New insights on creativity in the workplace even Google did not know about

Three insights on creativity in the workplace, presented by Robert Gerlach at Google, Mountain View on March 7, 2017.

#1: The true key for creativity in the workplace

Executives and HR managers of innovative organizations like to ask themselves, “How do we find creative people?” But what if they are not asking the right question? What if the true key to thriving creativity in the workplace is something else entirely?

Where do you have your best ideas?

(answers of the audience)

IQudo Ideation Survey II

We were curious about where, when, and how creativity thrives. We, therefore, interviewed 502 people from a cross-section of professions in San Francisco’s financial and entrepreneurial district ‘South of Market’. Not surprisingly, 84 percent, said they did not have their best ideas in the workplace. The reasons were:

  1. Too many distractions 47.1%
  2. No time 28.2%
  3. Too focused 26.9%
  4. Stress 24.3%

Three of these top four reasons are related to time constraints. No wonder, in today’s time-obsessed culture, people tend to grasp at time pressure as an excuse for a lack of creativity. In a version of “the grass is always greener on the other side,” we tell ourselves that if only we had unlimited time, we would come up with marvels. In fact, research done by Harvard and Adobe shows that time pressure does kill creativity. But why is it that creatives in stressful habitats, like ad agencies, are resourceful under extremely high time pressure? What if time is overrated when it comes to creative thinking?

To our own surprise, 16.3 percent said to have their best ideas on the job. I call them the “job-inspired.” Here are the four top reasons they cited for their creativity flying high in the workplace:

  1. Inspiring co-workers 47.7%
  2. Creative atmosphere 29.1%
  3. Creativity is required 27.9%
  4. Time to ponder 20.9%

Surprisingly, for the job-inspired “Time to ponder” came in fourth place. “Creative atmosphere” and “creativity is required” were to be found on the second and third rank. But by far the #1 reason for creativity in the workplace, mentioned by almost half of the “job-inspired,” was “inspiring co-workers.” 


Let’s wrap it up: the job-inspired are creative in the workplace despite all its distractions, and for them, time pressure is not a major deterrent. This suggests that time, as a factor in itself, may be overrated. Some experts have even concluded that instead of impeding it, time pressure actually boosts creativity. For instance, Alexander Schill, Chief Creative Officer of Serviceplan, Europe’s largest owner-managed agency group, believes that time pressure is beneficial to creativity because it helps people to focus on the things that matter. Going further, Oliver Voss, Chief Creative Officer of OliverVoss, Hamburg believes: “You are not creative despite a lack of time, but because of it. Time pressure helps to concentrate and focus on work.”

The IQudo ideation survey 2015 findings may have major implications for companies and how they approach creativity, and may well signal the need for a paradigm shift. Before now, creativity in the workplace was thought to depend mostly on the individual. Therefore, companies looked for creative people to stay ahead in the innovation race. But the survey results show that most people think of themselves as creative; only 7 percent of respondents believe they are not resourceful. Furthermore, creativity in the workplace depends mostly on the interaction between colleagues.  A better question for leaders would therefore be: “How can we help our people be creative on the job?” 

The ball is in leaders’ court to set the stage for their workers to produce outstanding ideas. It is up to supervisors to foster collaborative relationships, establish a creative atmosphere, demand creativity in the workplace and provide limited time to ponder.


#2: What if, a creative space isn’t needed for creativity in the workplace to thrive?


I know this is kind of tough question to ask, especially here at Google, but what if a creative space isn’t needed for creativity in the workplace to thrive? Let me give you two examples:

At the most creative agency in Germany from 1985 to 2005 Springer & Jacoby, the interior design didn’t look like it belonged in an advertising agency at all. No fancy paintings adorned the walls, no chaotic bookshelves surrounded conference tables, no cozy sofas to slouch on, and not even one of the countless awards that had been won for clients like Bacardi, Mercedes-Benz, Miele or Microsoft were displayed to inspire future creative endeavors. The truckloads of awards were stored somewhere in the cellar. The office of the undisputed king of advertising looked as sterile as a doctor’s surgery. Everything was plain white: the reception area, cabinets, desks, meeting rooms, and the artist’s studios. No drawings, no sketches, no notes were to be hung on the walls. No pictures of loved ones were allowed on the desks. Nothing. During the day, you could create as much chaos as you wanted, but when you left, the surface had to be virginal white. What added color to the S&J world was the daily fruit basket, the creatives, and their stunning artwork.

Now the big question is: how can you become the most creative agency in the country with an interior design that resembles a germ-free doctor’s surgery?

Any idea? … … … (answers of the audience)

Let me give you another example – kids! Children play wherever they are, even in the boarding zone of an airport. What makes them stop? The parents. “Sit down and behave!” Children don’t really care about space. To a child, an office full of cubicles could be a delightful maze or a crocodile-infested swamp, where you can only hop from chair-to-chair or else you’ll get eaten! So, the question arises: if children make meaning out of any habitat, what stimulates or prevents creativity if it’s not space?

Permissiveness! To behave any way you want to. Artists and creatives need to break out of ordinary life. Actually, we all do. People just find different escapes, like sex or alcohol. What is alcohol good for? For loosening up? I never drink alcohol. What should I? I don’t need a drug to relax. I don’t need to escape reality; I create my own. When running an innovation workshop, I like to say, “This is Pippi Longstocking country; we can do whatever we want.” My co-trainer Tino once complained after a workshop because I didn’t jump onto the table. He missed the shocked faces and the impact it made on the seminar participants. But what might seem to be beyond-the-pale behavior in fact supports divergent thinking. Why? One, if it’s allowed to cross boundaries with your behavior, it signals and promotes as well, that you can cross boundaries with your thoughts. Two, goofing around helps release pressure because we start laughing. According to a study, conducted by the University of Oxford in 2011, following a good laugh, one’s pain threshold increases significantly because endorphins are released.

