Novelty: Moving Past Creative Complacency

“Surprisingly, novelty is even more important than stability. In a study conducted with a group of three hundred new employees, I found that the more frequently they experienced novelty in their work in the weeks that followed, the more they felt satisfied with and energized by their jobs, and the longer they were interested in staying with the organization. Stability, by contrast, did not seem to bring these benefits. When employees reported that their job felt “more or less the same every day,” their satisfaction suffered, and they were more eager to move on.” -Francesca Gino via Rebel Talent: Why It Pays To Break The Rules At Work And In Life

What is really interesting, when considering the outcomes of this study, especially in regard to leadership, is that most leaders are focused on the exact opposite of creating environments where novelty is frequently experienced. Instead, seeing the necessity towards focusing on providing greater stability and efficiency serves as a key to their managing role, particularly in the context of current times and the pervasive chaos and unknowns that have entered our organizational ecosystems.

But, before we go any farther with this conversation, let’s give a bit of space here to making sure that we have a good grasp on what novelty actually is, especially if it is as important as the study relays for increasing both engagement and retention, and ultimately, how that then can feed into greater creativity and innovation through an openness to experience and self-expansion.

Beginning with Google’s definition of novelty as being “the quality of being new, original, or unusual.” Or as Francesca Gino shares in Rebel Talent, “Novelty compels both humans and animals to engage with the unfamiliar.” But goes on to add, “And yet, while we are born with a strong drive to seek novelty, this drive fades over time. As we grow older, other desires take over, like wanting more predictability. The organizations we build and join reflect this reality.” So, so far, we are finding concepts connected to novelty such as the new, the original, unusual, and unfamiliar.

The farther we dig into novelty, the more that we see that it is a core component of creativity, and ultimately innovation. Or as Schweizer adds in The Psychology of Novelty-Seeking, Creativity and Innovation, creativity is “a concept which comprises two processes: novelty finding and novelty producing.” As Francesca Gino adds in Rebel Talent, “Novelty increases our job satisfaction, our creativity, and our overall performance.” As Gino advances, “Part of the explanation is that, in our brains, novelty and pleasure are deeply entwined.”

Which means, that unfortunately, when leaders are not making the novel and new more familiar to their work and organizational environments, it becomes something that feels uncomfortable and is often to be avoided. When leaders remain focused on efficiency, stability, and the known, we ultimately allow our individuals, as well as our organizations, to fall into ruts of familiarity, allowing routine, familiar habits, and comfort to take over.

Which may very well be why many adults struggle with creativity and seeing themselves as creative.

If we are more honest towards the reality of our organizational environments, from education to government, to business and industry, we could honestly say that we have often failed to create consistent spaces where the novel and new promotes the engagement to move us past creative complacency. Thereby, and often, entrenching our organizations in the status quo by failing to consistently incorporate the unusual and unfamiliar to spark more creative and innovative thinking and doing. And not just in failing to spark that creativity and innovation, but losing both an individual and organizational anticipation for what is to happen next. Without anticipation for what comes next, disengagement quickly follows, and creativity is diminished. Without that spark of anticipation for the future and what is to come next, we find our organizational environments entrenched in familiar routines and set habits grinding into rote ruts of stability that ultimately lead to individual disengagement and organizational stasis. Meaning, that without any opportunity on the cognitive horizon for the novelty that disrupts processes of sameness, both individuals and the organization settle in to the status quo.

Which beckons the question, why is this important if our organizations are working fine?

The questions is, are they? Are our organizations operating effectively, efficiently and just fine? Whereas, in fact, most research and studies show that many if not most of our organizations are struggling with engagement, retention, creativity, and innovation. For example, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) shared that, “According to a 2017 Gallup poll, three out of ten employees strongly agreed that their opinions don’t count at work.” For which CCL adds that the rise of remote work combined with the COVID pandemic has only done more to worsen the problem that had already existed. Furthermore, it is not just engaging and valuing opinions that is struggling through remote work and our current context, as Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft shared in a conversation with Adam Grant, “An internal analysis of Microsoft showed that when 60,000 people had to shift to remote during the pandemic, their networks got more siloed and static, and decades of research have shown that is bad for creativity and innovation, as you end up with redundant knowledge rather than fresh perspectives.” Another example that novelty and creativity are an organizational struggle. However, it does not end there, as a 2020 Gallup poll shares, “Currently, 36% of U.S. employees are engaged in their work and workplace. The percentage of actively disengaged employees is up slightly in the U.S., from 14% in 2020 to 15% through June 2021.” Disengagement is on the rise, organizationally. And it doesn’t end with engagement and retention, as Inc. magazine shares in Research Suggests We’re All Getting Less Creative and Scientists Think They Know Why, “A researcher at the University of William and Mary found that creativity scores began nosediving in 1990. She concluded that we’re now facing a creativity crisis.”

