Managers can kindle creativity by helping employees to cross-fertilize in their thinking, to think across subjects and disciplines. The traditional office environment often has separate classrooms and classmates for different subjects and seems to influence employees into thinking that learning occurs in discrete boxes—the math box, the social studies box, and the science box. Creative ideas and insights often result, however, from integrating material across subject areas, not from memorizing and reciting material.
Teaching employees to cross-fertilize draws on their skills, interests, and abilities, regardless of the subject. If employees are having trouble understanding math, managers might ask them to draft test questions related to their special interests. For instance, they might ask the baseball fan to devise geometry problems based on a game. The context may spur creative ideas because the student finds the topic (baseball) enjoyable and it may counteract some of the anxiety caused by geometry. Cross-fertilization motivates employees who aren’t interested in subjects taught in the abstract.
One way managers can promote cross-fertilization in the office is to ask employees to identify their best and worst professional areas. Employees can then be asked to come up with project ideas in their weak area based on ideas borrowed from one of their strongest areas. For example, managers can describe to employees that they can apply their interest in science to social studies by analyzing the scientific aspects of trends in national politics.
Allow time for Creative Thinking
Managers also need to allow employees the time to think creatively. Often, creativity requires time for incubation. Many societies today are societies in a hurry. People eat fast food, rush from one place to another, and value quickness. One way to say someone is smart is to say that the person is quick, a clear indication of an emphasis on time. This is also indicated by the format of many of the standardized tests used – lots of multiple-choice problems squeezed into a brief time slot.
Most creative insights do not happen in a rush. People need time to understand a problem and to toss it around. If employees are asked to think creatively, they need time to do it well. If managers stuff questions into their tests or give their employees more homework than they can complete, they are not allowing them time to think creatively.
Instruct and Assess for Creativity
Managers also should instruct and assess for creativity. If managers give only multiple-choice tests, employees quickly learn the type of thinking that managers value, no matter what they say. If managers want to encourage creativity, they need to include at least some opportunities for creative thought in assignments and tests.