Event #2: Creativity at Work

A capability that is innate in all: how it manifests, is enabled or suppressed in the workplace

The second public discussion of The GoodWork Society took place last week at Perch in Rosebank.

The GWS’s mission is to identify more human ways of working: to change the way we talk about work, to encourage everyone to think differently about work, workplaces and the way work is done in South Africa.

At this event the discussion focused on the role of creativity in the workplace, and just as in our previous event, the conversation and insights that were generated on the night by our panelists and ±80 attendees were exceptional.

Our panelists for the evening were:

  • Suhana Gordhan, creative director for FCB Africa and Chairperson of The Loerie Awards

  • Dr Same Mdluli, curator and gallery manager at Standard Bank Arts

  • Adam Pantanowitz, Lecturer in Engineering & Medicine at Wits University since 2009, business founder and inventor of Brainternet

  • Amandine Robin, founder of MATTERS, an innovation lab using mathematical thinking

The event was hosted by Vincent Hofmann and MC’d by Thabo Ngcobo.

The premise of the evening’s discussion was to explore the idea that to be human is to create, and therefore to be creative, and to understand why it is that creativity is such a taboo word in the business context and why it has such abstract qualities in society? Are all South Africans allowed to be creative and if not, will they be able to succeed in a future where creative problem solving abilities will distinguish humans from robots.

Given the diversity of our panelists and attendees the conversation was full of incredibly useful insights, and ideas and as a result summarising the most salient themes is in itself an exercise in creative editing.

Three predominant themes emerged over the course of the discussion:

  • How do we define creativity?

  • Society, education and its implications on understanding the value of creativity

  • The environments that encourage (or discourage) creativity: space, time and negativity


One thing that was agreed by all is that creativity is not a type of person — a creative. Rather it is a capability that is inherent in all human beings, at all times.

Creativity is finding connections:

“Creativity is about being alive inside” believes Suhana, and being able to connect magic, logic and empathy to find connections in the world. It is the ability to scratch beneath the surface and see things from different perspectives. She believes she struggles the most to use her creative capabilities when she is feeling “dehydrated”, exhausted and depleted of energy, yet when she is excited and energised her ability to make these connections is much greater.

Creativity is Curiosity:

For Adam, creativity is about observing the world with curiosity, and applying that intrigue into different contexts and domains.

Creativity is taking a step back and seeing things differently:

To Same, thinking creatively means approaching problems with different wiring and using the other side of your brain to solve them, “not just using your eyes”.

Amandine believes it’s about allowing yourself to take a step back, and see things differently.It is the ability to detect hidden patterns and being able to take something from one space and seeing it in another environment.

Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash


If creativity, according to our panel, is such an incredibly important capability in a world full of complex problems to be solved, why is it viewed as trivial by society (and parents)?

Children are inherently creative and creativity is apparent in many areas of their lives: how they play, talk and make sense of the world. According to Adam “the plasticity of the brain allows anyone to achieve any state at any phase, but it is something that is more likely to be developed in your early years when your brain is highly plastic”.

There are millions of naive questions children are unafraid to ask as they approach the world with curiosity, and as a result make sense of it. What happens to them over time that suppresses this capability?

Something that came up continuously is the way we are taught to learn at school. We are formatted and framed and constrained by a syllabus. When we ask questions we are laughed at and told that this is the way things are. There is little encouragement to understand the ‘why’, or principles of the fundamentals.

Its very difficult to apply creativity to a complex problem when you are solving for X and you’re not exactly sure why X needed solving to begin with.

It is very rare for students to be able to approach subjects in a multi-disciplinary way. Can architecture students spend time in medical lectures or can maths and physical education or art be combined to see the principles of geometry in a visual way?

In addition, parents believe that creativity is the domain of pretty things or craftiness. “You’re so creative” to a child can often be interpreted as you’re not so smart but you make lovely paintings. Because of our unique South African context, creativity is often frowned upon with parents urging their kids to restrain themselves and choose a safe, predetermined path towards a stable pay check, to have the solutions imposed on them.

The challenge is, that with the rise of AI, robotics and other technological innovations that will affect the workplace, does an education system that formats how you learn and teaches children to learn off by heart really develop the capabilities that will allow people to succeed in these new environments, or are we just setting children up to be better robots?


What emerged in our discussion is that if creativity is an innate capability in all humans, something that distinguishes us from other organisms, what enables this capability to be utilised and harnessed to solve complex challenges, and conversely, what diminishes this ability and suppresses it?


Space, both physical and psychological, is important in enabling creativity to emerge. Leaving the office and walking outside helps our panel arrive at their most creative solutions. Outside, your perspective is bigger than the screen in front of you and you are able to understand your problems as they apply to different contexts and make connections between seemingly disparate things.

Having the correct psychological space is equally important. When someone has conflicting demands, such as this must make money first, or must be within the clients deadline, one loses the ability to be creative.


People are not given sufficient time to allow their brains to identify patterns and scratch beneath the surface. Children especially are being deprived of the time to play with ideas as they get bogged down with the pressures to be the best, and to do the most. No one has the ability to see the big picture when they are staring down the tunnel of a task deadline or looming exam.