A creativity crisis that we can ill-afford to ignore or avoid…

The research and studies show that we are struggling, especially in the current context and times, in creating environments that spawn more openness to experience and self-expansion in an effort to not only increase engagement, but to move us out of our creative complacency. To create spaces and environments that expand our cognitive boundaries and lead us into novel opportunities that can instigate and amplify creative and innovative thinking and risk taking. As Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire share in Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, “The drive for exploration, in its many forms, may be the single most important factor predicting creative achievement.” Which takes leaders willing to intentionally create spaces and organizational environments where exploration, experimentation, and discovery learning can not only occur, but are encouraged, even when the outcome may lead to a failure. For, what we often forget is that is where the greatest opportunities for learning are garnered, both individually and organizationally.

Unfortunately, ideas of exploration, experimentation, discovery learning, and risk taking are seldom aligned to environments focused on stability. But that is the very place where creativity is spurred forward. But too often, those concepts come face to face with leaders and organizations focused on building steady environments of stability and equilibrium, focused on exploitation of the known over exploration of the unknown. And far too often, we are more than willing to feed this need for efficiency, sameness and rote routines and process. It is easier, more comfortable, and less messy. But in the end, do little more than to create cognitive ruts that play themselves out in organizational habits and processes that ingrain creative complacency.

However, while these opportunities towards openness to experience and self-expansion opens us up to more novelty, creativity, and innovation, it does not occur without intentionality. People have to feel safe to willingly disrupt creative complacency and ignite pockets of innovative thinking and doing. However, this does not happen without infusing our organizational environments with higher levels of psychological safety. It is difficult enough to lean in to self-expansion and an openness to experience in safe spaces, but it is exponentially harder in environments where fear and judgment are pervasive. Which makes trust and psychological safety that much more important to creating these creative and engaging environments. Or as Organizational Behavioral Scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard shares when providing a definition of psychological safety as, “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

And without that shared belief, status quo prevails.

To further promote novelty and creative environments through an openness to experience and self-expansion, Psychology Today puts forth three practices in How Openness to Experience Boosts Creativity and Well-Being to “Jumpstart” Creativity that can be considered as starting points:

Nudge the Edge of your Comfort Zone: Too often, when we avoid having an openness to experience and the new, we never find ourselves leaving our own comfort zone. We have to be willing to determine what our cognitive boundaries are and also then be willing to step over and past those boundaries. For it is in those spaces of the unfamiliar, unusual and unknown that we learn to allow ourselves to explore and experiment. Which move us into discovery learning that ultimately expands those boundaries and pushes us past stability and where we feel comfortable, and into new growth and learning.

Prototype over Perfection: Too often we wait and wait and wait for perfection to come, which it never does. So we wait until it is too late. We wait until action is now no longer a viable option. Rather, sometimes we have to put our thinking and ideas out on the table and let them find their own legs. In psychologically safe environments, we can be open with our thinking and ideas and allow for positive conflict to drive that thinking and those ideas to become even better, more creative and innovative.

Follow your Curiosities, Not your Passions: Curiosity is a catalyst, and a curious mindset provokes us to continually evolve through ongoing learning that leads to new knowledge, new thinking, new ideas, bending us to new possibilities. Curiosity takes us to places where passion doesn’t. It is curiosity that provokes us to move beyond our cognitive borders and dig deep into self-expansion, igniting our creative spirit. 

In the end, it falls to leadership to intentionally create the spaces and environments that not only allow for the ongoing introduction of the new and novel, and with that, invokes not only deeper individual and organizational engagement, but stokes greater levels of creativity and innovation.

Which often begins with the questions that leaders are willing to consider, ask and explore:

How do we determine to create spaces and environments infused with novelty, that allow for openness of experience and self-expansion that lead to more creativity and innovation?

Have we lost the anticipation for what is to happen next? If so, how do we actively reengage this?

Have we created environments that are creatively complacent? If so, how do we utilize openness to experience and self-expansion to engage the creativity to move us out of our cognitive ruts and status quo ways?

How do we create psychologically safe spaces where self-expansion and openness to experience can flourish, overcoming both fear and judgment?

In closing, when leaders introduce the novel and new, it pushes individuals and the organization out of their cognitive ruts, to not only invoke greater creativity and innovation, but a deeper anticipation for the future.

“Openness to experience – the drive for cognitive exploration of one’s inner and outer worlds – is the single strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement.” -Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire via Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind

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