That Little Extra Something: Harnessing Your Personal Creativity at Work

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” — Kurt Vonnegut, American author.

That Little Extra Something: Harnessing Your Personal Creativity at Work by Laura StackIf it hadn’t been for drive-thru banking, fast food would be a lot less convenient. Years ago, a McDonald’s vice president was visiting the drive-thru window at his local bank when he thought, “Why couldn’t this work for our restaurants?” The rest is history. McDonald’s integrated the drive-thru idea into its new stores, and now lots of restaurants use drive-thru windows, including Starbucks. If a store doesn’t have a drive-thru window and you’re in a hurry to get a burger or a mocha latte, you probably won’t even stop there.

This represents just one example of the value of unleashing your personal creativity on a work problem. It costs you nothing extra, except maybe a little brain sweat, and it can deeply benefit your organization. If you lead a team, encourage them to think of novel ways to boost the company’s profit. It’s in everyone’s interest, it’s cheap, and as with Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Oftentimes ideas strike in the shower, while commuting, or as with the McDonald’s VP, while running errands.

Give that childhood creativity you’ve been reining in for the last few decades a chance to come out and play! Consider these suggestions for blending creativity with your work processes.

1. Set aside some time for creativity. You may have heard of a little company called Google. Until recently, they let some employees spend up to 20% of their time working on personal projects they felt could boost the company’s profitability. Results included Gmail and AdSense, and possibly Google+ (sources differ). The practice clearly produced some excellent products and earned them millions while it lasted. You may not be able to give your people a full day a week to pursue personal projects, but the occasional half-hour spent brainstorming can have a positive effect on your productivity.

As leader, you have more flexibility when it comes to spending your time. For example, you might get up half an hour early and think while your home or office is still quiet. Marketer T.J. Rohleder of M.O.R.E., Inc., whose company has grossed over $160 million since its inception in 1988, credits his “Five A.M. Club” concept with earning him a significant percentage of said millions. He gets up no later than 5:00 A.M. every morning, sits down with a pen, a pad of paper, and a cup of coffee, and lets his mind wander until inspiration strikes.

2. Study other disciplines. We’ve all heard of hybrid vigor. In nature, some of the most vigorous creatures are crossbreeds. For example, mules—the offspring of horses and donkeys—are amazingly strong and durable. “Heinz 57” varieties of pets and livestock tend to be healthier than purebreds, because inbreeding reinforces bad genes and produces more “duds” than random breeding.

The same goes for business ideas. Read widely about successful people and businesses in a variety of fields, stay aware of scientific progress in fields other than your own—and keep your eyes open. That’s how the McDonald’s VP picked up his multibillion-dollar idea when he visited his drive-thru bank. How many other fast food restaurateurs had done the same and completely missed the connection?

3. Listen to your team’s ideas and advice. Your team probably has combined experience measured in decades. Take advantage of that experience, urging everyone to make suggestions about how to better achieve company or team goals. If they prefer to stay mum, offer a reward for profitable ideas. You may jostle a few loose.

Their ideas may be like seedlings: when they first emerge, you never know which will die off, which will become a weed, or which will grow into a mighty oak that buttresses your organization’s success. So give ideas a little time to mature before you thin them out. That way, you can better identify the ones that will profit you.

4. Don’t punish failure. Everyone makes mistakes or overestimates the worth of some things. Most ideas fail. Some fail dismally, like Microsoft Bob. (If you don’t remember Bob, then I think I’ve make my point). Let your people err without worrying about punishment. Otherwise they may give up too soon. There’s an old joke about someone’s uncle who invented 1Up through 6Up before giving up…and though meant only as humor, it does teach one a sly lesson about tenacity. Many famous entrepreneurs—T. Boone Pickens, Donald Trump, H. Ross Perot, and others—failed multiple times in their careers before striking it rich.

Creativity Unbound

While we have procedures and traditions for a reason, we can’t let them hold us back. In many ways, modern business consists of the blind leading the blind. The mavericks, who keep their eyes open and are willing to try something new, drive innovation. So open your eyes to the possibilities; because as the saying goes, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Imagine how well you can do with both eyes open.



  1. I liked the post Laura.

    There is a great story called “I Pencil”, The basic premise is that nobody knows how to make a pencil by themselves. No single person knows how to cut down the trees… and make the paint… and mine the graphite… and build the machines… and distribute the pencils.

    I probably haven’t made the point very well, You can see the video here:

    So if you want to be creative I think your 3rd point – listen to your team is all important. There is so much we don’t know that they do. Creativity comes from what we don’t know, not what we do.