Historically, some of the most creative solutions were developed by people who had the time to think about the best way to achieve a result or solve a challenge, including the double entry booking keeping system,(can accountants be creative? came up quite a bit in this discussion).

Out of the Negative: Scarcity (and Frustration)

Creativity can also emerge when people are confronted with scarcity or frustrations. This is particularly prevalent in an emerging market context where the ‘have nots’ are filling the immense voids with creative solutions. Children who aren’t able to buy toys make them with what they are able to find, informal transport systems emerge from a lack of formal public transport and space is utilised in incredibly creative ways when it needs to be used for multiple purposes. When there is an absence of something, the ways people fill that gap are incredibly creative, connecting disparate elements together to serve an entirely new purpose.

In the workplace, and in life, when something appears to be unachievable because the task is too great or something critical has been removed, those with creative capabilities arrive at extraordinary solutions, that exceed anything anyone had imagined possible.

In addition, another way creativity emerges out of a negative context is when people are frustrated by a status quo that doesn’t make sense, seems to be too time consuming or bureaucratic. Circumventing these has led to some of the most creative solutions emerging, particularly in the workplace. It’s also led to some incredibly creative, not entirely ethical choices being made by those who find the system weak or limiting.

Photo Credit: Palesa Sibeko

Fundamentally, creativity is a capability innate in all human beings, it is not distinct from clever or professional, but has the potential to be embedded in everything we do. It is the characteristic that distinguishes us from robots and will ensure that we adapt, survive and thrive, in any environment.

Workplaces that value creativity are more innovative and profitable, and create conditions that enable this type of thinking. Those that don’t are rapidly learning that repeating tasks continuously will almost guarantee that their employees will one day be replaced with robots and automation.

Practically how do we harness, encourage and enable creativity in ourselves and in those around us?

Firstly we need to start changing the perception that creative is pretty, or a role in an ad agency. Try replacing smart with creative when commenting on a solution someone has presented, make creative a more commonplace word in the workplace, “that is an incredibly creative solution to our problem” should be as valuable as “that is an incredibly smart solution to our problem”.

As leaders (and people in society) we need to encourage people to have more perspective and make more connections. To do this we need to give people the space, time and correct challenges to harness this. Ask questions like, “ if we removed this function/step/task, how would we achieve a better result?” Push back when asked to solve a complex challenge in an unreasonably short amount of time by asking the question, “Do you want the easiest, most obvious solution or would you be able to give me more time to come up with a better, more creative one?” Most people aren’t given the option to decide, but if given the choice, the hope is that they would want the better outcome.

Ask lots of questions. Make asking questions a priority in all meetings and at all social events. Change the perception that the person in the room asking the questions is the one with the least knowledge, and is actually the most intelligent. Encourage curiosity in children, and don’t be scared that not knowing the answers will undermine you in their eyes. Make creatively exploring an answer something that is valued: the quality of thought and potential for new connections to be made will significantly increase the value people will be able to add to society, and their workplaces.

Take a multi-disciplinary approach. Refer to art, science, maths and literature to find new ways of solving problems. Look at how doctors, or architects are approaching their work and see if there is something that can be learned from them that can be applied to your challenges.

At the GoodWork Society we believe that if creativity is redefined the glass ceiling will be removed. As a society we have alienated ourselves from our species, we are training to be good chimpanzees. Yet all people are creative, our job as people who have come to this discussion, or who have read this article, is to acknowledge this.

The more you label your work as either creative or professional, the more you do a disservice to humankind.

If you want to have conversations about the ways you can make your workplace good, or to find out how you can contribute to our mission visit Thegoodworksociety.org. 

The Role of Workforce Mobility in doing GoodWork

The first GoodWork Society’s public debate kicked off on 7 February 2018 at Perch in Rosebank and we were overwhelmed with the quality of conversations that were had. The GoodWork Society was created to have smart people in South Africa talking about ideas to spark change in the workplace and to change the way we think about work, and that was evident in the content that was discussed on the night.

The thoughtfulness and insight of our panelists meant that everyone in the room had at least 15 vigorous nodding moments of Aha. You could sense the energy in the room as themes about space, culture and inclusion were debated.

We had panelists representing a wide variety of perspectives, and while the subject was intended to be around workplace mobility, and working in mobile ways, the topic followed its own path to the changing nature of work, and the role of workplaces as active citizens. It’s difficult to synthesise 2 hours of rich discussion into a summary but here’s an attempt at highlighting the most salient points.

Our panelists were: Sian Cohen, Lauren Kruger, Linda Trim, David Pierre-Eugene and our MC for the night was Thabo Ngcobo. The panel was facilitated by Vincent Hofmann.

Photo Credit: Palesa Sibeko

Four core themes emerged from the discussion:

  • Mobility, and the habits (good and bad) we create at work

  • The continuously changing nature of organisations

  • The relationship between space and culture, and how each can enable the other

  • The role of space and its potential to be inclusive (or exclusive)

Mobility and Work

What emerged from our discussion was this idea that life is about experiences and people expect that from work. With the increase in millennials entering the job market, the expectations that people have is that if they are to spend 70% of their awake time working work needs to enhance their lives.

