United States: Bridging The Workplace Creativity Gap

Last Updated: August 15 2014
Article by Thor Y. Urness

Progressive employers want workers with high levels of what David Kelley calls, in his recent book of the same title, "Creative Confidence." Kelley, the head of Stanford's d.school and founder of the design firm IDEO, defines creative confidence as "the natural human ability to come up with breakthrough ideas and the courage to act on them." As a partner in the Nashville office of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, that is certainly what we want from our lawyers and staff.

However, the 2012 "State of Create" study by software maker Adobe identified a workplace creativity gap, where 75% of respondents said they are under growing pressure to be productive rather than creative, despite the fact that they are increasingly expected to think creatively at work . The study showed that 8 in 10 people feel that unlocking creativity is critical to economic growth, yet only 1 in 4 respondents believe they are living up to their own creative potential, with respondents across all of the countries surveyed saying they spend only 25% of their time at work creating.

The analysis published with the study noted the existence of a myth of creativity, which is that very few people are really creative. Yet the truth is that everyone has capacity for creativity, but not everyone develops it. Few schools (including law schools) and employers do much to encourage creativity, as the study also noted, with many (70% of United States) respondents believing creativity is taken for granted.

What does this have to do with Nashville, which has a strong "Creative Class," and Law Firms?

Studies on the "creative class" by Richard Florida of the University of Toronto show that where musicians and artists gravitate, technology businesses and other start-up and entrepreneurial activities also gravitate, all of which contributes to economic growth. Think of it as a flywheel, the speed of which is maintained by creativity. Nashville has outperformed most of its peer cities due to its strong creative class, as Florida discussed at a presentation to the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce last September, in which he attributed Nashville's economic overachievement to a healthy blend of "talent, technology and tolerance." This overall economic expansion begets growth for the government, service, and other supporting sectors of the economy, including law firms.

Although significant sectors of Nashville's economy sit squarely and by definition in the creative class (think music, publishing, higher education), Nashville also hosts many more "traditional" and service sector businesses (think manufacturing, health care, insurance, retail and restaurant chains–and law firms) that rely upon creativity and innovation to differentiate themselves from their competition. So how can the most progressive of these businesses, who recognize their employees have untapped creative energy, leverage that energy into opportunities for growth?

This is where workplace creativity-fostering events can help. These events combine a group of employees with an artist or another creative facilitator to create either collaborative or individual works of art, or a group event or experience. In addition to exercising the right brains of workers used to using more of their left brains, these events build teams and enhance morale. They also help employ artists, who are critical to building interesting places where people want to work and live, as Florida observes.

The Nashville Arts & Business Council (ABC) offers its  WorkCREATIVE projects to its sponsors, bringing artists into businesses and integrating employees in hands-on creativity to stimulate communication, build teamwork, and spark innovation to drive business growth . WorkCREATIVE projects are developed after an ABC liaison helps identify the employer's goals for the project and recommends options, including artists. The project is then coordinated by a workplace point person, who meets with the artist to plan the project and pulls together the participants. The projects can take a few hours, a half day or more, depending on the employer's goals.

The Bicycle Bus is a great example of how integrative these projects can be. Green Fleet, a Nashville bicycle courier service catering to law firms like ours that also offers bicycle tours, rentals, sales and service, wanted to provide a mobile bicycle rental facility. With the approval of the Nashville Metro Parks Department, Green Fleet decided to offer its bike rentals from an old school bus retrofitted to transport and rent bikes. Green Fleet used crowdfunding through Kickstarter to pay for paint and the artist, and the ABC provided volunteers from three local professional firms, including ours, for the painting labor through a WorkCREATIVE project. With three sponsors, the project took only a few hours for each participating business. In return, the businesses offered their employees an opportunity to do something completely different, alongside others they do not usually interact with, all outside on a beautiful day. The participants returned to work energized, happy and with a sense of civic accomplishment. Press about the project provided an intangible return to sponsoring businesses.

Our firm's WorkCREATIVE experience was so good we are doing it again, this time as a sponsor for FLEX IT!, a project addressing obesity prevention, in which 11 artists will travel to Nashville for residencies and work with the community to create participatory works addressing obesity.

Building better places for artists to gravitate helps turn an economic flywheel that brings new businesses employing more workers who need more services, all of which foster the ability for artists to make a living. Programs like WorkCREATIVE help keep the flywheel spinning.

Previously published in the in the  Nashville Arts Magazine in August 2013.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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