The Importance of Creativity in Business

Industry Advice Business

Apple is a company synonymous with creativity. It’s a brand that’s encouraged others to “Think Different” and, in turn, actually made that happen. Simply seeing the Apple logo has proven to spark individuals’ creativity; their actions mirroring how they perceive the brand.

It’s that creativity that’s helped Apple top the Boston Consulting Group’s list of “The Most Innovative Companies” for 11 years in a row, and grow a brand that speaks to more than its technology, but to design and innovation.

“Creativity is essential in business because it’s a differentiator,” says Tucker Marion, an associate professor at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

“If you’re looking at an iPhone versus a Samsung, at the outset, they’re very similar. But once you start digging, there’s more creativity in the iPhone. Take facial recognition, for example: It’s a seamless user experience. Just because someone is first to market with a feature doesn’t mean they’re more creative. Design and the user experience mean a lot to overall creativity of a feature or service.”

Creativity has given Apple its competitive edge, and inspired an unparalleled end-to-end user experience; Apple’s brick-and-mortar stores are as clean and modern as the products it sells. The brand has become one other companies mirror their strategy after. Rather than try to replicate Apple, however, business leaders should focus on how they can foster creativity within their own organization.

Why? Because, “Companies who are creative are more successful,” Marion says.

Just how important is creativity to business? Eighty-two percent of executives surveyed by Forrester agree that companies benefit from creativity. Among those benefits include increased revenue and greater market share. It’s why 58 percent of respondents said they set goals around creative outcomes, and why another 48 percent claim to fund new ideas spun out of creative brainstorming.

There’s just one major disconnect: Despite the perceived benefits, 61 percent of executives don’t actually see their companies as creative.

The Importance of Creativity in Business

Organizations today operate in a highly competitive, global environment, making creativity crucial. Creativity is what fuels big ideas, challenges employees’ way of thinking, and opens the door to new business opportunities. “Creativity” and “innovation” are often used interchangeably for that reason, but are two separate concepts.

“Innovation isn’t just one thing,” Marion says. “There are a lot of competencies that go into realizing an innovation. Creativity is different because creativity is a mechanism to being innovative. You can have great ideas, but not be innovative.”

Creativity in business is a crucial first step that needs to be prioritized by senior leadership. A survey by IBM of more than 1,500 chief executive officers shows consensus: Creativity was ranked as the number one factor for future business success—above management discipline, integrity, and even vision.

One reason for that is: Creative leaders are more comfortable with ambiguity. And as industries continue to evolve, business goals and priorities will need to change. Eight in 10 surveyed CEOs said they expect their industry to become significantly more complex. Only 49 percent, however, are confident their organizations are equipped to deal with the transformation.

“Every industry is being challenged by dynamics globally and changes in technology,” Marion says.

Several retailers, like Apple, are trying to rise to the challenge by creating “experiences.” Take Starbucks, for example. Customers visit for more than the seasonal beverages; they go for the ambiance. From the warm, welcoming interior color scheme to the alternative music and, often, neighborhood-inspired furniture or art, there’s more to the brand than what it’s selling behind the counter.

Target is another example. The chain recently announced plans for how it’s reimagining its more than 1,800 stores. One change is that shoppers will be able to “choose their own adventure” by picking from one of two store entrances. The first will lead customers to a grab-and-go food and wine and beer shop, featuring self-checkout lanes and the option to pick up any online orders. The second entrance will bring customers to the store’s other beauty, fashion, home, and electronics displays.

“Now we’re selling experiences, and those experiences need to be well-designed,” Marion says. “Creativity lends itself to that and inspires good design.”

How to Foster Creativity within Your Organization

There are several smaller steps leaders can take to make a big change on their organization. Here are five ways you can foster creativity within your own team:

1. Reward Creativity

Not every idea will be a success, but big breakthroughs won’t occur if the company plays it safe. Executives need to be comfortable with failure, and give employees the freedom and flexibility to experiment with and explore new opportunities.

Global conglomerate Tata gives out a “Dare to Try” award to employees with the “most novel, daring, and seriously attempted ideas that did not achieve the desired results,” while Google’s innovation lab, X, offers bonuses to each team member who worked on a project the company ultimately decided to kill as soon as evidence suggested it wouldn’t scale.

Companies that reward creativity show they value it, inspiring individuals within the organization to pursue untested theories and concepts.

2. Hire the Right People

The “right” people in this context aren’t solely creatives. Organizations should instead focus on diversity, bringing in a variety of viewpoints, cultural backgrounds, and skill sets. Tom Kelley, partner at global design firm IDEO, established “The Ten Faces of Innovation,” describing how each type of person—such as “The Hurdler,” who tackles problem-solving head-on, or “The Caregiver,” who works to understand and form relationships with each individual customer—adds to the overall creativeness of a project.

“Not everyone is going to be creative, but most people can learn the tools and techniques for being innovative,” Marion says. “It helps to look at things from a different vantage point.”

It is also worth considering building an innovation team within your organization, whose role is to tap into creative energies to develop new products, services, or processes within an organization.

3. Try the “Yes, And…” Approach

One method for spurring creative brainstorming is trying a technique used in improvisational theater: “Yes, and…” The approach encourages colleagues to build off their peers’ thoughts by first agreeing and then adding something to the discussion. Taking “no” off the table ensures all ideas are heard.

Employees could test this approach by simply putting a paperclip in the middle of the table and thinking up as many use cases for it as possible. The activity might sound silly, but it could help inspire creativity.

4. Try Flexible Work Hours

Not everyone is suited for the traditional nine-to-five schedule. Offering flexible arrangements, such as the ability to work from home, is known to make employees healthier, happier, and more productive. As long as employees are clear about expectations, complete their work on time, and coordinate appropriately with their team, it’s an easy strategy to test and enables everyone to work when they’re feeling most creative, as opposed to a set time during the day.

5. Give Employees Time to Recharge

With creativity can also come burnout. Employees need time to step back and hit the refresh button.

“Companies do need to take burnout into consideration,” Marion says, “and maybe take some time between projects or offer sabbaticals to recharge their employees.”

The only thing companies can’t do is ignore creativity altogether, or hope the problem will solve itself. Creativity needs to be prioritized—and for good reason, reminds Marion.

“Creativity lends itself to unique solutions to problems,” he says, “and to unique features on products, or unique business models and sources of revenue.”

Who can argue with those benefits?