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Founder of Creativity at Work Linda Naiman’s advice to government: Think more like artists; left-brain thinking can kill creativity. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Founder of Creativity at Work Linda Naiman’s advice to government: Think more like artists; left-brain thinking can kill creativity. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

The Creativity Gap

How budget cuts could kick-start creativity in the public sector Add to ...

The signs were clear. A staggering deficit. A probable Conservative majority. Funding cuts to the arts were certain. Two questions remained: How significant the cuts? And, how to cope?

Managers at Canadian Heritage knew they were going to need some creative ideas to guide them through the coming transition. So they called Linda Naiman, founder of Creativity at Work.

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Ms. Naiman’s business card sports the title “corporate alchemist,” but the former advertising designer is better described as an expert in fostering creativity in the workplace. “[Canadian Heritage]was anticipating massive cutbacks,” she recalls, skimming through documents she prepared for the department’s seminars last year. “They specifically wanted a session on creativity, resilience and navigating change. To be resilient in times of transition, you need improvisational skills, resourcefulness − all those things that are part of being creative.”

As the stereotype goes, government bureaucracy is the antithesis of creativity. Yet, in times of austerity, creative thinking is badly needed. “Our country is getting older,” says Darren Dahl, who researches and teaches creativity at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. “We need more health care. We need to improve education. We have this huge challenge of the environment. We need to do more with less.”

Of course, stereotypes, however imprecise, often hint at truth. “It can be tougher to be creative in the public sector because public organizations are conservative by nature,” says Dr. Dahl. “We’re most creative when we’re forced to be. People say the public sector isn’t as creative as corporations because it isn’t subject to the same constraints; it doesn’t have to turn a profit.”

Could subjecting the public sector to the constraints of budget cuts stimulate creativity? How can public sector organizations encourage the type of creativity that could solve these daunting problems?

Ms. Naiman’s advice to Canadian Heritage: Think more like artists. Employing principles of what is known as design thinking, she pushed them to seek out multiple solutions to problems. “Our tradition of rote learning, in which there is only one answer, kills creativity,” she says. “We are increasingly in what might be called a post-modern world, where the rules aren’t clear. That linear, logical, analytical training we get − that left-brain thinking − does not equip us to navigate those types of scenarios.”

Embracing design thinking requires accepting a certain level of chaos, an obvious challenge for the public sector. “When we’re trying to find new ways to do things, chaos is part of the creative process because we’re travelling from the known to the unknown,” Ms. Naiman says. “Managers in business and government don’t like chaos. They want to solve problems right away. But they’re missing an opportunity for innovation and creativity.”

In order to kickstart this transition, Canadian Heritage asked Ms. Naiman to facilitate a workshop during which the team could come together to be creative in a democratized and amicable environment. She designed exercises to help managers change the tone of how they discussed new ideas with colleagues, a shift from “yes, but” responses to “yes, and…” She pushed them to rethink their assumptions about how things had always been done.

“The experience was very beneficial,” says Monique Leger, policy and program lead of the Youth Take Charge program at the department. “True dialogue is where creativity can find resonance. We need to create an environment for dialogue because without it, creativity won’t emerge.”

Ms. Leger found participating in a creative act as a team to be very useful, and Canadian Heritage has since initiated two artistic projects to build on Ms. Naiman’s workshop. Last year, they created a quilt out of public servants’ neckties; this year, they are planning a flashmob. “Creativity is not necessarily about making art,” Ms. Leger says. “But these actions bring people together and have long lasting effects beyond the doing because people have the opportunity to risk something.”

With the responsibilities associated with transparency to tax payers, asking bureaucrats to accept chaos, produce radical ideas, take chances and tolerate failure is a tall order. In this, Dr. Dahl believes the public sector could take some lessons from corporations.

Look to the practices of inventive companies like 3M and Google, he says. “Find ways to let people experiment. One way people are creative is by trying things out. There needs to be an acceptance of failure.”

3M and Google famously give employees free time during the work day to focus on a personal pursuit. This could be reading or playing a game of pool or even taking a nap. The practice has been credited with breakthrough ideas that led to laser eye surgery and Post-It Notes. Encouraging play is linked to creativity, says Dr. Dahl. “When you have a playful mind, you’re able to think in ways that enhance cognitive skills like analogical thinking and making connections between ideas. There is no reason the public service can’t do this.”

Yet, employing practices like these would be a radical change in most workplaces, requiring management and employees alike to rethink many assumptions.

John Baker, whose firm Shift Consulting has worked with many government organizations, realized the importance of questioning assumptions in fostering creativity when he was asked to facilitate a workshop for employees of the City of Vancouver in the late 1980s. Gordon Campbell had just been elected mayor, a dramatic transformation was under way and Mr. Baker was charged with coaching the city on how to institute change. He was well into the first day of a two-day pilot workshop for senior management when he realized his approach was not working. “They were in evaluation mode,” he remembers. “They were leaving to answer phones. They weren’t participating.”

That evening Mr. Baker and his business partner decided they couldn’t continue to lead the workshop in the standard, expected format as they had the first day. The next morning, participants arrived to find an empty room save a flip chart containing instructions: “There’s been an unexpected change. Outside you will find a bus that will depart for destination unknown. You have 30 minutes to decide if you’ll be on that bus and to make arrangements.”

Many of the participants boarded the bus, expecting to go around the block a few times. A couple of hours later they finally reached their destination: a conference room in Whistler where they debriefed. “The experience provoked a lot of insights,” Mr. Baker remembers. “These people are usually on the initiating side of change, not on the receiving end.” The point was the disruption. “Those pattern interrupts are really great for spawning innovations. You look at the world differently. It causes you to think about your thinking.”

Disrupting the status quo is key to creativity, according to Dr. Dahl. “Organizations need different thinkers. They need to hire people who aren’t going to fit in, who won’t just be yes men.”

Ms. Naiman agrees. Only in an environment where assumptions are up for debate can the first step of creativity occur. “Questions are the key trigger for creativity in the workplace. We need to learn to ask compelling questions: What if? Why not?”

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