment that, when present, will enhance creative output and if absent or diminished, will hinder creative flow.

The research points to five critical conditions to sustain organisational creativity: (2)

  1. Leaders need to become more intentional about the creative process itself. They need to maintain a working climate that allows creativity to flourish through trust, autonomy, diversity of thinking, risk taking and tolerance for failure.
  2. When people know their work has a worthwhile impact on the lives of others, they feel the power of meaningful accomplishment and their motivation to be creative fires up. Purpose driven mandates, coupled with a clearly communicated strategy, are critical to unleashing the creative leadership of people in complex organizations.
  3. Investing in people’s well-being and developing their creative thinking skills helps strengthen their ability to cope with any crisis. As they become more resilient, they can apply their imagination to turning challenges into opportunities.
  4. Managing the polarity between Efficiency and Originality, Exploitation and Exploration, is critical to innovation. This means prioritizing efforts, executing plans with discipline and agility, and envisioning and exploring new strategic directions.
  5. he pandemic crisis has demonstrated that the creative interaction of People, Process and Environment is critical to innovation. Organizational creativity is achieved through the combination of all these ingredients. When leaders are deliberate in applying creativity through the people’s qualities they nurture, the process they use and the work environment they shape, innovation excels and succeeds. This is best maximized long term in person, however, is achievable in a remote environment.

The report concludes with recommendations that are the key areas for investment that aim to enhance leadership skills to drive change, develop internal capacity to build the creative problem solving process and build creative learning mindsets to strengthen both the individual and the organisation’s resilience and resourcefulness.

I highly recommend reading the full report to gain more insights into this fascinating and relevant research.

References:

1. The Creative Change Model Source 2005, Puccio, Murdock and Mance

2. Switalski, L.B and Czarski, M. The Covid-19 Pandemic Transformed Organizational Creativity How might we sustain it? , 2021 page 10.

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