How can we Become More Creative at Work?

Creativity in business

New email subscribers receive articles first thing, with additional resources.

“Creativity is feeling that you’re making a contribution all the time and feeling totally absorbed by what you’re doing,” says Michael Ray. Ray has taught a Stanford course on Personal Creativity in Business for more than a quarter century.

When he's stumped or stuck into over-analyzing something, he asks, “Is it a yes, or is it a no?" That simple question makes us rely on our gut and is one of Ray's many lessons, mostly counter intuitive.

His teachings tap into old age principles and wisdom. As an example of what he means, my mother would say things like, “if you're in a hurry, slow down." Because when we're in a hurry we tend to drop things, or miss important details.

The same happens in business, especially as situations change rapidly.

Judgement is the biggest barrier

Ray has been encouraging original thinking for more than 25 years. He was trained in social psychology at Northwestern University, and is the first Professor of Creativity and Innovation, and of Marketing at Stanford.

To prepare for the business world, we want to learn to have faith in our own creativity, something that schools and organizations like to stamp out.

Judgement is one of the biggest barriers to creativity while curiosity stokes the flames of imagination. Bob Moog, Chairman of, learned to suspend judgment in Ray's class.

In an interview with Fast Company, Moog says:

“Suspending judgment is something that I learned in class that I use in business today. Successful people tend to approach situations by relying on past experiences in similar situations. But we live in a world where things are changing so fast that if you rely on what you knew five years ago, you’re not going to come up with the best answer today.

Instead of doing what they normally do, which is always trying to be fast and efficient, I tell people to slow down. Never go with the first answer. Suspend your judgment: Listen to the whole idea and try to figure out how to make it an even better solution, instead of going back to something that you did previously in a similar situation-because new ideas are better than recycled solutions.”

Our internal creativity is a constant in the wind of change

The deeper theme of Ray’s course is a search for answers to two fundamental questions —“Who is my self?” and “What is my work?” We need to have this grounding into who we are to do something with our lives.

The creativity that I’m talking about is different from problem solving. It’s different from just coming up with ideas. People have enough ideas. The real question is ‘Which ideas are you going to use?’

You have to look for a different resource. I always go back to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who said that you can’t step in the same stream twice. People say that the only constant in the world today is change. What I’m saying is, that’s not really true. There’s another constant in the world: your own internal creativity. That’s always there for you.”

Divergence makes us more creative

We're pattern seekers, but the truth is that disruption forces us to become more creative. When we're alone and have time to think, that's when we start seeing things we don't normally see in everyday activities. Which is why Ray says we should “be in the world, but not of it,” to echo the Bible.

There's a reason why organizations bring in outsiders, they see things with new eyes, they can take a fresh look at situations by not being immersed in them. It's the same attitude we should have to be creative at work.

For the course, and the book, Ray partnered with therapist Rochelle Myers, an outsider.

“In many ways, we didn’t know what we were doing. But we did know that we wanted to get to a profound level of creativity, a level of creativity that would leverage everything else that our students were doing.

We put together a proposal that talked about dealing with ambiguous situations and with the creativity that’s within people. In a sense, the concept sounded kind of spacey, but I added something about the business side of it to the course description and gave it to the associate dean, who at that time was an accounting professor. And, lo and behold, he really liked the idea.”

A framework to become more creative

Ray uses a framework to stimulate the five qualities of creativity, which are:

  1. intuition
  2. will
  3. joy
  4. strength
  5. compassion
The four tools he uses to help people address the challenges that career, time, stress, relationships  and balance put in our way and find prosperity are:
  1. faith in your own creativity
  2. absence of judgment
  3. precise observation
  4. penetrating questions

The tools are part of a pragmatic approach to tackle life's nagging questions like feeling we're too dependent on the judgement of others, or how to find our personal purpose or mission by identifying the issue or obstacle that when addressed would cause the most significant change for the better.

Ray suggests to ask “how come” rather than “why” type questions because they're softer while doing the same function. Compassion is one of the qualities of creativity.

Creativity in Businessis based on his course. The essence of the book is that business is an art and we should get to know our inner resource. Why art? Because it creates order out of chaos, and chaos is the natural environment of business.


I had just started a new job in a new industry and a company that had very specific goals and a timeline in a challenging business environment. There were many moving parts, including a known line of products mostly off patent, stiffer competition from generics, and industry consolidation.

As a business cutting deals with other businesses—dealers and distributors—I thought why not open a direct line to the ultimate customers?

That “how come” we're not talking to the ultimate customers became one of the most successful marketing programs I've done (and heard about at the time.)

We got very creative, opened a communication line with the people using the product, and generated interest and engagement in our work, and relationships. The integrated content strategy—research, thought leadership, creative, mailers, radio—paid off. We even won awards. It was 2002. The company achieved its objectives, and then some.

Without deep personal creativity, ideas-generation activities tend to produce superficial, short term outcomes. You bet I kept those mailers. They were fun… and instructive.