Inspiring Employee Creativity

In a thought-powered world, planning and execution are merely table stakes for leadership. Real leaders must unleash creativity.

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An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
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History, I argued in a prior article, suggests that technologies shape leadership. Today’s digital technologies, in addition to requiring companies to adopt culturally neutral leadership standards, are also forcing a reassessment of core leadership principles.

Prior technological revolutions largely enabled physical work to be done better, faster, cheaper. In contrast, digital technologies are making work increasingly thought-driven; at the core of good work are ideas, concepts, intellectual property, and symbols to be manipulated on computer screens. Consequently, unleashing people’s creativity and inspiring them to contribute must become a central goal of leadership.

The Dominant Leadership Types: “Controllers” and “Empowerers”

Two types of leaders dominate today’s work environment. “Controllers” prescribe standards, closely drive execution, analyze data that’s produced to progressively refine the standards, and evaluate people on their past performance. “Empowerers” prefer forward-looking discussions with direct reports. They use these to decide what work needs to be done.

Controllers run call centers that record every word and keystroke and require employees to refer to supervisors when issues unanticipated by their scripts arise.1 They see early virtual reality technologies as a tool for shortening training, minimizing on-the-job errors, and avoiding travel for meetings.2 They use dashboard tools to monitor individuals and tasks in real time, ignoring the fact that normal variation, endemic in nature, doesn’t require immediate corrective action.

Empowerers have begun emerging recently, often from industries that conduct high value-added, intellectual property-intensive work across the world. They operate in “connection and inspiration”4 environments that need employee development, rapid change, and teamwork.5 They found the Controllers’ approach problematic, as it often stopped them from prescribing precise goals beyond the short term. They also struggled to provide open-ended feedback that wasn’t conventionally positive or negative about issues in which their employees possessed greater expertise than they had. In response, they shed, or at least sharply changed, backward-looking annual performance reviews — considering them rigid, burdensome, and outdated artifacts — and replaced them with regular forward-looking conversations.6 Some use mobile apps to facilitate these discussions.

Neither of these approaches to leadership goes far enough. The real leadership challenge is that today’s digital technologies make work increasingly thought-driven, not muscle-powered. Prior technological revolutions required humans to primarily use strength, not intelligence: When, for example, technology led to the automation of elements of farming, those farmers could find alternative job opportunities in factories. While they did have to learn new skills, those farmers-turned-factory-workers were still doing physical work. Exertion was clearly visible. In contrast, we can see the output of most work today but not the thinking that produced it. Effort has become discretionary, and something that’s largely in the control of each individual contributor.

Here’s an example. I recently took a group of senior Asian executives from a company with a storied past to visit an incubator in their country. Serendipitously, an entrepreneur at the incubator already knew several of them well — he had developed his startup’s business model while working at their company. Though stable jobs are highly sought in that country and failure is something that can taint a person’s career and reputation, the entrepreneur had been willing to take the risk of starting a business. Critically, he had not stayed to build the same capability for his former employer. The leaders at his previous company had managed him for productivity, not creativity. He had given them the effort for which he was paid, but not the thinking of which he was capable.

Leadership’s New Imperative: Encourage Creativity

Unleashing the creativity of contributors like the entrepreneur before he left his employer, then, is the new leadership imperative. Planning well and executing brilliantly have long been nonnegotiable requirements for top executive positions. Even when it is “digitally aware,” frequent, forward-looking feedback is merely a powerful tool for superior execution. In a thought-powered world, however, planning and execution are merely the table stakes that establish potential for leadership. Real leaders must do more — they must inspire creativity and learning. While many might agree that the Controllers are on history’s wrong side, the Empowerers haven’t been audacious enough.

Leaders must boldly move creativity from the organization’s periphery to its center. By enabling thought-powered work, digital technologies have put executives into the business of leading “clever people.” As Rob Goffee, emeritus professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School, and Gareth Jones, visiting professor at the IE Business School, have written, clever people know their worth, ignore corporate hierarchy, are well-connected, and have low thresholds for boredom.7 Not long ago, clever people were a small fraction of an organization’s staff. The digital world now enables many people to share their characteristics. So, Goffee and Jones’ lessons aren’t scalable. That means we need new leadership models around embracing and encouraging creativity.

