Michelle Novak, who oversees human resources for a San Francisco tech company, had a problem. For years, the office’s customer support team had been getting deluged with complaints from headquarters overseas. “The tickets weren’t being filed fast enough. What was wrong with the American office?” This issue was met with general silence in the office, and then every few months, another deluge of complaints would flood Novak’s inbox.
She decided to solve the problem herself.
Novak stays well-informed through a constant input stream of podcasts, YouTube videos, newspapers, anything and everything. “Great ideas can come from anywhere,” she says. In this case, it was an article she’d read about “design-thinking” that popped into her brain. She googled more, found a video on the brainstorming method, jotted some notes, and met with the team.
Using that structure, the team figured out where the tickets were getting stuck, designated a person to check the morning queue, came up with a midday check-in schedule, and figured out how to divvy tickets each afternoon. The team was quickly up to speed, and it all only took only a few hours to solve.
So how do you, as a worker, become more creative in the workplace? As it turns out, Novak's idea of simply filling her mind with seemingly unrelated ideas can be a great way to problem solve. Other ways to spark creativity include playing games or other creative hobbies during work hours, or simply getting paid more—which, not surprisingly, is one of the best motivators of all.
“We often psyche ourselves out of it by saying ‘I’m not a creative person,’” says Art Markman, psychology professor at the University of Texas and author of Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done. “But everyone is inherently creative."
Be an omnivore when it comes to ideas
After speaking to multiple experts who’ve studied how creativity works, their lesson is to do exactly what Novak does: Learn as many things as possible.
“One of the most important things you can do is just learn a lot, particularly things you didn’t think you needed to know,” says Markman, who believes one of the biggest problems “non-creative” workers have is un-doing years of education. Due to how exams are administered, it’s largely in the best interest of students to tunnel-vision what they learn to entirely on what they’ll be tested on. In other words, know only what you need to know, since that’s what you’ll be graded on. But, studies have shown, that focus harms creativity.
“If you look at the history of inventions, it’s because of the non-obvious connections that people make,” Markman says. “After the invention, it’s like, of course James Dyson needed to know about sawmills to develop a great vacuum cleaner. But in the forward direction, you’re not sure which information you’ll need. And if you never learn it, you never know you’re gonna need it.”
Step one, then, is simply collecting as much knowledge as possible. Books, lectures, articles, TV shows, movies, graphic novels, music, museum exhibits, TED Talks, podcasts, whatever.
Hang out by the watercooler
But often more important than those varied and many media inputs are actual conversations on random topics with as many people as you can throughout your day. Markman has a name for people that excel at this behavior: “expert generalists” or “those that know a lot about a lot.”
One trait Markman has found common in this group is that they’re moderate-to-low in a personality trait called “conscientiousness,” which is being sharply focused on the task at hand. “When you ask them to finish a report, they’re hanging by the watercooler, having a conversation,” Markman says. “In the moment, they look lazy, but what happens is that it leads to a vast repository of knowledge that later bears on problems they’re solving. So, if you’re someone like this, you have to protect yourself from not getting fired early in your career.”
A 2018 study in PNAS examining fMRIs of people participating in creative activities bears this out as well. In it, people were given different objects (a gum wrapper, a sock) and told to come up with creative uses for them. The participants who showed the most creativity (say, by using the sock as a water filtration system) had fMRIs showing the most blood flowing through connections in different parts of the brain. Later, researchers used these results to accurately predict who was most “creative” simply by looking at their imaging.
How do these connections develop? “We showed that people who were better at this task reported more creative hobbies,” says Roger Beatty, postdoctoral fellow in cognitive neuroscience at Harvard, and one of the fMRI study’s authors. Hobbies, then, could be a way of training your brain to be creative.
An intriguing 2017 study in Applied Psychology also found that personal relationships with people from other cultures have also shown to be a boon for creativity, with the caveat that it’s not, like, how many people you sleep with, but actual meaningful relationships. It all leads to a body of science showing that if business owners want employees to be more creative, they should promote more spare time for slacking off and creative hobbies.
Get paid what you're worth
There's another way that creativity can be spurred in workers: Give them money.
In a series of studies from last year, Ravi Mehta, a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois, discovered that—surprise, surprise!—giving workers money actually promotes creativity. While Mehta is quick to point out that the caveat about these studies is that it’s not just about a higher standard wage—it’s important that workers are both told to be creative, and that they’ll be rewarded with money if are—this still runs contrary to the old axiom that “money kills creativity.”
For years, it was assumed that the main driver of creativity was social recognition (awards, acclaim, etc.). But actually, that’s the opposite. “When I come up with something which is creative, and I know that other people will know when they find that thing out, I don’t want to be creative,” Mehta says. This makes intuitive sense. Being creative means taking risks, which means coming up with solutions that are unusual. (If they were usual, they wouldn’t, by definition, be creative.) And if people have an unusual idea, it’s usually not worth the risk of sharing it with everyone simply for social recognition. This is where the money comes in.
“Money is powerful,” Mehta says. “It’s like, ‘I don’t care if people don’t like my thing, that’s fine, I’m getting money for this.’”
How do you get paid more? Here's our story on getting a raise—even if your boss won't budge.