Educating to be Creative in the Workplace

Though my young children are years away from entering the workforce, I can’t help but be concerned with whether they will actually have the skills necessary to compete for jobs when they enter it.

These kids currently attend good public schools and are getting fine grades. But the knowledge they acquire there and in college may no longer be sufficient alone.

In a previous post, I described the challenges of thriving in the knowledge economy. Tony Wagner, education expert and author of “The Global Achievement Gap,” says there are three basic skills students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to communicate effectively; the ability to collaborate; and the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving.

Sir Ken Robinson, author of the book “Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative,” says that in addition to communication and collaboration, creativity is also greatly missing in education. I would offer that critical thinking and problem solving actually require a great deal of creativity.

While better communication skills and the ability to work together effectively are vitally important and also the primary focus of my consulting work, I believe this lack of creativity is what may be holding back not only our workers, but perhaps our entire country from fully competing in this new economy.

The U.S. education system—and those of most other countries—focus primarily on language (reading and writing), mathematics, and science. This begins in elementary school and continues well into college. But how well are educational institutions addressing the need for improved communication, collaboration and creativity?

The answer seems to be not very well. Organizations are continually trying to find qualified job candidates who can effectively communicate, work well with others, and innovate to meet competitive pressures.

Being able to communicate well involves not only being a competent speaker, listener, reader and writer, but also the ability to read nuances found in body language, eye contact, tone of voice, and other nonverbal signals. These are things not taught in schools, but they can be learned by most of us as we interact with others.

My elementary school children are regularly learning to collaborate in ways I never imagined back when I was a student. They no longer sit at individual desks, but instead sit at tables with three or more and work together in most of their subject areas. This early collaboration should serve them well when they enter the workforce.

With regard to creativity, however, this may be another matter altogether. The fact is our country provides very little funding to educate students in art, music, drama and dance, and we continually stifle children’s ability to express their own creativity in other ways. This can include how they express themselves in writing, how they determine the best approach to solving a math problem, and thinking of a new hypothesis for science.

Creativity ultimately requires a willingness to make mistakes and be wrong, which are the very things schools often discourage most. When the goal is primarily if not entirely to get each student to answer a test question correctly, this avenue to creativity is no longer of value.

Every year companies spend millions of dollars training employees to be more creative, but this has so far had little success. These very same employees were originally hired because they achieved academic success from institutions where this creativity was stifled.

Learning to be and remain creative requires a great deal of humility and willpower. One must have a thick skin in order to regularly make mistakes, look foolish, and still persevere. This is necessary in order to innovate and find creative solutions that will enable us to compete in the world economy.

Hiring managers would be wise to look beyond candidates with high academic achievements and relevant experience to ask them where they took a big risk and what they learned from the outcome. They should also try to tease out whether candidates are able to think outside the box and come up with novel solutions to problems.

And if the company wants workers to develop curiosity and imagination, then that company must accept that there will be missteps, mistakes, and bad decisions along the way. This is a part of learning and an essential part of being creative. Only then, through this trial and error process, can workers and companies embrace the benefits of creativity for problem solving and innovation.

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About Mark Craemer
Craemer Consulting specializes in workplace communication, organization development and leadership coaching.

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