For a long time, creativity in business has been viewed as an elusive attribute—one that some people had and others simply did not. It was often thought of as an intangible asset that a business had little or no control over.

However, that view is shifting, and creativity is something that is increasingly seen as a skill and an asset that businesses and managers can cultivate and develop. A Harvard Business Review article by Dr. Teresa Amabile of Harvard and Dr. Mukti Khaire of Cornell suggests ways that a family business can increase and improve its creative problem-solving potential.

Whether it's a new way of completing an old task or a potential solution to a dispute with a third party, creative thinking can help elevate a family business from good to great.

Welcome Input From All Levels

Perhaps the most important element to maximizing the creativity of a business is to instill a culture where any employee, from any level or rank, feels comfortable coming forward with new ideas. Amabile and Khaire mention an internal study carried out by Google that compared the success of projects/ideas that were backed by the executives and founders to the success of those executed without support from the C-Suite.

It was found that the success rate was higher for projects in the second group. The conclusion was that there is tremendous value in allowing lower level employees to work on new ideas.

Create a Filtering Mechanism

While including all employees in the ideation process is clearly beneficial, such a model must be supported by some countervailing system to filter through the many ideas that will be generated. Without such a mechanism, a business will become bogged down with new endeavors and will suffer as a result.

Amabile and Khaire suggest that when deciding on which ideas should survive, those decisions are better made by a team of people from a variety of specialties, departments, and viewpoints. The pair suggest that without such a group, the scope of evaluation of an idea will be too narrow, and unwise decisions may be made.

The authors also emphasize the importance of being able to detach those who came up with an idea from the idea's success. Often, the originator of a project gains a myopic and overly optimistic view of its potential. This can lead them to advocate for its survival, even when it is better to abandon it.

The "kill switch" incentives offered by Merck, a global pharmaceutical company, to its scientists are an illustrative example of how a company can encourage a healthy detachment between an idea and the person who came up with it. For example, a scientist at Merck who terminates a project after determining that it is no longer worthwhile is rewarded with stock options. Such a mechanism encourages employees to remain focused on the merit of an idea since they will receive a reward whether it succeeds or fails.

Consider Non-Monetary Incentives

Managers can help nurture creativity in their day-to-day interactions with employees. Research shows that employees engaged in creative work are motivated more by their managers' attitudes and actions toward a project than they are by monetary incentives. Giving public recognition for a job well done or showing enthusiasm for a new project are likely to produce better results than simply giving the employee a bonus or a raise.

Similarly, data from a study conducted on 11,000 employees demonstrated that people are more motivated when they have independence in their work. Giving employees enough space to follow their own ideas allows them to not only escape the influence of groupthink, but also helps them to be more motivated and productive. Rather than rewarding success with independence, consider creating success by granting independence from the beginning.


Innovative businesses are successful businesses. By heeding the work of Dr. Amabile and Dr. Khaire, a family business can maximize the creative potential of its employees as it forges a path to sustainable success.