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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 Zhou is 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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SpaceCom is taking place online this year for free. Here's what you need to sign up for. Photo courtesy of SpaceCom

Today marks the first day in SpaceCom's two-week online conference featuring space entrepreneurs, NASA executives, government experts, and more.

Usually a must-attend event hosted at George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, SpaceCom is free and virtual this year. Register to attend and check out this curated list of 10 can't-miss discussions.

Click here for the full schedule.

Tuesday, October 20 — General Session: Whole of Government

Greg Autry, director at SoCal Commercial Spaceflight Initiative, will moderate a discussion with Kevin O'Connell, director at the Office of Space Commerce Department of Commerce, and Scott Pace, executive secretary at the National Space Council. The panel will discuss how they will work together on policies and actions they need to take to enable the trillion-dollar space economy.

This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 20, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Tuesday, October 20 — Carbon Footprint and Emissions Monitoring

Satellite data can give governments and industry the ability to monitor and reduce the carbon footprint. In this panel, experts will discuss the companies that operate and use satellite data to monitor, manage and profit from satellites that monitor the planet's carbon footprint.

  • Lou Zacharilla, director of Innovation Space & Satellite Professionals International (moderator)
  • Sebastien Biraud, staff scientist and Climate Sciences Department Head at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
  • Steve Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund
  • Yotam Ariel, CEO of Bluefield Technologies
This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 20, from 1 to 1:45 pm. Learn more.

Thursday, October 22 — Keynote: Industry Applications

This general session features how Amazon Web Services helps terrestrial industries take advantage of space enabled services already in place at competitive pricing. Speaker Clint Crosier from Amazon Web Services and moderator Douglas Terrier, chief technology officer at NASA.

This virtual panel takes place online on Thursday, October 22, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Monday, October 26 — Keynote: International Space Station

The new head of NASA's International Space Station program, Joel Montalbano, who is based in Houston's Johnson Space Center, provides a status of and exciting new industry applications for the ISS as well as insight into the future of ISS.

This virtual panel takes place online on Monday, October 26, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Monday, October 26 — NASA Session: Transferring NASA Technology

NASA's treasure trove of technology is available to American industry and entrepreneurs to apply in profitable ways. In this session, NASA technology transfer leaders — Daniel Lockney, Kimberly Minafra, and Krista Jensen — will discuss the many ways the private sector can tap into the accumulated knowledge NASA has to share.

This virtual panel takes place online on Monday, October 26, from 12 to 12:45 pm. Learn more.

Tuesday, October 27 — Space Tourism: The Excitement and Expectations

A panel of industry experts will discuss the space tourism industry, taking a deep dive into what the future holds, constraints for the industry's ability to address the market for many years to come and how some of these projects will be executed from a business, technology and execution perspective.

  • Amir Blachman, chief business officer of Houston-based Axiom Space
  • Jane Poynter, founder and co-CEO of Space Perspective
  • Sudhir Pai, CEO of Autonomous Energy Ventures
  • Richard Garriott, private astronaut (moderator)

This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 27, from 12 to 12:45 pm. Learn more.

Tuesday, October 27 — Spaceports as the Innovation Hub for Regions

Spaceports around the world can, and in many cases are, serving as regional innovation centers for high tech activities and creating positive economic development opportunities. Speakers Cherie Matthew, project manager at Corgan, and Pam Underwood, director at the FAA Office of Spaceports, review what the future looks like for spaceports and what funding will be necessary with moderator George Nield, president of Commercial Space Technologies LLC.

This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 27, from 1 to 1:45 pm. Learn more.

Wednesday, October 28 — NASA Session: Industries of the Future

NASA technology is creating the underpinning for new industries of the future. NASA's work has already changed the world with advances in telecom and microprocessors. More is yet to come. This panel led by Douglas Terrier, NASA chief technologist will explore the industries on the horizon that will stem from NASA innovation.

This virtual panel takes place online on Wednesday, October 28, from 12 to 12:45 pm. Learn more.

Thursday, October 29 — Keynote: Women of Space

NASA's head of human exploration, Kathy Lueders, based in Houston's Johnson Space Center, discusses the crucial role that women have, are, and will continue to provide in getting America back to the Moon, as well as in creating the trillion-dollar commercial space economy with moderator Vanessa Wyche, deputy director at JSC.

This virtual panel takes place online on Thursday, October 29, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Thursday, October 29 — Zoom to the Moon

An international panel discussion with Orion Program Managers about progress toward launching NASA's first human-rated spacecraft to travel around the Moon since 1972.

  • Catherine Koerner, NASA Orion Program Manager NASA at JSC
  • Didier Radola, head of ORION ESM Programme Airbus
  • Nico Dettman, Lunar Exploration Group Leader for Lunar Exploration Development Projects European Space Agency
  • Tony Antonelli, Artemis II mission director Lockheed Martin

This virtual panel takes place online on Thursday, October 29, from 1 to 1:45 pm. Learn more.

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