How can you promote creative thinking in business?

Cartoon person with arrows from head to illustrate creative thinking

According to our new survey, business leaders consider the office to be the worst environment for producing their best ideas. So what can you do to promote creative thinking? Director asked renowned organisational psychologist Sir Cary Cooper

A recent study carried out by Director and Land Rover revealed that one in five business leaders believe they are at their most creative when they are on the move. In stark contrast, only three per cent of executives say they have their best ideas in the office.

The study, carried out in conjunction with organisational psychologist Sir Cary Cooper, questioned 900 leaders in the UK, US and China. He believes there needs to be a cultural shift to help executives think creatively: “These leaders are the people who determine the strategy of a company, the next product, the next service. Good ideas filter up to them and they need the time and space to work out whether those ideas will make money.”

In particular, Cooper considers email to be the scourge of creativity. One of the questions in the survey asked: While on the move, what type of work do you tend to do? The respondents put “creative thinking” top at 40 per cent and “catching up with emails” second at 39 per cent. Cooper adds: “The trend is for bosses to almost feel they need to justify their large salaries by being available 24/7 when the justification should be the value they add to their business. I think that’s sad.”

And if you thought working longer hours equates to increased productivity, you would be wrong. As Cooper reveals, “The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) came out with a report that looked at hours of work against a nation’s productivity over the period 1990-2012. They discovered that the fewer hours a country spends working, the more productive it becomes.

“Look at the UK: we’re seventh in terms of productivity per capita within the G7. And we’re 17th in terms of the G20. The country that works the least number of hours in Europe is Germany. They tend to work a 35-hour week, whereas we roughly operate on a 50-hour week and Germany is the most productive per capita. The UK has the longest working hours of any country in Europe and we’re second only to the US in terms of countries in the developed world.”

However, as Cooper acknowledges, it will take a lot more than the findings of a report to make us Brits work fewer hours. The challenge now is to try to create a working environment most conducive towards creativity. “What organisations should do is say ‘what work environment provides people with the sense of wellbeing, creative space, and a little bit of fun, so that the pressures aren’t too great?’

“Sometimes it’s open plan, sometimes it isn’t. If you look at the offices in Silicon Valley, they are smart. They’re designed for the techies to be less stressed. The same should apply for senior execs, and relate to the specifics of the job.” However, there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, he says. “Companies don’t think about creative space. For example, there is a move towards open-plan offices across many countries. It’s cheaper, more mobile and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But what they should do is base it on the nature of the work.

“Executives know that comfort is important. They need it to unwind. These men and women are under stress. In the old days chief execs had fewer stress-related illnesses than workers on the shop floor. But now everybody is insecure.”

Indeed, executives across the UK, US and China said comfort was the most important factor in creating the right environment for creative thought. Inevitably, the report also highlighted certain cultural differences: Chinese executives are five times more likely to have their own driver. “China is meant to be egalitarian, but there are differentials in terms of status,” says Cooper.

However, he believes there are consistent threads that run through companies of all sizes across different nations. Executives are spending more time putting out fires and replying to emails when they should be focusing on the next great idea. “Ultimately, the next step is ensuring companies can create opportunities, whether it’s a car with a personal driver or, the few times they do actually work from home, for execs to be thinking about new ideas rather than being reactive. They need space to de-stress, to think and to be creative.”

To read the full report, visit

Creative thinking: Our survey said…

How 900 leaders across the UK, US and China replied to questions about the perfect environment to promote creative thought 

1. Where are you at your most creative and have your best ideas?

48% Home
31% Other
18% On the move
3% In the office

2. What are the top three conditions required for creative thought?

64% Being comfortable
61% Having time to think
41% Not feeling stressed

3. What are the top three factors that create an environment for you to think creatively?

36% Comfortable seating
26.8% Absence of noise
24.9% Natural lighting

4. How important is your working environment to have creative ideas?

41.5% Very important
42.5% Quite important
14.2% Not important
1.8% Don’t know

About author

Ryan Herman

Ryan Herman

Alongside his work for Director, Ryan has written for SportBusiness International, VICE Sports, Populous, Audi and Gallop Magazine and was previously editor of Sky Sports Magazine.

1 comment

  1. Mick Timpson 3 May, 2016 at 12:29 Reply

    Really interesting statistics…. If only 3% of our creativity happens in the office why do we carry on building offices? Well the answer is investment and profit. If the survey is right, the fact that these workplaces contain working people with ideas seem secondary to the business of property value and development. This conundrum between providing a quality working environment and the cost of things has always been a problem for architects and their clients who are the very business leaders surveyed here. I know. I have designed and built a few office buildings…

    It also suggests that creativity may have very little to do with the type/design of the spatial environment. Being comfortable and having time to think seems more important. And of course if one chooses, these are personal, self-created and experienced anywhere at anytime. It just takes courage and the ability to prioritise what is really important and useful to the business. I notice your header graphic shows a figure in meditation. I suggest that might be the way to go.

    Keep up the good work….

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