Book Excerpt: How to Overcome the Barriers to Creativity

November 15, 2021

Co-Author Donna Porter

In the new book Creativity in Talent Development, authors Donna Porter and Nancy Tennant contend that “creativity is a natural and renewable resource that exists in every person and helps us inspire, communicate, persevere, problem solve, rise to the occasion, and spark innovation.” 

But how do you get people to bring their creative side to work — and knock down some of the creativity blockers that exist in most organizations?

In this exclusive excerpt from their book, Porter and Tennant address those questions. Porter and Tenannt are co-founders of the firm Cultivating Creativity & Growth; Porter is also director of corporate innovation education at the University of Notre Dame’s IDEA Center, and Tennant is a former Chief Innovation Officer at Whirlpool Corp. (Editor’s note: Notre Dame’s IDEA Center is among InnoLead’s strategic partners.)

Team Barriers: Permission to Be Creative

We often run open enrollment innovation workshops for participants from many diverse companies. We start by putting teams together based on their creative strengths to ensure diverse and influential teams. At the beginning of their innovation work, we find that many team members are reserved and not ready to jump in with creative ideas. This is not because they are not skilled or motivated; it is likely because they have never been asked to be creative at work. Throwing out a creative idea in a team of colleagues does take a bit of getting used to. To counter this, we work hard to make safe spaces with ground rules that include creating without judgment. We role model the creative behaviors we are hoping for so participants can see that nothing bad happens when we throw out a creative idea.

In addition, we often add an extra step during the first creative exercise where the participants are ideating, which we call “permission to innovate.” For example, say we are ideating on orthodoxies related to a coffee experience. We facilitate the participants through the first ideation round to assess how comfortable they are with tossing out creative ideas. If they are holding back, as most new teams do, we say, “Now in this next round we want the most ridiculous, nonsensical idea that you have. In fact, there is a fun prize for the most unsuspected idea.” This is often enough to get participants to overcome their creativity jitters. It’s a comment on our organizations that we need permission to be creative. We have all learned through trial and error to stay in our lane and not be too creative, lest we are judged as not practical.

Defying team pressure to be creative is something we deal with all of our lives. As working adults, the fear of not fitting in or being laughed at is so ingrained that many of us choose to go along with the crowd, even when we believe the crowd could use some creativity to advance their work. 

Defying team pressure to be creative is something we deal with all of our lives. As children, defying the crowd to be creative may result in being bullied or ostracized. As working adults, the fear of not fitting in or being laughed at is so ingrained that many of us choose to go along with the crowd, even when we believe the crowd could use some creativity to advance their work. We shut down and put our creativity on sleep mode to avoid judgment. Stepping out from the team is not about being rude or under-participating in the team’s activities. It takes some individual will to start applying creativity in a team that is otherwise not creative. In this section, we will look at what it takes to be a creative team member. 

Most teams don’t live in a creative space; they are too busy trying to get the job done and are often time-starved. Even teams that are chartered with creativity, such as innovation teams, need to be creative and attentive to avoid falling into the ease of the status quo. There are so many daily pressures in organization life that it seems easier to just deliver the mail than to find new ways or spaces. Here are some ideas about how to help the team bring in more creativity:

  • Meet with the team leader or sponsor. If you are a team member, even if you have been on the team for some time, plan a discussion with the team leader. Acquaint yourself with what they are trying to do—politely prod for creativity tolerance. Discuss areas where you would like to help infuse more creativity.
  • Be clear on the team charter and strategy linkage. Take time to revisit the team charter. If one does not exist, create what you think the charter is from the meeting outcomes or ask the leader. Also, take time to understand how your team relates to the business strategy. This will help you know how hard to push in getting to a more creative outcome.
  • Experiment. Introduce creative experimentation to help the team achieve its goals. One of the best tools to introduce creativity, especially in a creativity-unfriendly (or uninitiated) environment, is to ask for permission to experiment. Your experiment might involve using a creativity tool, freeing up thinking with a creativity exercise, and looking in unrelated areas to find nuggets that help the team uncover opportunities using creativity. If you ask for permission to run a rapid experiment, your team will know that what is about to happen won’t count if it does not work, and thus will buy in more readily. There is almost no downside. Once you introduce a little bit of creativity, more will follow; it’s like priming the pump.
  • Model the behavior. Another way to infuse creativity into your team is to model it for others. When there is a question or an exercise, use your creativity skills to introduce new opportunities. If someone tries something creative, support their endeavor and give them positive feedback.
  • Enlist other creatives. Look around on your team and find other creatives to form a bond with them. You can rely on each other or work as a sub-team to infuse creativity into the team.

Teams offer an excellent venue for creativity. This this is especially true if the leader creates the right environment, it is not just about the leader; team members can also bring their own creative skills to benefit the team. As a team member, there is much you can do. As you join future teams, we offer you a challenge. We would like you to go to a fresh page in your creativity journal and write the following statement in gigantic uppercase letters:


If you take this challenge to heart, you will feel a commitment to help your teams use creativity to solve the organization’s problems.

Organizational Barriers: Please Leave Your Creativity at Home

We were both fortunate to work for many great companies where we traveled the world, working on creative and innovative projects. In those travels, we met many amazing people and had wonderful experiences of bringing new products and services to the world. When we reflect on the most significant lessons from our creative endeavors, the notion of underground creativity rises to the top—that there is an untapped reserve of creativity that organizations often fail to unleash.