How can digital leaders succeed at this? I see five personal behavior changes that they should adopt:

  1. Resist the temptation to tell. A leader’s early decisiveness announces that creative thinking is not welcome, and promotes groupthink.8 An inexplicably enduring devotion to archaic SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely) goals makes matters worse by encouraging siloed thinking.9 Instead, leaders should stimulate discussion and debate, liberally asking, “What do you think?”, “Why?”, and “How can we bridge these ideas, as both are reasonable but mutually exclusive?” Doing so will require time and effort, but will pay off by helping to identify better options, and equally important, letting clever people know their opinions are valued. The creative entrepreneur at the incubator might have been more engaged by this approach than he was by the forward-looking boss telling him what to do, no matter how thoughtfully.
  2. Stop seeking uniformity. By definition, homogeneity excludes creativity. Decades of focus on quality standards have ingrained the belief that homogeneity (of skills, processes, problem-solving styles) is an institutional virtue. The growing fascination with Big Data is a case in point: Can Big Data improve decision-making? Undoubtedly. But a total reliance on data undermines intuition and artistry, which often drive creativity. Unless homogeneity is indisputably necessary, leaders should encourage a multitude of approaches, recognizing that the digital world is far more complex than prior times. Simple questions, asked after the application of the standard approach, can be sufficient: Would a right-brained person have framed this issue differently? What would she have said? Despite all our good work, what don’t we know about this situation? Would we do anything differently if we weren’t in this organization?
  3. Embrace distributed leadership. Open-source communities have long understood that the ceding of decision-making authority to those with the requisite expertise promotes creativity. Leaders should limit themselves to challenging, encouraging, and ensuring that essential communication, coordination, and cooperation take place across the initiatives they are championing. Doing so will give their people greater autonomy to act and the freedom to develop mastery over their work.10
  4. Encourage diverse experiences. Apple Inc. cofounder Steve Jobs believed that diverse experiences are essential for engendering creativity.11 But typical job postings show that most leaders don’t understand his advice at all: “Must have done” and “must know” statements are common today, and not much weight is put on the ability to be flexible and open to change. Too often, leaders seek people like themselves12 and then are surprised their organizations can’t “think differently.”
  5. Challenge your mindset regularly. It is impossible to inspire creativity without demonstrating a willingness to change one’s mind. Three simple questions can help: Which belief must I rethink? Which habit that made me successful must I unlearn? And which new capability must I relearn?

Rethink. Unlearn. Relearn. We must do these things with regularity with most of what we believe — if not all.

The reality is that leaders have no choice but to embrace promotion of creativity as a central mission. Most people in the pre-World War II workforce just wanted a job, while baby boomers got used to jobs that paid well. The generations that are growing up connected to computers from their earliest days seek more: They want jobs that pay well and that inspire them and arouse their passion. Given the choice between boring but well paid, and inspiring with decent pay, their preference — more than for any prior generation — is generally for the latter.13 The writing about how to attract critical, clever people is on the wall.



An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
See All Articles in This Section


1.See, for example, D. Enthoven, “How to Monitor Workers Effectively and Avoid the Big Brother Effect,” Data Informed, Sept. 11, 2013,; M. McAlpen, “4 Call Center Compliance Traps — and What to Do About Them,” CIO, Sept. 14, 2015,; and “Call Center Supervisor Best Practices,” white paper, DMG Consulting LLC, West Orange, New Jersey, 2007.

2.Outside the world of gaming, virtual reality is still at the show-and-tell level and lacks value-adding products. Media articles speculate on possible uses ranging from simply improving productivity to training to better prototyping. See for example, J. O’Brien, “The Race to Make Virtual Reality an Actual (Business) Reality,” Fortune, April 27, 2016,; Forbes Technology Council, “How Virtual Reality Will Impact Businesses in the Next Five Years,” Forbes, July 22, 2016,; and C. McIntyre, “How Virtual Reality Is Finally Starting to Be Useful for Businesses,” Canadian Business Jan. 9, 2017,

3.For example, see

4.M. Nisen, “Why GE Had to Kill Its Annual Performance Reviews After More Than Three Decades,” Quartz, Aug. 13, 2015,

5.P. Cappelli and A. Tavis, “The Performance Management Revolution,” Harvard Business Review, October 2016, This article also has a nice summary of the evolution of performance appraisals in the U.S., starting with the efforts of the U.S. Army during World War I.

6.K. Duggan, “Why the Annual Performance Review Is Going Extinct,” Fast Company, Oct. 20, 2015,

7.R. Goffee and G. Jones, “Leading Clever People,” Harvard Business Review, March 2007,

8.M.T. Hansen, “How John F. Kennedy Changed Decision-Making for Us All,” Harvard Business Review, Nov. 22, 2013.

9.A. Mukherjee, “It May Be Time to Get Rid of ‘SMART’ Management,” Forbes, Jan. 12, 2016,

10.D. Pink, “The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce,

11.G. Wolf, “Steve Jobs: The Next Insanely Great Thing,” Wired, Feb. 1, 1996, Jobs said in this Q&A: “Creativity is just connecting things,” and creative people “connect experiences they’ve had.… A lot of people … haven’t had very diverse experiences. So, they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions.”

12.J. Love, “Hirable Like Me,” Kellogg School of Management, April 3, 2013,

13.G.B. White, “Millennials in Search of a Different Kind of Career,” The Atlantic, June 12, 2015,

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