For many years, the common understanding of employee creativity involves individuals generating new products and services for their organizations. We think of employee creativity when we think about the 3M engineer who invented post-it notes and the Zappos customer service representative who was empowered to take a creative route to deliver customer service. As illustrated by these examples, the conventional understanding of employee creativity focuses on novel products and solutions that allow individuals to deliver high performance for their organization.
Yet employees can also demonstrate creativity in other ways. Compared with the conventional type, these other “unorthodox” ways of employee creativity are less understood yet equally important for researchers who are interested in understanding creativity and innovation in organizations. In their popular book, The Ten Faces of Innovation, Tom Kelly and Jonathan Littman discussed the different personas needed for effective innovations. Somewhat parallel to this notion, recent research shows that there are also at least three “other” ways employees can exhibit creativity in the workplace:
1. Circumventing rules to meet a business need
One such way is to use creativity to circumvent rules in order to meet a business need. The commonly understood type of employee creativity is carried out within the parameters of organizational rules. In contrast, using original ways to circumvent rules is using creativity to stretch these parameters. A common example will be an employee who circumvents red tapes in a creative way in order to get his or her job done more efficiently.
2. Circumventing rules to satisfy a personal interest
Employees may also circumvent rules creatively in order to satisfy their personal interests. For example, a software developer uses a clever way to outsource work tasks to a third-party contractor so that he can do less work. Personal interests are not necessarily all self-serving. They can also involve helping a friend or a social group that an employee cares about. An example would be a minority employee using creative strategies to stretch rules to help other minority employees receive a fair chance for promotion.
3. Developing a solution to a personal problem
In addition, employees can develop a creative solution at work simply to solve a personal problem, and it is not against the existing organizational rules. For example, an IDEO employee came up with the idea of hanging up his bike on the ceiling as a way of storage. This type of creativity does not stretch rules. But it is also not generating new products for the organization.
These “other” ways of employee creativity differ from the common understanding of employee creativity in two aspects. For one, some of them involve creative ways of stretching organizational rules and regulations. For another, they are not always used to achieve organizational goals.
To various degrees, it is possible to find examples of such employee creativity in all organizations. Yet organizations with some cultures and managerial practices are more likely to have incidents like these than others. Employees with a certain value, belief, and relationship with their organizations are also more likely to engage in these types of creativity than others. For example, companies with outdated rules and low openness to change may place more employees in a position where they need to develop creative solutions to overcome restrictions and regulations. Employees with strong professional and social identities independent of their work affiliations are also more likely to enact creative behaviors at work to help another group or advance another cause.
“When we observe other ways of employee creativity, it becomes apparent that the employer is not always in the driving seat in determining how its employees use their creativity.”
When we observe these other ways of employee creativity, it becomes apparent that the organization (or the employer) is not always in the driving seat in determining how its employees use their creativity. Individual employees have a great degree of agency (i.e., autonomy, latitude) in deciding where and how to use their creative ideas. Some of these creative ideas may benefit the organization directly and indirectly; some may not be directly relevant; some may lead to negative consequences for the company. Some of these creative ideas may inspire changes in the culture and policies of an organization in the future. Some may remain in the action domain of organizational life—that is, they are being done but not said.
Unlike the type of employee innovation commonly studied by researchers, these types of creativity are “informal” innovative acts in an organization. In a sense, these employees acted as entrepreneurs within their organization; they orchestrated their intelligence and creativity to enact changes with or without official permission. When employees use creativity to generate a product or service for the organization, their creativity often leads to a change in some aspects of the business operation. In contrast, these “other” types of employee creativity can also influence organizational rules, policies, and culture. They may be less visible, and some of them unrewarded, but are equally powerful in changing how a business operates, how employees experience their organizational life, and how customers and society experience a company.
Does this understanding bring good or bad news for managers? The answer is perhaps both. The existence of these “other” ways of employee creativity indicates that employees have much creative potential to offer. Yet it also suggests that employees’ creative potential is not used in ways that are fully aligned with the innovation objectives of an organization. This layer of understanding invites managers to attend to these other facets of the innovators in their organization. As such, it opens up possibilities for communication, reflection, and potential integrations with formal channels of innovation.