“Workplace Wellness is not 10 000 steps — you can’t leave work in a foul mood.”

The challenge is that people work best in different ways and companies need to become more comfortable with allowing individuals to work differently.

One way this can happen is for individuals to start developing a vocabulary for what kind of environment enables their best work: the sounds, lighting and space that work best for you. Once you can articulate this you can start to request it and then leaders have a ‘why’ for implementing changes to the working environment.

Discussing increased flexibility at work prompted a discussion about the habits we create for ourselves in the context of work, and the structure these habits bring. With complete freedom comes expending mental energy to be flexible and mobile. “Where should I work? Which coffee shop/flexible space is right for me today? Is it safe to leave my laptop if I need to go outside?” are all questions of where to work that take up energy that could be spent on the work itself.

Do we like our habits because they free up our brain, or are they our habits, because we don’t know we can have new ones?

Continuously Changing Organisations

Organisations are fluid, this means that they are not fixed at a point in time but rather, their size, tasks, products & services and customers will change over time. As a result we need to think about work more fluidly and also to think about how these organisations occupy space differently at different stages of their lifecycle.

There is a need then for flexible spaces: rooms that can change size depending on how many people are employed, or if they want to work together or alone, surfaces need to change to accommodate different ways of working and lighting needs to be able to be adjusted to allow for different kinds of work, deep work, collaborations or presentations.

Space and Culture

Space and culture need to support and enable each other if you want all people to be as happy as possible. As much attention that goes into designing a space needs to be given to the community of people who are going to be in the space.

If you create nap rooms or quiet spaces but the culture is one that disapproves taking breaks, no-one will ever use those spaces, or if you create collaborative spaces but never communicate, or demonstrate to teams that the organisation values collaboration those spaces will stay empty.

As a company you need to design for healthier habits and teach people how to use the spaces.

In the context of psychological support, space and leadership need to work together strongly to give all employees the right environments they need to feel supported so they can do good work.

Inclusive (or exclusive) spaces

Does your building address socio-economic issues? What role does a building play:

  • for the community it is located within?

  • for the people who show up after-hours to service it?

  • for those who have disabilities?

  • for those who commute and don’t have cars?

The workplace is an environment to start addressing social issues that are deeply rooted in our society, where you have a convergence of people from different socio-economic backgrounds and who are diverse in culture, ability and education. How easy or difficult is it for them to interact with one another. Does the space enable them to do so?

What about the home as a workplace? Does it create the right conditions for the people in the home, the cleaners, garden service or refuse removers, to do their best work? Do they feel comfortable to take breaks, or are they unsure about what is ‘allowed’ in your environment?

The workspace needs to play a larger role in what it means to be an active citizen. But this is challenging when decision makers have a limited view and often design for themselves.

It’s unlikely the CEO of a Sandton corporation will try to commute to the office by taxi before signing a lease for a new corporate head-office.

Or that the property developer will actually get someone with limited abilities to test out his new development’s accessibility rather than just making sure he’s ticked the boxes for the by-laws on what is mandatory.

We need to start developing deeper levels of sensitivity to the fact that people who are not like us will be using or interacting with spaces and we have the choice to highlight their difference, making them feel uncomfortable about it. Or we can design to accommodate it and make them feel welcome.

If you design for children and people with disabilities, you design better buildings anyway, so why not just start there?

We also need to start exploring ways to make spaces play a larger role in the community as leaders and employees challenging our companies to think about how the workspace can serve the community.

After hours, can students use the office as a safe place to study for exams? Can the shuttles that ferry people to the train, airport or other buildings, be used on weekends to benefit the community?

There is an education process that needs to happen to break down the barriers between the fancy people in suits and the people on the outside who feel like they wouldn’t belong inside the shiny office-building.

Photo Credit: Palesa Sibeko

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu

A person is only a person in relation to other people, we affirm our humanity when we acknowledge that of others.

These topics and the education process associated with them is the challenge that we as The GoodWork Society care deeply about solving.

Here are some practical suggestions that as people in workplaces you may try to educate and activate workplaces to be better, to be good:

  • Take someone with a physical disability through the building to see how or if the space accommodates for their disability. Does it make them feel comfortable, can they access everything, if not, identify where there are opportunities to change the design.

  • Get people to start doing their sensory profile to understand the ways in which the environment positively and negatively affects them so the workspace can start to adjust to accommodate their ideal conditions.

  • Spend time observing the people after hours in your workplace and see if there are things you may be doing that make doing their job more or less difficult.

  • Look outside the building, at the community that surrounds it and identify ways to bring them inside — host a movie screening in your auditorium for the vendors who sit outside, or find an after-school program that needs a safe space to tutor on weekends and let them use your empty space.

There are so many ways we can harness the power of workplaces to make the lives of employees, leaders and the community better.


The GoodWork Society is supported by the BetterWork crew. 


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