Creativity in HR

February 22, 2016

As HR professionals, we must consider our own creativity and understand how this creativity might be blocked. A search for the one right answer will stifle creativity. We must be open to a wide variety of alternatives and the recognition that there are usually multiple ways of achieving the results we seek.

We defeat ourselves if we always attempt to be structured, rational, and logical. We are often better served by “winging it” or letting go. Trying to be too controlled in our approach to problem-solving can restrict the flow of those creative juices as we lock into the old ways of doing things. If we stay too regimented, we miss the opportunity to have fun—and to be more creative.

But perhaps the greatest block to creativity is our own self-limiting beliefs. This is essentially the belief that we are not creative and cannot be innovative. In essence, we fail to push boundaries.

Are We Pushing Boundaries?

Innovative individuals (and innovative organizations) are always seeking to push the boundaries. They are energized at the thought of going where they have not been before. Innovators are not shackled to the old ways of doing things. They are flexible and open-minded. However, there must be some reins on their creativity. They want to be flexible but grounded at the same time. They must be creative without losing their sense of reality. As HR professionals, we certainly need to work within specific parameters such as legal requirements to keep us grounded in reality. Yet we can still innovate within those contexts.

Are We Open-Minded and Comfortable with Change?

Today’s environment requires that all of us be more flexible and comfortable with change. The very nature of our world is dynamic and constantly changing. Those who are wed to the past and want things to remain the same quickly find themselves falling behind as the world around them changes.

Those who are fearless are more comfortable with ambiguity. This receptive mindset enables them to take more risks without knowing things with certainty. Decisions are made in three environments: certainty, risk, and uncertainty. Environments of certainty require perfect information. Yet seldom do people have perfect information when making decisions. Even the decision of which car to purchase is usually not made in an environment of complete certainty. Having done our homework, we make our decision only to have a friend ask, “Why didn’t you buy a _____ ?” And of course, we never considered that car (or researched it).

Some people fail to make decisions (or procrastinate) while seeking that information. In academia, students who are in an endless quest for the most complete, up-to-date information for their literature reviews in the dissertation process (constantly adding the latest information) usually end up with the designation ABD—all but dissertation—never finishing their programs. These are the individuals who are not comfortable with ambiguity. Paralysis by analysis closes the door to action.

In a rapidly changing, dynamic world it behooves us to become more tolerant of ambiguity. Ironically enough, as formal education prepares students in the “correct” answer, we may not be as open to ambiguous situations and the possibility that there is more than one right answer. Innovative individuals are noted to have a high tolerance for ambiguity.

Today’s world calls for innovation and creative problem-solving. Even the paradigm of education has shifted in the last few decades. Once professors were guided by the idea of viewing students’ minds as empty vials to be filled with facts and knowledge. That no longer works. Today, professors must teach students how to think. The problems around us are constantly changing, so providing the students with all the answers will serve no useful purpose because the questions and problems will change. The most valuable approach, then, is to teach students how to think (versus what to think). And a large part of teaching students how to think is to focus on creative problem-solving. With more ambiguity and uncertainty, the rational problem-solving approach does not fit most situations. Creative approaches are needed. This, though, requires that people be more fearless as they move out of their comfort zones and chart new territory. To lead the way in fostering an innovative culture, we must move out of our comfort zones.

Are We Taking Risks?

Moving out of one’s comfort zone requires a willingness to take risks. Oftentimes, we know what we are good at and do not want to move beyond that for fear that we will not be as good at something else (or heaven forbid, fail at it). This fear of failure holds us back from achieving our full potential. It prevents us from knowing what those boundaries are and what “could have been.” We really do not know what we can do until we have tried.

3M has carefully nurtured an innovative organizational culture. Although this has paid off on the bottom line of the corporation, it has not happened by accident. This focus on innovation requires a culture that accepts (and certainly does not punish) failure. If a risk is taken within the organization and it fails, punishment will reinforce that individuals no longer want to take any risks.

The same condition can result from our own self-imposed punishment. If we take a risk and then punish ourselves for failing (by belittling ourselves or hammering our self-esteem), we will no longer take those risks. Robert F. Kennedy once said that “only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” To be fearless, we must give ourselves permission to fail!

Are We Conquering Fear?

Sometimes we just need to ask what we really fear. What are we truly afraid of? Articulating this fear can make it more manageable and therefore easier to overcome. Dale Carnegie said, “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit at home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” Carnegie further recommended that we go out and keep doing the thing we fear! It is human to have fears. Letting them multiply and drive our life, though, is self-limiting. The difference between successful people and those who are not successful is in the response to their fears. Successful people face their fears—yes, they have them! Those who are not successful let their fears hold them back.

Fear can be perceived or real. Either is equally debilitating. Subconscious fear is just as powerful in eroding our self-confidence as real fear. Furthermore, this fear prohibits us from taking the first step to realize our dreams. When people are asked what their greatest fears are, it is always amazing to see results that indicate a fear of public speaking is ranked higher by most people than a fear of dying! Perhaps this gives credence to the idea that somehow many of our fears are unreasonable and not grounded in reality.

We can see, then, why fear is the antidote to the innovation we seek. Fear holds us back from taking risks, from experimenting—and ultimately, from innovating. Fear drives out innovation. Fear of evaluation closes down the pipeline of new ideas and opens us up to killing ideas with skepticism. With fear, there is no supportive environment to nurture our ideas and receive constructive feedback. Fear of giving up control crushes the spirit of those who are innovators and crave that freedom.

As HR professionals, we need to expect to do the heavy lifting. We must consider taking that all-important first step. We cannot wait for a critical mass to get behind our effort. We may need to be that lone voice at the front leading the way. By taking the temperature of our organizational cultures and assessing our own readiness to stimulate innovation, we are better positioned to lead the charge in accepting the challenge to foster an innovative culture!

Excerpted from Patricia M. Buhler, Destination Innovation: HR’s Role in Charting the Course (SHRM, 2015).



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