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Why fueling creativity at work is crucial to success

While Facebook and Google have invested in fun work environments, there are other ways to fuel creativity in the office. Getty Images

Walk into Facebook's New York City offices and you'll see what a 21st century creative culture looks like. There's the complimentary coffee and snack bar. There's free sushi and room to sleep. There are nooks where workers tap on their keyboards in solitude, and couches where others chatter animatedly in groups. The whole complex is designed to offer the warmth of a home away from home, if your house happens to be tidy, stocked with brain food and full of pleasant spaces to optimize productivity.

Facebook, Google and similar companies all know that creativity is critical to beating the competition. But what exactly makes imaginations at work come alive? Is it enough to hire the most brilliant workers? Does it matter if the workers toil in a cubicle or a café? What about attitude?

Rice Business professor Jing Zhou recently joined up with colleagues Dong Liu, Christina E. Shalley and Sejin Keem of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Kaifeng Jiang of the University of Notre Dame to study the true source of workplace creativity.

To reach their conclusions, they combed through the psychological literature on creativity, looking at 191 independent samples covering some 52,000 people in primary studies.

One of the most important mechanisms of creativity, the scholars knew from past research, is motivation. The more motivated workers are, the more likely they will be creative. Intrinsically motivated workers delve into their work more deeply, work harder to find facts, grasp the elements of a problem more firmly and hatch inventive solutions.

One of the best ways to encourage this drive, Zhou and her colleagues found, is to give workers more autonomy. A cascade of studies now shows that employees who feel less constrained by rules and restrictions have more self-motivation.

Yet motivation alone isn't enough. This is because the creative process is not, contrary to romantic notion, a burst of inspiration ignited like ether. It's instead a dense sequence of trial and error, fueled by incessant learning. By their nature, Zhou and her colleagues write, creative people challenge established norms. In workplaces that frown on such challenge, creative employees sense their gifts are a risk, not an asset. Environments like the ones so carefully curated at Facebook signal that rethinking norms is welcome.

Along with talent and a welcoming environment, Jing and her team found, workplace creativity demands selflessness. To use their creativity well, employees need to be pro-social. That is, they need to value a goal beyond self-interest. Appreciation of the common good is the fuel that turns one person's creativity into a force that's transformative.

Powering creativity, in other words, is not just a matter of finding the sparkiest resume. Neither is it exclusively about offering conversation nooks, caffeine and artisanal snacks (though those can't hurt). Instead, Zhou and her colleagues argue, it's about assembling force multipliers that find each person's spark, protect it, and encourage it to light up the communal culture. Fanning individual imaginations, Facebook and other innovators know, is more than a romantic whim for firms that can afford to offer free sushi. It's an ongoing strategy to keep the company's lights on.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Jing Zhouis the Houston Endowment Professor of Management and Director for Asian Management Research and Education at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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