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February 23, 2019

Engage employee creativity

So another New Year begins in African business. A new year that gives us all the chance to start afresh and do things better.

Already I have ditched my old email software and I am busy converting my associates to Google for all our mail and calendar and action planning. We’re also exploring new and more engaging project management software. These are both actions we could have taken any time last year. But we didn’t. Too busy, too tied up in the moment - what did we do? We made do.

In the end all it took was a decision - and already our working lives are easier. We decided to do away with something that annoyed us every day. Emboldened by this, I’m making a list of those other small irritations – making sure our mobile money has a bigger balance so there’s less scrabbling around for petty cash; unsubscribing from all those online updates and newsletters we thought we couldn’t live without last year. We’ve found a new graphic design partner who works in the same neighbourhood because, at the end of the day, email is no place for a creative conversation.

Put alongside the bigger challenges of business, these small interventions may seem trivial. But you can and should apply the same approach to bigger ticket items in your company culture. As a business leader, or future leader, why not write down what annoys you or holds you back (and here I mean the collective ‘you’ implicit in the word ‘company’). Put alongside each one the reason for change, the action required and the expected benefit. It doesn’t need to go on a spreadsheet. You can do it on the back of an envelope or in the notes section of your tablet. But writing it down somehow makes it easier to commit to a decision. So many aspects of company culture, of ‘the way we do things around here’, are quickly revealed as ridiculous when you write them down in this way.

So let’s say you have now listed six changes that you feel would have a significant impact on the organisation. What do you do next? The traditional answer would be to roll up your own sleeves and try to make them happen. But that rarely works – you have no time, and you have other more pressing concerns. Besides which, if you are a leader your task is to set direction. Not to walk the whole road yourself. Which is why encouraging employee creativity is so important to any commercial organisation.

But when I use the word ‘creativity’ in senior management discussions, I usually encounter one of two reactions:


  1. We’re in packaging (fertilizer, construction, audit etc.) – we’re not a creative business.
  2.  Creativity around here means our employees finding new ways to steal from our business.

The first response is fairly easy to address. You simply talk to senior management about their competitor set and identify where they have been outmaneuvered or outclassed by new business ideas and approaches. From "why does competitor X seem to have no problem retaining key staff?" to "how did competitor Y get that idea to market before us, and make it work?"

The second response is harder to shift. The empirical evidence of widespread fraud and theft is pretty hard to refute on most continents. But here in Africa the normalisation of bad behaviour at the highest levels means that employees see no reason not to do the same. Indeed you may well be seen as a fool if you do not try ‘something creative.’ I’ve often heard it said that if we employed as much creativity in building business as we do in diminishing them, Africa would really boom.

So, do we accept this as the status quo or do we try to do something about it? You won’t be surprised to learn that I favour the latter. In my experience the best place to look for creative talent is among the more junior and more recent employees you have hired. People who are less ingrained in the existing company culture. People who, if given a chance, will give you one good reason to change something rather than three reasons not to. Give these people a guide. Choose one of your managers who has shown the ability to bring on young talent and develop new ideas. Then give them a project.

As we begin a New Year of employment, I recommend you give them the task of creating a new induction programme for your business. Not just a presentation on who is who in the zoo; or our clunky vision and values. A programme that engages new staff and old. A programme that encourages your people to behave in new ways. More on this, next week.


Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international company that helps organisations to deliver their brands and strategies through their people.


Join Chris in this and other discussions about business, brands and behaviour by liking The Brand Inside Africa on Facebook.




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