How to foster innovative and creative thinking

As a leader, how do you foster innovative and creative thinking in your team? Filtered Media Creative Director + Co-founder, Heather Jones, shares her top three tips.


Anyone in marketing or public relations is pre-qualified as a creative person, right?

Creativity lies at the heart of our ability to distinguish the clients and brands we represent in a saturated digital world.  

To stand out, innovate, earn trust and generate value, we need new ideas and ways of solving old problems – possibly the simplest definition of creativity, with profound implications.

I distinctly remember the day my mother tied a broken washing basket together with old nylon stockings after it split from too many family laundry loads, and kept using it for months after.

It’s one of countless times she used creative thinking to solve everyday problems. Yet my mother would never self-identify as a creative person.

The problem is those of us in traditionally “creative” fields like marketing and public relations often hesitate to unequivocally describe ourselves as creative people, too.


I wonder if creativity feels inaccessible to so many of us because we (rightly) revere the higher realms of genius we experience in art, fashion, film, music and theatre as true creativity.

Cultural testimony tells us creativity wins film awards, creativity writes musical scores, creativity compels strangers’ heads to tilt in unison at art galleries.

I’d argue that as a society, we are better versions of ourselves when creativity of such calibre is celebrated and respected.

Research shows us that the creative brain is even “wired differently” as it can “simultaneously engage brain networks that don’t typically work together”.

So you could say there’s every reason to amplify the measurable benefit of harnessing one’s creativity in the microcosm of society found within most organisations.

To succeed as brand storytellers, marketers, public relations professionals, pioneers, and business leaders: we must normalise creativity in the workplace and our personal lives.

So, let’s embrace creativity as an accessible and necessary way to distinguish our product, business, marketing campaign, culture or brand.

How do we foster creativity in a work environment where systems, process and policy are buzzwords du jour?


Let’s get practical with these three ways to foster creativity in the workplace:


1. Stress and creativity aren’t friends

Stress and creativity are as suited to each other as Ines and Bronson from Married at First Sight. Stress blocks the arteries through which fresh oxygenated ideas flow. Stress triggers a survival hormone, where you’re consciously or subconsciously choosing paths of least resistance to simply stay alive.

Stress doesn’t allow you to explore the best solutions to a problem. It prefers the fastest, cheapest or easiest approach, which is usually a well-trodden, safely paved road.

Step one in leading a creative work environment is keeping a close eye on the stress levels of your people, and of course, yourself.  Traditional HR stress indicators are notable increases in sick days, work from home requests, or out-of-character responses to everyday situations.


2. Creative thinking demands space

If you’re leading a team brainstorm, a simple change of environment can be enough to refuel creatively tired colleagues.

Try moving people’s desks, standing or ‘walk and talk’ meetings, or hosting brainstorms at an art gallery, by the beach, or on a patch of council-approved grass near the office — and see how it positively affects the dynamic.

Outside of work, be mindful of physical spaces that fill your creative reserves too.

Ever wondered why good ideas so often happen in the shower? The mind is free to roam when it’s in a “safe space” that doesn’t demand higher-order thinking and triage survival systems to be in play.

As individuals, the mundane, ordinary, simple, visceral experiences of life can inspire creative thinking — so be present in those moments, “let your mind wander and follow where it goes” as author and Book Review editor Pamela Paul says in this fascinating New York Times story on the value of boredom.

“[When I’m bored] my mind has no choice but to drift into an elaborate fantasy realm. It’s when you are bored that stories set in,” Pamela says.


3. Set a deadline on creativity

Time is an absolute gift to the creative process. However, creativity loses its value in business without a deadline or purpose. Commercially-driven creativity needs a tapered time allowance with a deadline — imagine a time funnel, basically. Chaos and the unknown is proudly at the top of the creative funnel.

Speaking on The CMO Show podcast about creativity, self-described “Adventurous Thinker” Sally Dominguez exhorted listeners to “not be afraid of the chaos,” saying “if you feel confident that no matter what anything throws at you, you will come up with options that are viable, then, you can pretty much deal with anything.”

The creative person is comfortable in that unknown space. They roam around and ask questions, look at different answers, follow possibilities down curious paths to raise new questions, and offer answers to questions no-one even had! But without being held accountable to a publishing/submission/client deadline, or a creative purpose — that process alone has no natural endpoint.

To be truly effective in a workplace environment, winners of the creative race have checkpoints, sideline coaches, and a finish line — or more literally, a visionary or creative director with clear deliverables outlined and managed by an activator, or account manager, according to a pre-agreed strategic plan.


As marketing and communications leaders we must figure out how to normalise creative thinking and innovation in our workplaces, and personal lives.”


Finally, we have to ask ourselves why creativity and innovation are important. Like any industry, we are time poor, pressed against deadlines, KPIs and performance objectives, so why is it important to foster creativity and innovation in our teams at work?

From a big picture perspective, I believe morality and creativity are two distinguishing features of our humanity that cannot be replaced by artificial intelligence. The powerful combination of the human mind, spirit and conscience means ethical decisions cannot be outsourced to machines. Similarly, artificial intelligence is dependent on precedent, and pre-existing data and patterns to inform new algorithms. Truly pioneering ideas don’t have an existing data set.

Closer to home, creativity finds new solutions to old problems. Sally Dominguez on The CMO Show podcast says creative thinkers “walk around the problem and poke at it from different angles”. You’ll get cheaper, faster, better, smarter solutions. You might get your own version of nylon stockings to fix a broken basket so it can keep carrying the load, or you’ll get a whole new basket design.

Innovation goes a step further: it identifies new problems altogether. Innovative thinking finds or creates a gap in what exists today, then offers a solution to a problem we never knew we had.

Consider eyebrows – stay with me here – as a prime example of an unlikely frontier for innovation in the multi-billion dollar beauty and skincare market. Who knew an untamed eyebrow could be linked to a person’s self-worth? Well fear not, we now have eyebrow blading, shaping, tinting, blending, brushing, and tattooing tools with an extraordinary number of consumers worldwide, now spending money and time on their ‘instaworthy’ eyebrows.

If an openness to creative thinking led to “eyebrow innovation” – where a problem we didn’t know existed was identified along with a whole host of products to fix it and a global market to buy them – imagine the possibilities when we apply that same process to our own spheres of influence.  

It’s a common misconception that creativity and innovation are the same thing, but you’ll see quite distinct colours in each — which may shift how you choose to use and nurture one or the other in your own workplace, life, and campaign planning.

So then, what’s the difference between creativity and innovation? From my own observations, holding them up to the light as separate entities:

Creativity allows you to find new solutions to old problems.

Innovation allows you to see new problems altogether.



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