How to Build a Creative Culture Within Your Organization
“Innovate or die,” is the battle cry of dozens of start-up founders and corporate executives trying to lead change in the modern era. Those who don’t take risks and try new approaches are doomed to fall the way of Blockbuster and Blackberry.
However, innovation and creativity require companies to change the way they operate. If you want to build a creative workplace, you need to embrace creative culture at all levels of the organization.
Here are a few factors to consider as you try to innovate and grow.
More Companies Are Choosing Creativity over Experience
Creativity starts in the hiring process. More organizations are hiring based on diversity (both culturally and with respect to employee skill sets) to bring in team members with fresh ideas. This often means focusing on a worker’s background and potential, rather than specific qualifications.
Scott E Page, a Leonid Hurwicz Collegiate professor at The University of Michigan, argues against hiring the “best” teams because they tend to develop the least creative results.
“Ranking people by common criteria produces homogeneity,” he writes. “And when biases creep in, it results in people who look like those making the decisions. That’s not likely to lead to breakthroughs.”
Page explains that companies that want different solutions and to work with people who think differently need to hire people from different backgrounds or those with different experiences. This challenges your team to see how others think instead of validating pre-existing beliefs and ideas.
Joe Matar, director of marketing at Brazen Technologies, agrees. He lists a few reasons why hiring the most skilled or experienced applicant might be a terrible hiring decision:
More companies look for employees that offer a right culture fit, not just a solid skill set.
Experienced employees tend to be the least flexible, meaning they are unlikely to follow your company’s way of doing things or adapt to other creative ideas.
Employees with similar backgrounds and career paths tend to have the same perspective, limiting the variety of views in your organization.
This isn’t to say that experienced employees should be avoided. There are plenty of seasoned professionals who are flexible and creative. However, it would be in the best interest of companies to avoid candidates that are more “set in their ways,” when faced with problems.
Creativity Is One of the Most In-Demand Skills
As organizations sort through resumes and interview candidates, more are looking for signs of creativity in potential hires. Nick Skillicorn, CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting, compared the values of the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report with IBM’s CEO survey in 2015.
Just three years ago, 1,500 CEOs agreed that creativity was important, but ranked 10 on a list of top skills they look for when hiring professionals. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum predicts creativity will be the third-most in-demand skill by 2020, right behind critical thinking and complex problem-solving.
Hiring Creative Workers is a Risk for Companies
What many organizations don’t realize, at least initially, is that hiring creative employees is a risk to the status quo. Static organizations that are more established and conventional might be taken aback by the approach of a few creative individuals.
“Highly creative people tend to be rebellious,” Jeffrey Baumgartner, author of Anticonventional Thinking, writes. “They think differently to averagely creative people, they tend to do things in unconventional ways and they are not afraid to provoke others, including senior management.”
This doesn’t mean that hiring a creative staff will result in a spike in disciplinary problems, but rather a team of employees that wants to challenge the status quo and make changes based on how they think things should be run.
Ben Eubanks, the man behind upstartHR, says companies can either quash this rebellious thinking or take steps to recognize the effort and the results. He shares one story of a Southwest employee who learned a flight had been rerouted due to bad weather. Instead of telling passengers to wait a full day to see if the weather improved, she chartered three buses to get people to the destination in just a few hours. This was a risk. She did not follow protocol. But then-CEO Herb Kelleher praised her for her ingenuity and for doing the right thing for customers.
“You need people who aren’t just falling in step with the way it’s been done before,” Laura Callanan, founding partner of Upstart Co-Lab, tells Artsy. “You especially want [artist employees] at the early stage of a new initiative, to ask the questions that aren’t obvious.”
In other words, you can’t expect your company to move forward if you keep hiring the same people to do the same work.
Executives Need to Prepare to Embrace News Ideas
Even if your company is willing to hire “rebellious” or disruptive employees, it needs to be prepared to embrace some of their ideas and to try them.
Paul Sloane, founder of Destination Innovation, has seen the same scene play out in offices across America. Leaders insist on making the company more innovative, but then shoot down any risky ideas for fear of failure. Eventually, employees are so concerned with avoiding risk that any creative thoughts are avoided.
Creativity as a whole is risky, and managers need to embrace the uncertainty of different ideas.
