Houston Voices

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.

The Rice Management Company has broken ground on the renovation of the historic Midtown Sears building, which will become The Ion. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The Ion — a to-be entrepreneurial hub for startups, universities, tech companies, and more — is, in a way, the lemonade created from the lemons dealt to the city by a snub from Amazon.

In 2018, Amazon narrowed its options for a second headquarters to 20 cities, and Houston didn't make the shortlist.

"That disappointment lead to a sense of urgency, commitment, and imagination and out of that has come something better than we ever could have imagined," David Leebron, president of Rice University, says to a crowd gathered for The Ion's groundbreaking on July 19.

However disappointing the snub from Amazon was, it was a wake-up call for so many of the Houston innovation ecosystem players. The Ion, which is being constructed within the bones of the historic Midtown Sears building, is a part of a new era for the city.

"Houston's on a new course to a new destination," says Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Here are some other overheard quotes from the groundbreaking ceremony. The 270,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed in 18 months.

“We have the capacity — if we work together — not only to make this a great innovation hub, but to do something that truly represents the Houston can-do, collaborative spirit.”

— David Leebron, president of Rice University. Leebron stressed the unique accomplishment the Ion has made to bring all the universities of Houston together for this project. "When we tell people the collaboration that has been brought together around this project, they are amazed," he says.

“The nation is seeing what we already know in the city of Houston. That this city has the greatest and most creative minds. We are a model for inclusion among people and cultures from everywhere. We are a city that taps the potential of every resident, dares them to dream big, and we provide the tools to make those dreams come true.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner, who says he remembers shopping in the former Sears building as a kid, but notes how Houston's goals have changed, as has the world.

“When this store opened in 1939, it showcased a couple of innovations even back then: The first escalator in Texas, the first air conditioned department store in Houston, the first windowless department store in the country.”

— Senator Rodney Ellis, who adds the request that The Ion have windows.

“Many people ask us, ‘why not just tear down the old building and start new?’ We actually see this as a very unique opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs to be located within a historic building, while benefiting from an enhanced structure, state-of-the-art technology, and Class A tenant comforts.”

— Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company. She describes the environment of being a beehive of activity.

“[As program partner for The Ion,] our mission is to build the innovation economy of Houston one entrepreneur at a time.”

— Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. Rowe describes Station's role as a connector between startups, venture capital firms, major corporations, and more.