What Makes for an Innovative Work Environment?: The 9 Components of the Creative Workplace


If you have read just about any article from Inc., Fast Company, or Forbes in the past ten years or so, you know by now that the business environment is becoming increasingly turbulent, chaotic, and rapidly changing. 

In order for an organization to survive in thrive in these crazy times, it must develop the ability to innovate. This capability is THE critical capability for organizational survival and flourishing. Trust me, it's way more important than anything else anyone will tell you.  : )

And when considering how to best facilitate organizational creativity and get the maximum from your employees, one of the most critical points of leverage is what organizational researchers refer to as the "organizational climate**," the recurring patterns of behavior, attitudes, and feelings that characterize life in the organization. 

In simpler terms, the work environment matters. 

It can either bring out the best of your employees or significantly hinder their ability to create and innovate.

The Creative Work Environment Doesn't Happen by Chance

Companies like Pixar, Ideo, and Riot Games don't just have creative work environments by accident.  They deliberately work towards cultivating organizational climates that bring out the creativity in their employees.  The most innovative companies in the world view establishing and maintaining a creative work environment as one of three primary core capabilities that foster innovation (using deliberate work processes and inclusive leadership practices are the other two).

It Happens by Fostering These 9 Components

Over decades of research and application with some of the most innovative (and not so innovative) organizations in the world, Scott Isaksen, one of my mentors and leading experts in the field of innovation consulting, and colleagues identified 9 critical dimensions that make up the creative work environment. Contrary to popular conception, catered lunches and ping pong tables are not among the list, although they could very well help facilitate some of these dimensions.  Here is what you should be considering when planning initiatives to boost your organization's innovative output:

  1. Challenge & Involvement.  The perception that jobs and tasks are challenging, complex, and interesting - yet not overly taxing or overwhelming - is a critical component of the creative work environment.  Furthermore, the extent to which employees can get involved in this type of work - work that is strategic, problem-solving, and evaluative in nature - also helps foster a positive climate that is conducive to creativity.
  2. Freedom & Autonomy. The perception that employees have the freedom to perform their jobs in ways in which they deem most appropriate for themselves is also a key component of a creative work environment.  Employees who feel limited in how and when they can approach their tasks and solve problems generally do not exhibit high levels of creative performance.  Allowing discretion helps communicate to employees that the organization is confident in their abilities to decide how to best solve problems and create opportunities.
  3. Risk-taking. The belief that uncertainty and ambiguity is tolerated and that the organization is actually willing to take risks is highly associated with creative performance and innovation.   In work environments where ambiguity is not tolerated and employees are expected to have clear answers and decisions for everything, creativity will not thrive.  Employees must be willing to say "I don't know," while at the same time be encouraged to proactively seek out information and experiment with new ways of doing things in order to learn.  Failure must be embraced and even encouraged to some extent.
  4. Trust & Openness.  For employees to feel comfortable enough to say "I don't know" or to express unusual and dissenting ideas, there must be a very high level of trust and openness among peers and teams.  This emotional safety is a precursor to learning and risk-taking - and ultimately innovation.  In the organizational psychology realm, we call this "psychological safety,"  the extent to which individuals feel safe to take interpersonal and ideational risks on the team without fear of embarrassment or ridicule from their teammates.
  5. Idea-Time. You simply cannot expect someone to be creative if they do not have the time to generate, explore, develop and ideas.  A creative work environment is characterized by the perception that employees have adequate time to spend on creative, ambiguous endeavors.  This is often one of the hardest things for companies to do because innovation can be so inefficient, emergent, and unpredictable.  It is difficult to know how much time is needed to solve a truly challenging problem, and many organizations opt to instead task their employees with responsibilities where it is much easier to measure performance and productivity.  The most innovative organizations like Google and 3M, however, famously give their employees % time in which they are allowed to explore and develop new ideas.  You don't have to give employees a full day a week to help them be creative.  Allowing an hour or so each day for unstructured exploration can significantly help employee creativity.
  6. Playfulness & Humor. Researchers have scientifically shown that play and humor can help people break out of perceptual frames of what is normal and acceptable and facilitate discovering of unique associations.  Furthermore, a work environment characterized by positive emotions, spontaneity, and ease, is one in which novel ideas flow more freely.  Lastly, a fun work environment is one in which your employees will want to spend more time in.
  7. Conflict. This dimension works in opposition towards fostering a creative climate.  Its presence is characterized by emotional and interpersonal tension.  This type of conflict is no good for innovation.  If present, actions should be taken to resolve this type of unproductive conflict immediately.
  8. Debate. This is what is known in the organizational psychology world as "task conflict," and is actually a healthy form of conflict, as opposed to the emotional conflict mentioned previously.  This can be thought of as tension between differing perspectives, ideas, and processes.  Research shows that when you get people together with different expertise and perspectives, and you get them to discuss their ideas openly and without fear of being embarrassed, creativity happens.
  9. Idea-Support. This pertains to the degree that supervisors and peers support new ideas. In non-creative work environments, supervisors and peers may be opposed to new ideas and view them as threats towards disrupting their power and security.  But in the most innovative companies, supervisors are well-trained to show their support towards new and potentially useful ideas.  Co-workers in creative work environments also treat their peers' ideas with excitement and the desire to help build upon them through collaboration.

What's Next?

Now that you know what dimensions make up the creative work environment, you may be wondering, "what can I specifically do to foster these dimensions and a creative work environment?"  Well never fear, stay tuned for next week's post where I outline some very specific leadership behaviors that you can begin implementing immediately to help cultivate a creative work environment for your team or organization.

In the meantime, sign up for the Create.Learn.Live newsletter so that you don't miss out on any tips to help boost your own or your organization's creativity, learning, and innovation.

**Notice that it says climate  NOT culture.  Culture is a critical factor in an organization's innovative potential, but it is a much deeper and engrained (i.e. almost unchangeable) foundation of the organization.  Culture is what the organization values, whereas climate is what the members of the organization experience on a day-to-day basis.  Leaders and change management consultants should focus their efforts on helping cultivate a creative organizational climate (which is much easier, although still very challenging, to influence and change).