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Rice Business study finds that a daily routine can foster creativity in the workplace

Having a routine can help foster creativity, a Rice University study found. Getty Images

Think of a routine: your morning workout, walking the dog, making your bed. It's hard to imagine these as creative pursuits. After all, Leonardo da Vinci may have made his bed every morning, but it's probably not what inspired him to paint the Mona Lisa.

So it's no surprise that workplace analysts have long considered routines to be the antithesis of creativity. But it turns out that the relationship between the two is more complementary than previously believed. Scott Sonenshein, a management professor at Rice Business, studied just how this relationship works. What Sonenshein wanted to know was, how can an organization achieve creative outcomes through routine?

For the answer, think of da Vinci again. Certain repetitive aspects of style make his work recognizably his. It's how we can instantly see that The Last Supper, St. John the Baptist and the Mona Lisa are all the work of his hand. In that sense, they are both repeated patterns and feats of genius.

For Sonenshein, some retailers are, in a sense, the da Vincis of suburban America. Sonenshein examined data from a fast-growing retailer that operates a chain of roughly 400 clothing, jewelry, accessory and gift stores across the U.S., and was fascinated to see how it could surprise its customers each season while maintaining a brand image that makes the retailer easily identifiable. Sonenshein realized that the retailer was effectively routinizing creativity.

When he interviewed corporate managers and store employees at the retailer he calls "BoutiqueCo," a pattern emerged. Sonenshein discovered something he calls "familiar novelty" in the way the retailer designs its stores. While most stores use a rigid floor plan for the display of merchandise, BoutiqueCo instead adopts a set of flexible guidelines.

These rules of the road are explicit enough to ensure that each store is readily identifiable as a BoutiqueCo outlet. But because the display rules afford a great deal of flexibility, they allow space for creative employees to come up with their own ideas. If merchandising were a musical score, Sonenshein observed a dynamic that is less like marching band music and more like jazz. Employees are encouraged to riff off of the main themes of the chain to regularly create something unexpected.

Of course, creating novel effects doesn't come naturally to everyone. It takes a certain kind of individual to achieve it, especially in the highly visual area of merchandising. Store managers told Sonenshein that they actively look for employees who are willing to take visual risks and engage creatively while still keeping to the rules of the company road.

Finally, creativity is routinized in the stores' feedback systems. This takes place both among employees, who frequently discuss and even debate their work with each other, and in the more formal setting of managerial feedback. Managers actively encourage creativity, urging employees to put their personalities into the work of the store, to the point where brand identity and individual identity intermingle.

So what does the experience of one outlet tell us about the relationship between creativity and routines? Sonenshein suggests that there is a strong role for personalization of routine tasks in the creative workplace. When employees bring their own preferences to routine performances, it can elevate them from mundane to novel.

Of course, it's unlikely that a window dresser will create the next Mona Lisa while promoting the spring line. Genius like da Vinci's may only come along once in a millennium. But if we put a little soul into our work under the guidance of managers who allow us to riff off of the corporate sheet music, remarkable things become possible.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Scott Sonenshein is the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

How do people make sense of the epiphanies when they experience them? Pexels

It might be just the right word from your boss. It might be a phone call with a trusted friend. Or it might be waking up one morning and just knowing. There's no way to predict what will spark an epiphany that changes the way you see the world. But their power can be so far-reaching, they often leave us wondering where on earth that brilliant idea came from — and how we can find more.

Studying the mental processes behind epiphanies is especially hard because these flashes of insight are usually linked with unconscious mental processing and incubation, often during time periods when one may not seem to be thinking about a problem at all. In this way, epiphanies seem to arrive effortlessly.

So how do people make sense of the epiphanies when they experience them? In a set of unprecedented studies, Rice Business professor Erik Dane set out to find answers, first examining people who'd experienced general epiphanies, then analyzing a set of accounts of work- and career-related epiphanies themselves.

The research

In his first study, Dane surveyed more than 500 randomly selected people to ask them about their experiences with epiphanies, which he defined as a sudden and abrupt insight and/or change in perspective that transforms the individual.

Subjects who said they'd experienced epiphanies reported what they'd been doing beforehand, the feelings and insight associated with the epiphany and how they thought they'd changed afterward. Interestingly, though this survey wasn't limited to career- or work-related epiphanies, 20 percent of the responses related directly to these topics.

In the second study, Dane interviewed 22 professionals, asking them about distinct work- or career-related epiphanies, most of which resolved a nagging problem. After analyzing the transcripts of these interviews, Dane developed a set of theoretical categories describing the varieties of reactions an epiphany might spark.

People generally perceive and analyze their epiphanies in similar ways, Dane found. He categorized these into four dimensions: a person's emotional reaction to the experience of the epiphany, the question of how the epiphany arose, the circumstances that preceded the insight and a person's observations about how ready they were to experience change through an epiphany.

The findings

The typical first reaction to an epiphany, Dane says, is a sudden and emotionally charged release from a problem or tension. We've all been there: a stressful work situation that seems to offer no way out, followed by a dazzling solution that appears from the clouds. It's that suddenness that leads to the second typical reaction: a sense of astonishment due to the nonconscious nature of the insight's arrival. Feeling dumbfounded for a prolonged time isn't useful, though, so we usually start examining the factors surrounding the epiphany, including our own readiness to change.

What does this imply for workplace? After all, not every problem can or even ought to be solved by epiphany. At the same time, Dane notes, epiphanies can provide critical impetus to move forward.

Interestingly, his findings hint that one can increase the chances of having an epiphany. Though further research is required, Dane concludes that epiphanies most commonly arrive when people are open to the prospect of experiencing a major change. When something is mentally constraining us, on the other hand, eureka moments keep their distance.

The conclusion

As a worker, Dane suggests, you can open space for epiphanies by being actively aware of your surroundings. Look closely at your workplace, your constellation of coworkers and your place within the system. Perceived mindfully, these details may set the stage for problem-solving in a less focused moment.

If you're a mentor or a supervisor hoping to spark epiphanies in your work team, try applying this principle at work: Rather than laying out specific targets and attacking them head-on, aim for an environment that allows for mindful engagement, one that includes the problems that feature in your long-term goals and resonate with your workers' concerns and interests. Cultivating this environment and granting workers time and space to wander through it may lead, like a divining rod, to fresh sources of wisdom.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Erik Dane is a distinguished associate professor of management (organizational behavior) at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.