Hoping for a Creative Breakthrough? Look to Your Professional Network. 

January 15, 2024
Seungyoon Lee

Seungyoon Lee

Think about the last time you had a creative breakthrough, whether for an academic or work-related project. While you may have earned some well-deserved credit for the idea, there’s a good chance that others helped you along the way. Broadly defined, creativity refers to the production of ideas that are novel (uncommon or inventive) and useful (appropriate for the occasion or task at hand). Creativity is a significant asset for leadership and impact. Cultivating a workplace environment where the creativity of employees can flourish is an important task of leaders. Keeping in mind the importance of one’s professional network, a growing body of work conceives of creative idea generation as a process that is affected by interactions with others. Whether you’re a group member or a group leader, the following tips can help you make a positive impact in your work by fostering an environment conducive for creativity.  

Ajay Shah

Ajay Shah

Tip 1: Chat with Someone You Don’t See on the Regular 
Whether in class or at work, we tend to spend most of our time interacting with the same individuals day in and day out. While these individuals are critical to our success, it’s helpful to branch out to those whom we may interact with less regularly. Studies show this can provide access to new sources of information that can help stimulate additional ideas. Imagine you work in the operations department. Your team may be struggling to solve a particular problem. It may happen that the finance department struggled with and solved a similar problem previously. By engaging with, and learning from colleagues in the finance department, you may gain access to valuable information that leads you to your eureka moment.  

Tip 2: Cultivate and Leverage a Strong Support Network 
Unique and novel ideas can sometimes be risky as they may challenge the status quo. As such, it is important for people to be immersed in an environment where they feel that they can provide input, even if those ideas diverge from the existing ways of doing things. Sharing an idea with others can help you to refine and expand on it, ultimately contributing to the success of your team or organization. And, it’s important to remember that a positive work environment can help make teams and organizations more creative. A study found that individuals are more likely to engage in creative interaction with their workplace friends, as well as those with whom they seek advice from.  

Tip 3: Be Strategic When Considering Remote/In-person Work Options 
While the rise of remote and hybrid forms of work has offered greater flexibility in where, and when tasks can be completed, it is important to be mindful of how such forms of work can impact creativity. A study of Microsoft employees found the switch to remote work during COVID-19 led to a decrease in work-related interactions between different functional areas, the very types of interactions that can be so crucial to creative success. Further, being together in-person often leads to serendipitous encounters that present opportunities for information exchange. To return to a previous example, individuals from operations and finance may bump into each other and talk about work-related matters in the office cafeteria or parking lot if they regularly work in the same office This is not to say remote work should always be avoided, but rather it is important to proactively engage in cross-functional interactions to sustain in-person levels of creativity. 

To summarize, creative breakthroughs often depend on the company we keep.  

Ajay Shah is a PhD Student in Organization & Management at Emory University. He previously earned an MA in Organizational Communication at Purdue’s Brian Lamb School of Communication. His research focuses on the impact social networks have on workplace outcomes.

Seungyoon Lee is a Professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication. Her research and teaching focuses on social network analysis, resilience, and organizational communication.

Key References:

Lee, S., & Lee, C. (2015). Creative interaction and multiplexity in intraorganizational networks. Management Communication Quarterly, 29(1), 56-83. 

Perry-Smith, J. E., & Mannucci, P. V. (2017). From creativity to innovation: The social network drivers of the four phases of the idea journey. Academy of Management Review, 42(1), 53-79. 

Yang, L., Holtz, D., Jaffe, S., Suri, S., Sinha, S., Weston, J., ... & Teevan, J. (2022). The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers. Nature Human Behaviour, 6(1), 43-54.