11/11/2013 06:18 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Closing the Creativity Gap: Bringing Innovation Back to Work

What if you could do your best thinking at work? If you're like most people, work rarely provides the time or creative space to think. Most work environments are not designed to empower creative thought. Think about that paradox. Organizations turn to employees for new ideas or products, but most employees feel their work environment stifles creativity.

The shocking results of Adobe's 2012 State of Create highlight this gap between expectations and reality. Only 1 in 4 employees believe they live up to their own creative potential. The remaining 75% said they face growing pressure to be productive, but not creative, at work.

These staggering statistics make it apparent that the "creativity gap" is growing, and we need to take action.

With employees hungry for creative opportunities, managers can support innovation and ignite workplace creativity with three small, but powerful, moves. It's time to close the gap.

Set Clearly Defined Goals

Many managers want to support creativity, but they are afraid of the perceived risk and the time it takes to come up with ideas. Sound familiar? Counter those fear with clear goals based on specific objectives. Make sure the goal has a measureable outcome and a deadline. It's not compelling, to say, "I want everyone to come up with new ideas." However, what if you said, "I want 20 people to submit new product ideas by December 31, 2013, at 12:00 p.m." See the difference? A clear goal engages us and helps others understand what you want to achieve.

Create Intersections

Great ideas often come from the intersections created when people with different backgrounds and different mindsets collide. Frans Johannsen described this phenomenon in his book The Medici Effect. Companies naturally have a few intersections built into them. As Johannsen notes, the key is to find them, encourage them, and use them to your advantage.

You can encourage these intersections by bringing together different groups within the company. It may involve people in roles that do not interact frequently or even live in different locations. Collaboration tools allow these intersections to be scalable.

Some intersections will already exist. The water cooler offers a classic example of a cultural intersection at work. Now it may be the office kitchen or lounge, maybe even someone's desk. Observe where people congregate naturally and use those spaces to help inspire more intersections that support your goals.

Apple offers a great example of a company that lives at intersections. Jobs himself famously cross-pollinated ideas and described the company as an intersection. For example, a calligraphy class at Reed College influenced the typography on the original Macintosh computer. Look for ways to pull in outside influences that fit easily into your current culture.

Reward Failure -- Strategically

When organizations stress the negative impact of what can happen when something new fails, it makes people afraid to take creative risks. During her live cooking show, Julia Child often made mistakes and left ingredients out. Production budgets were tight, so she had only one shot each time. But when she made a mistake, she'd laugh about it and alter the recipe. Her creative confidence not only humanized her brand, but also demonstrated that making a mistake can still lead to good things.

To encourage creative risk, consider reward failure -- strategically -- by:

  • Encouraging the execution of ideas
  • Only rewarding a failure the first time and requiring that a person learns from it
  • Hiring only people who are upfront about their failures and willing to learn from them
  • Everyone fails from time to time but you can use those moments to explore and reward creativity whenever possible, including creating an open innovation loop. This approach empowers creative risk and helps people feel their ideas are valued.

You can have people working alone in their cubicles, feeling alone and ignored, or you can create an intersection of ideas and buzz that launches your company past competitors. It's your choice. Will you close the creativity gap or leave your company sitting on the sidelines?