Creative Thinking Starts With Your Team
Of course, you don’t have to hire a whole new staff to develop a creative office. Don’t underestimate the creative power of the team you build.
Edward Glassman, Ph.D., author of Team Creativity At Work II: Creative Problem Solving At Its Best, surveyed more than 450 people to determine what factors increase creativity. It turns out that “other people” played the largest role — more than time; more than challenges; and more than freedom. He noted one response that said the employee is most creative when their boss leaves town.
Your employees will either build on each others creativity and push each other to come up with unique solutions or hold each other back from any original thoughts.
“Staff members should be shown that they're valuable members of the team and that their creative ideas will be responded to enthusiastically, or at the very least able to aired freely,” Adam Fridman, Mabbly Digital founder, writes. “If people worry that offering suggestions might make them feel foolish or be rebuked, they simply won't try to come up with new angles on problems or new ways of growing the business.”
Implementing a few creativity-focused exercises and publicly praising employees for their creative efforts can help managers foster a creativity-positive workplace with existing team members.
Study: Employees Exposed to Art are More Creative
Even allowing your employees to express their creative influences and enjoy creative outlets during the day can help boost creativity in your office. Tom Jacobs at the Pacific Standard shares two studies out of Seoul that prove the value of arts and culture within the workplace:
One set of employees looked at a series of Van Gogh paintings and gave their opinions on them, while another set looked at pictures of simple objects. Then both groups were asked to come up with different keyboard designs or brainstorm names for a pasta product.
One set of employees read the lyrics to Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind and described how they felt about it, while another set journaled about what they do each day. Both groups brainstormed names for the pasta product and were asked to solve problems related to bubble-wrap.
In both instances, the groups exposed to creative media (art and music) came up with more solutions and ideas than the control groups. These ideas were also more creative than the control groups.
A Creative Culture Has Secondary Positive Workplace Impacts
You don’t have to develop a creative office just for the sake of innovation. Tapping into creative thinking can help your team in a variety of other ways.
“Creating a collaborative process with your team has wide-ranging effects, and all are positive,” Barry Saltzman, founder of the Saltzman Enterprise Group, writes. “When leaders share ideas and updates with their employees, open communication becomes second nature, and everyone feels equally invested in the company’s overall goals.”
Linda Naiman, founder of Creativity at Work, helps managers tap into creative thinking and art to learn how they interact with business. One of her clients recently shared an activity she led, where two executives were asked to paint silently, each creating a design in response to each other. After, they discussed why they made certain lines and how they felt about them. Some said they felt “violated or attacked” when someone else crossed over their lines. When they did the exercise again, the pattern was much more collaborative because they partners looked out for each other.
This activity proves that creative outlets and opportunities can also improve communication and collaboration in the workplace.
Creative Ideas Need Execution
Not all employees need to be creative powerhouses. Organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic points to studies [subscription required] that show creative teams come up with more ideas, but more homogeneous teams were better at implementing them. Divergent thinking is great for problem-solving, he writes, but convergent thinking is ideal for implementation. Startups full of “ideas people” who never seem to bring their plans to fruition can understand this.
That being said, Chamorro-Premuzic believes leadership has a lot to do with managing creative employees. Knowing when to let a team loose and when to rein it in can help employees embrace their creativity while still creating actionable plans.
Healthy Stress Levels Boost Creativity and Production
Just as every employee or position doesn’t need to be hyper-creative, creative workplaces don’t have to be completely stress-free. In fact, stress in healthy levels can boost creativity while keeping employees on track.
“The best combination is challenge stressors - having time constraints, a challenging workload, clear, but big job descriptions combined with team collaboration, autonomy, and superior support and sufficient resources,” Jeffrey Davis, author of The Journey from the Center to the Page, writes.
Fostering a creative workplace doesn’t mean adding bean bag chairs; it means challenging employees to reach goals and giving them space and autonomy to do so. This is one way to fight against creative employees who never actually execute their plans.
Jan Hoffmann-Keining, senior project manager at Retail Capital Partners, agrees: “Inspiring employees to work together and search for creative solutions isn’t as easy as renovating the office and playing a company game of hot potato,” he writes. “The changes that occur in your newly implemented creative culture need to be understood and supported by management, otherwise you will revert to old habits.”