Artists in our Midst

Innovation depends on fostering a creative workplace

As I pedalled the bike machine in the gym one morning this month, an old song by The Who started to play on the radio. I found myself pedalling faster. If I needed more convincing, this is an example of how art can affect individual performance.

Generally, art and culture are associated with city life; inside the workplace they’re rarely given a second thought. But, recognized or not, art is integral to our workplaces: think of the music that permeates retail and commercial spaces, the “motivational art” that graces our office lobbies and boardrooms, and even the use of drama as a teaching tool, as in analyzing classical Shakespearean characters to teach leadership skills.

Cultural amenities are often cited as powerful magnets to attract newcomers and entrepreneurs to a community. But with so much talk about sustainability, indebtedness, our aging workforce and poor productivity performance, I believe art is equally important for its role in innovation – the key source to productivity growth. When assessing business priorities, art should be placed right alongside R&D and public investment in science, technology and education.

Innovative thinkers have certain psychological attributes, including irreverence for the status quo and willingness to take risks. Artists are also risk takers and generally they are less afraid of chaos than the rest of us. The arts provide fertile conditions for developing new ideas or, to use that cliché, thinking outside of the box, step one in the innovation process. 

Art can enhance informal learning that can provide a supportive framework to foster innovation. Artistic deviance and creativity can help ignite new ideas by challenging or disrupting an established community of practices or work routines.

Creativity and innovation involve questioning or transforming taken-for-granted ideas and standard practices in the company. Applying this to workplace learning means encouraging a reciprocal transformation between an employee’s or group’s image of the status quo and various levels of authority. For example, a project team acquires new ideas through experience and critical reflection on current ways of doing things. This kind of innovation can be nurtured by designing jobs in ways that empower employees and allow group dialogue. 

So how can business leaders leverage the creative potential of art and artists in order to improve innovation and productivity? Recognizing art’s role in innovation means harnessing employees’ assets through a range of practices: empowered project teams, communities of practice, cognitive apprenticeships and informal learning.

While innovation is often associated with ingenious individuals diligently working to create a new product or process, most innovations are in fact built upon the cumulative knowledge and practices undertaken by groups. If we use only creative individuals as the lens for understanding innovation, then we get a very restrictive view of the process. A more inclusive view of the innovation phenomenon is to consider the context.

We need to reposition discussion of innovation, moving from the narrow notion of innovation as something to be imported, to innovation as a potential workplace asset to be developed. We should pay attention to HR practices that draw out employees’ creativity in and through the arts. Inviting an artist to join a project team designing a new product or service can add value to the collaborative process. We also need a more specific focus on managers who encourage informal learning, foster new ideas and sponsor their subordinates’ creative thinking.

Given the economic challenges emerging out of this fragile recovery, it’s time that business leaders recognize that art and artists in the workplace can strengthen innovation and productivity. n