I originally wrote the following article for Harvard Business Review
Fostering a workplace environment that’s conducive to creativity is a top priority for many companies—and it’s no surprise why. The companies dubbed most creative actually outperform their counterparts in revenue growth and market share, and they’re 50% more likely to be market leaders.
Some companies attempt to inspire bursts of creativity using crazy perks (for example, Google regularly invites famous people like Lady Gaga to the office for lectures), but there’s an often-overlooked strategy for fueling long-term inspiration: creative discomfort. An environment of discomfort contributes to creativity by breaking people out of their normal thought patterns, encouraging original thinking and risk-taking.
But there’s a fine line between creating discomfort and breeding fear. Understanding the difference between the two is the first step in cultivating an environment of maximum creativity.
As a manager, I’ve seen fear enter the workplace firsthand. At Yesware, a sales email software startup, we use product roadmaps to decide what we’ll build and how we’ll execute. When we first started creating these roadmaps, our objectives were rigid and our timelines were fixed, creating a sense of fear-driven urgency.
Fear often manifests in primal responses: running, hiding, removing yourself from the threat. At work, fear makes people lose sight of business goals and become more concerned about self-protection. As my team had setbacks or saw changing market needs, we were unable to innovate—too afraid of risking failure to offer honest opinions and feedback. We struggled to have productive conversations as a team since everyone was worried about missing a deliverable, or even being fired.
So when we sat down to develop the next roadmap, we did some reevaluating. We realized that the first roadmap’s lack of flexibility set us up for failure. This time, instead of setting a checklist, we set a vision. We considered the big-picture goals we wanted to accomplish and left it up to the team to decide how to execute.
There was discomfort with how big our goals were at the beginning, but discomfort put us on edge in a different way than fear did. Fear was paralyzing, but discomfort made us want to move, want to act, want to create. When we made the roadmap more aspirational and less cut-and-dry, our team was much more comfortable asking questions like “Why?” and “Is this the best way?” and “What if?” They were also more comfortable communicating these thoughts with one another and working together to solve problems.
As I learned the hard way, calibrating an office for just the right amount of discomfort requires vigilance. Here are the five steps I use to get better at fostering creative discomfort on my team:
1. Start with communication. Open and honest communication across all levels brings understanding and context to each individual. If everyone knows what is expected of their team members and how this plays into the leadership team’s ultimate goal, they’ll be empowered to be proactive, not reactive. They understand how their work fits into the bigger goals of the company.
At Yesware, we use a goal-setting method called OKRs, which stands for “objectives and key results.” Anyone in the company can see them. “Objectives” are broader, more aspirational goals like “deliver two new features this quarter.” “Key results” are specific and actionable: “increase the number of users completing onboarding by 30 percent.” OKRs open channels of communication and provide a method for maintaining clarity.
2. Get everyone involved. Rather than having a meeting and assigning employees their next project, get their input and investment at the earliest stages. When my team is designing a new product or feature, we have a group sketch session where everybody—designers, engineers, executives—works together to come up with a visual plan. Having a variety of input not only helps us develop the best product possible, it also puts everyone in the best position to execute the plan once it’s in place. Employees have a very clear understanding of what they’re doing and why, which often leads to greater personal investment in the project.
3. Trust. Increasing employee involvement helps create a sense of trust. To allow employees to take big risks and work creatively, you need to give them room to do so.
We recently gave our engineering team almost total control over what they work on and who they work with, asking only that they regularly show how their work brings value to the company. This was the opposite of comfortable for the executive team, as we had no idea how it would turn out and less control over what developments employees would produce. But we knew that level of discomfort would allow much greater creativity and choice.
4. Review, Reassess, Repeat. Our plan didn’t work that well. After communicating with the team, we found that while some people liked the opportunity and embraced it, most were more interested in figuring out how, not what, to build. It was an important learning experience for both sides and allowed us the opportunity to communicate about process. Now we have a better and more effective plan going forward.
This regular rethinking and reassessing is essential to maintaining discomfort without edging into fear. It’s easy to focus only on the next deliverable, so every four weeks we have “retrospectives” where we talk about what’s working, what isn’t, and how we can change. This way, we’re constantly checking in about our process and communicating with each other. We also have the flexibility to try new things as we continue to find that knife’s edge of optimal productivity.
5. Be Creative. Your end goal is to inspire a little creativity in the workplace, so doesn’t it make sense that you should be creative in the process? I have a variety of strategies for my team—for example, letting them know a high-profile user is excited about using the feature. Instead of delivering the product to the boss, the team feels like they’re delivering a product for the benefit of the end user. Targeting delivery at a conference or trade show also creates a sense of discomfort and excitement. While the conference isn’t a hard deadline, everyone is motivated by the idea of a big unveiling.
At the end of the day, you have to find the amount of creative discomfort that works for you and your team. It may require some trial and error, but the end result will be a more productive team and a better workplace overall.