Behaving in a silly way encourages experimentation and levity. The mind switches over to play mode.


#3: How to get from creative to ingenious?

Let’s have a look at the most successful pop/rock group of all time – the Beatles. When you look at their first two albums, Please Please Me and With the Beatles (1963), six tracks on each of them were cover versions of American songs. Where was the exceptional talent of the Beatles in the beginning? How did Lennon/McCartney become one the most gifted songwriters in pop/rock history?

The Beatles’ success had many fathers. For example, one of them was their producer George Martin, who was educated in classical music orchestration. Another driving force behind their talent development was their curiosity. According to Martin, “The Beatles were always looking for new sounds, always looking to a new horizon, and it was a continual and happy strain to try and provide new things for them. They were always wanting to try new instruments, even when they didn‘t know much about them.”
But key to the Beatles’ success was the friendly rivalry between Lennon/McCartney. I’d like to quote Sir Paul McCartney himself: “He’d write ‘Strawberry Fields’, I’d go away and write ‘Penny Lane.’ If I’d write ‘I’m down,’ he’d go away and write something similar to that … you know, to compete with each other. But it wasn’t … It was very friendly competition because we were both going to share in the rewards anyway. But, it was real, it was this (Paul with his hands indicates gradually progressive steps.), It really helped step … so we were getting better and better and better all the time.” I call this friendly rivalry, this sort of competing and cooperating with each other, Coopetition, which is a coined term from Competition and Cooperation.

Coopetition happens as well in the streets of San Francisco. I observed those skaters on Irving and 30th Ave last week. They skate on the same wavelength and even wear the same clothes. They identify with the same goal and share the same passion. Skaters dream of landing the ultimate stunt. The skaters watch each other carefully. Every success of the other is registered and compared with one’s own progress. Everyone learns from each other. Failures are normal; success is the exception. They measure their skills every day – voluntarily! They love what they do and spend years getting better, for no commercial reason. And, they try to overtrump each other by performing the best stunt.



The key ingredients for coopetition are:

Identification: Identifying with the same goal or passion

Comparison: Comparing one’s performance with someone else’s

Cooperation: Inspiring and helping each other to get better

Competition: The will to win


The core of coopetition is the “Oh-Wow!” factor. George Lucas once got asked if there was any competition between himself and Steven Spielberg, Lucas said there was, and nailed the idea behind coopetition by expressing it as being a question of “Who can do the better work.” It’s about impressing the other person. Lucas called it the “Oh-Wow! factor. “If I can do something and Steve says, ‘Oh-Wow!’, then I won!” Oh-Wow includes two feelings. “Oh” represents the element of surprise and “Wow” admiration.



If you’d like to get more insights on how to foster an inspiring culture in the workplace, build your creative muscle, and tap into idea euphoria, have a look at my new book Innovator’s High

>> Get Innovator’s High on Amazon.com //Amazon.de

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1: Time Pressure and Creativity in Organizations: A Longitudinal Field Study. Amabile, T.; Mueller, J.; Simpson, W.; Hadley, C.; Kramer, S.; Fleming, L. “Although time pressure likely has negative effects on creative processing even at moderate levels, this study suggests that its effects may be disproportionately worse at extreme levels. Quite simply, extremely high time pressure may engender cognitive strategies that allow no time to think creatively. Rather than jolting people into producing a creative insight, it may instead make that insight all the more elusive.” (2002)

2: Study Reveals Global Creativity Gap. Universal concern that creativity is suffering at work and school. Adobe. The study reveals 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 on the job. Across all of the countries surveyed, people said they spend only 25% of their time at work creating. Lack of time is seen as the biggest barrier to creativity (47% globally: the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Japan, 52% in the United States). (April 23, 2012)

3: iQudo ideation survey 2015. Other reasons why people do have their best ideas at work (mentioned by 18.6 percent of the participants): I enjoy my job. Being able to talk things through. I’m in a working mode. It’s demanding. Cause my mind is on work. Because I’m doing something I don’t wanna do, so I’m using my time to be creative. I’m my own boss. No limit. I get competitive at work. It’s where I can focus the most. It’s very collaborative. Because I make mistakes and learn from it. My work is art. It’s where I can focus the most. Cause it’s my passion. I love what I do. Others stimulate to think out of the box. My right brain is thinking while my left brain is working. (San Francisco, 05/2015).

4: Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold. Dunbar, R. I. M.; Baron, Rebecca; Frangou, Anna; Pearce, Eiluned; van Leeuwen, Edwin J. C.; Stow, Julie; Partridge, Giselle; MacDonald, Ian; Barra, Vincent; van Vugt, Mark. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1373. (The Royal Society, September 14, 2011).

5: The Beatles Through Headphones: The Quirks, Peccadilloes, Nuances and Sonic Delights of the Greatest Popular Music Ever Recorded. Montgomery, Ted (McFarland & Company, Jefferson, 2014).

6: Summer of Love: The Making of Sgt. Pepper Paperback. Martin, George; Pearson, William (Pan Books, 1995).

7: George Lucas. Rose, Charlie. (December 25, 2015; 14:34min).


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