Stimulating creativity | Inquirer Business

Stimulating creativity

We thought that awarding cash prizes for the best ideas will make our people more creative,” says Rob (not his real name), the human resources head in a family food business. “For the sake of employee morale, we praised some entries, but the results were quite disappointing.”

In 1999, US psychologist Barrie Cooper and his team tested creativity in the business context, and found that intrinsic rewards (such as personal interests) spurred more creativity than extrinsic ones (like money).


Money remains a strong motivator for people to work hard, but creativity is not easily ignited by financial rewards alone.

“We think that creativity, like any other task, can be bought and sold,” says US psychologist David Niven in his book “100 Simple Secrets of Successful People.”


“But creativity is not the same as hard work and effort; it requires genuine inspiration. It is the product of a mind thoroughly intrigued by a question, a situation, a possibility.”

Niven recounts the story of how Japan Railways (JR) East transformed an engineering problem into a radical enterprise. While building a bullet train between Tokyo and Nagano for the 1998 Winter Olympics, the railroad behemoth discovered that water kept flooding the tunnels dug under Mount Tanigawa. Extensive drainage systems were proposed.

But a thirsty maintenance worker found the tunnel water pure and refreshing. Instead of throwing it away, he suggested that the company sell it. JR East entered the bottled water business, placing Oshimizu water bottles in vending machines in more than 1,000 stations. Shortly after, sales reached more than $50 million annually.

I also remind Rob of Google, which famously gives their people 20 percent of their time to work on what they are passionate about—and which will also benefit the company. In 2004, before their initial public offering, cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin said that this 20-percent rule “empowers employees to be more creative and innovative,” leading to significant advances such as Gmail.

“You enticed your employees with money, with mixed results, whether or not they are interested in their own projects,” I tell Rob. “Google encourages people to work on their interests and develop these for the company. That’s the main difference.”

“We cannot afford to have our employees do their own thing,” says Rob.

“But your contest was supposed to encourage creativity at work,” I say. “You asked them for creative ideas!”


Aside from interest, Cooper’s research also shows that employees display more creativity when they know their companies truly reward it, as in the case of JR East.

“Experiments offering money in exchange for creative solutions to problems find that monetary rewards are unrelated to the capacity of people to offer original ideas,” says Niven. “Instead, creativity is most frequently the product of genuine interest in the problem and a belief that creativity will be personally appreciated by superiors.”

“You did right by awarding good ideas, no matter what you truly feel about them,” I tell Rob. “But give employees the resources to implement those ideas. Who knows, these may prove helpful to the company later on.”

Public recognition, enthusiasm and supportive actions from bosses, especially managers and owners, are most prized by employees, according to psychologists Teresa Amabile and Mukti Khaire.

Creativity also flourishes when there is room for mistakes—and a sense of personal control. Google’s 20-percent rule allows employees to think they have control when they work on things that they love. Thus, they persevere, dedicate themselves and take calculated risks—the hallmark of creativity.

In “The Little Book of Talent,” Daniel Coyle describes the e-commerce enterprise, Living Social (now merged with Groupon), which “has a rule of thumb for employees: Once a week, you should make a decision at work that scares you.” The company has 15 million subscribers worldwide.

Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” via Lazada or the e-book version on Amazon, Google Play, Apple iBooks. Contact the author at [email protected]

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