4 Tips for Cultivating a Creative Culture
“There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right.” – Ed Catmull
Creativity is a necessity for marketers, writers, designers, and the rest of us in decidedly “creative” positions. We are expected to produce novel and exciting ideas on a consistent basis. But there is more to creativity than just making art: It is the ability to approach problems in new ways and the courage to voice an opinion that no one else wants to voice. It’s also the discipline to persist through uncertainty, to see a beautiful future state through the ugly present. When thought of in this way, it is obvious that nearly any workplace can benefit from a culture where creativity thrives.
Crafting and maintaining a creative culture takes deliberate effort. Creativity is fragile, like life. It doesn’t just happen. The conditions have to be just right. Unique ideas and the individuals behind them have to be encouraged, but leaders must also be decisive about which ideas to pursue.
If you think this sounds challenging, you’re certainly not alone. To help you get started, I’ve put together these four simple concepts that any manager can apply to their workplace to encourage their employees to think creatively.
1. Enable Honesty
We would all say that we value honesty. Who would deny that honest communication is vital? But have you ever thought about the barriers in your organization that keep people from being completely honest?
In his book Creativity, Inc., computer scientist Ed Catmull reflects on founding and leading Pixar. he provides an inside look at how and why creativity happens — or doesn’t — and warns, “If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.”
Think about all the people in the most recent meeting you had. Put yourself in their seat and think about all the reasons they might not express exactly what they are thinking. Are the people with more authority in the room good listeners? Are they open to being wrong? If not, younger employees may be hesitant to voice their opinions.
That’s just one example of a barrier to complete honesty. Think through other barriers, and consider how you can create safe situations for people to give feedback. When managers don’t understand what their employees are thinking, it’s usually because they don’t ask and don’t create situations where it’s safe to speak openly.
2. Protect the New
Managers have so many daily demands on their schedule and budgets that it can be hard to take time to work on ideas that don’t seem immediately viable. But part of protecting a creative culture is giving your people space to work on new ideas. While established ways of doing things are comfortable and natural, Creativity, Inc. points out that “protection of the new—of the future, not the past—must be a conscious effort.”
Encourage your employees to come to you with ideas, and don’t shut them down right away if they don’t make sense to you. Employees who are enabled to invest time in developing new ideas will be more invested in the overall success of the team. It also helps to understand that new ideas will often be unformed and ugly at the start, but trust your people to put the work into making them viable.
3. Trust through Failure
Every manager would say it’s important to trust their people, but fear often keeps us from letting go of the controls. It’s natural to fear failure, and even more so as a manager who will be blamed for team failures. But fear is a dangerous master. It stifles creativity by paralyzing employees too afraid of making mistakes. Ed Catmull helps managers reframe their approach, saying, “Management’s job is not to prevent risk, but to build the ability to recover.”
Tell your employees often that you trust them and their work, and then treat them like it. Examine your motivations for the workflow structures that are in place – do they communicate that you trust your employees’ judgments or that you’re suspicious of their abilities? When employees make mistakes, expect and trust them to come up with a solution. Moving from a micromanager to a trusting manager takes time, patience, and self-reflection, but you will eventually save time and stress while increasing employee engagement and productivity.
4. Evaluate the Process
Chances are, you’ve worked on a project that had a messy process but a good final result. Our natural temptation is to move on quickly, satisfied that the clients and executives are happy. But don’t be deceived by a good outcome. Protecting a creative culture requires that we continually evaluate and improve our work processes to keep from burning out our people.
Encourage your teams to take notes on what they are learning from projects, and then allow time to reflect on and share those notes with team members. Taking time to assess your employees’ contribution beyond the final product will communicate that you value their input and care about their success with future projects.