Co-Author Nancy Tennant

We soon realized that many people in these companies could not bring their creative side to work. As Nancy’s colleague Professor Harry Davis observes:

Many people drive to work and feel that they have to put parts of themselves in their car’s trunk. They leave their whole person behind and try to fit into what they think is the company mold.

The Creatives

We find this especially true with creativity. We work with so many people who have fantastic creative pursuits outside the office, yet they aren’t comfortable bringing their creative side to work.

At Whirlpool, we decided to lean into the problem of leaving your whole person in the car. We started an affinity group called the Creatives, a network of more than 100 people who self-organized to become more creative. We began by hosting meet-and-greet functions where the only agenda item was to get to know other creatives. We called these social events Pints and Pencils. One of the founding members, Chris Gregory, described his first exposure to the Whirlpool Creatives this way: The groups of creatives “didn’t necessarily work together, but it forced you to sit at a table and realize there’s a cross-pollination of skill sets. I didn’t know at first all of what it entailed, but [I] joined anyway. I don’t think I’ve seen this at any organization I’ve been at before.” It was a big reason why he stayed attracted to Whirlpool. The Creatives provided an outlet for people to bring their creative spirit to work and not leave it in their car’s trunk.

Over time the Creatives became known as a hotspot for creativity. When innovation teams needed to infuse new thinking into their ideas, they invited members from the Creatives to join. When a new headquarters was being designed, the facilities group asked subgroups of the Creatives to help them design sections of the building. The Creatives set up a website to host their work, and it was awe-inspiring. Midcentury furniture design, jazz ensembles, sculpture, crafts, stand-up comedy, and performance art were just a few of the talents featured. The Creatives did something else unique; they invited others in the company and the local community to join the group, helping these new members unleash their hidden creative talents. The Creatives also took their creativity out into the community, assisting nonprofits in bringing more creativity into their offerings.

By itself, the Creatives did not solve the problem of allowing people to bring their whole selves to work, but we think it made a dent in unleashing creativity within the organization. It stands as an excellent example of how companies can encourage creativity from everyone.

How Companies Put Up Barriers

Most organizations were not built from day one to be creative. They were bult to celebrate zero variation, predictability, and sticking to one’s knitting. There are visible and hidden barriers to creativity in most organizations. It does not take much pushback for people to realize that they had better leave their creative self in the trunk of their car. Many organizational cultures reward sameness and punish creativity. After the dot-com bust of the late 1990s and the early 2000s, companies become skeptical of creativity; the word even became taboo. In one company we worked with, if you were seen as creative, you were labeled as too “touchy-feely” which did not bode well in your performance reviews. In a direct and heavy-handed way, this company bullied creativity.

Many organizational cultures reward sameness and punish creativity. In one company we worked with, if you were seen as creative, you were labeled as too “touchy-feely,” which did not bode well in your performance reviews.

Talent pool managers often have a list of competencies that are the scorecard that gets one promoted. Look within your organization at the talent pool descriptors; we doubt that you will find “creative” on the list. The term, by itself, is not how you get your ticket punched. On the contrary, to be called creative in a company can often be code for not getting things done.

Creativity as the Sidekick

Creativity is usually not the lead in the movie; it is usually the friend next door whose fundamental role is to help the protagonist realize their true potential. In other words, creativity is a sidekick in many organizations. According to Gary Susman’s 2013 Rolling Stone article “The 21 Greatest Sidekicks in Movie History”:

Being a sidekick used to be a lot simpler in the old days. Sure, you had to let the main character play quarterback, but you still got to be the ironic truth-teller…you still got credit for loyalty and bravery, as long as you had the protagonist’s back when it counted. Those were the basic rules of sidekicking as laid down by the father of all modern sidekicks, Sancho Panza.

For most organizations, creativity is a key performance indicator (KPI). Exceptions might include organizations whose offerings are artistic, entertainment, or curated food experiences. But for most organizations, creativity is an enabler, an expander paired with other value-creating functions such as design, innovation, or marketing. How might we migrate creativity out of the usual places and embed it as a sidekick in every part of the organization? How can talent leaders, for example, make creativity their sidekick to create more differentiated and value-creating outcomes for their organization?

Overcoming Organizational Barriers

There are many actions you can take to help your company welcome creativity. The steps you take will depend on the unique strategy, culture, and systems of your company. Here is a list of generic starter ideas for you to try or to pivot from to meet your organization’s creativity needs.

  • Learn how to support others to be more creative.
  • Curate and move toward creative, safe spaces.
  • Become a recognizer of creativity.
  • Attract creatives; fashion a container in which they can percolate.
  • Model creativity.
  • Incentivize and reward creativity.
  • Build creativity into every project, plan, workshop, or action.
  • Create creativity sandboxes, with the invitation “within these boundaries, we require your creativity.”
  • Understand the creativity barriers in your organization and join with others to eradicate them.
  • Find a set of creativity tools that can be your go-to toolkit and use them throughout the organization.
  • Reduce the stigma that creativity is touchy-feely and the professional kiss of death.
  • Position creativity as a sidekick in all your innovation and development processes.

The most important thing is to learn to identify which barriers of creativity are organizational, versus team or individual. Sometimes we believe that if creativity is stifled, that it is a personal shortcoming. We think our team leader is not trying hard enough when often it is organizational barriers that are choking us. If you can take a balcony-view of creativity, you might find common barriers to work on or help others unleash their creativity within your organization. Use the creativity exercise below to identify these organizational barriers to creativity. (You can also download it in PDF form at the bottom of the page.) 

An exercise from the new book “Creativity in Talent Development.”

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