In my creativity workshops, I sometimes ask participants to invent names for any non-creative cultures they’ve experienced in organizations, past or present. Here are a few they’ve come up with:
Tombstone Culture: All ideas dead and buried within 24 hours.
Piñata Culture: Hold up an idea and watch it get whacked to bits.
Fish Market Culture: Bosses stare at ideas with eyes like dead fish.
Déjà Vu Culture: “We’ve always done it this way, so do it this way again.”
If those descriptions sound all too familiar, it’s time to make changes to your organization’s culture. Take a look at the following seven characteristics of creative cultures—then determine how you can use them to help fire up your organization.
1. Creative cultures encourage generosity. Discussing his Sundance Institute for filmmaking, Robert Redford says he strives for an “atmosphere of generosity.” He wants people working at Sundance to be generous in giving and receiving ideas.
Organizations with creative cultures have charitable climates. While welcoming healthy debate, they discourage premature judgment and chronic criticism. And they don’t let naysayers cloaked as devil’s advocates have open season on ideas still in infancy stages. Organizations with creative cultures encourage team members to freely offer ideas and be open-minded when receiving ideas.
2. Creative cultures respect deviance. True innovation always involves deviation from norms. Yet many organizations frown on deviant employees and punish actions that deviate from the norm.
Creative cultures take the opposite approach, insisting on healthy doses of deviance. They don’t abide anarchy but welcome flexibility, change, and a level of constructive chaos. They actively encourage departures from doing things the way they’ve always been done.
Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, asks employees to have a “healthy disregard for history.” He wants them looking forward rather than reminiscing about the way things used to be.
3. Creative cultures look creative. The environments of firms with creative cultures tend to look and feel creative. Whether it’s Google’s stainless steel slide, Facebook’s phone booth or IDEO’s airplane wing, creative companies install imaginative elements in their workspaces.
These creative touches don’t necessarily have to be over the top or carry high price tags. When my friend Brian Collins began Ogilvy & Mather’s Brand Integration Group several years ago, he simply covered various walls with blackboard paint and handed out boxes of chalk. In no time, those surfaces were exploding with eye-grabbing sketches, poems and quotes.
More traditional corporate environments find ways to give their workplace atmospheres a boost with tasteful color and light. Caterpillar’s European headquarters has walls painted with village panoramas. Employees gather around inviting counters in bright, open spaces to connect and collaborate.
4. Creative cultures know ideas bubble up. C-suite executives in creative cultures tirelessly support and celebrate innovation. But they recognize that real-world information and dead-on ideas typically rise from the lower ranks of the organization.
“The challenge of management today is to find the right level of top-down and bottom-up to find the sweet spot for innovation,” said Curtis Carlson, SRI International CEO in an interview for SFGate.com. “In a world that’s moving faster and has become increasingly more competitive, the sweet spot for innovation is moving down in the organization, not up.”
5. Creative cultures promote exploration. Creative organizations realize fresh ideas require fresh fuel. They urge employees to snoop in all directions for new insights. They advocate personal diversions and intellectual diversity. And they infuse their workspaces with inspiring outside influences.
Procter & Gamble has a “Connect and Develop” program to get P&G employees reaching out to vendors, customers and other stakeholders for insights and inspiration. BzzAgent provides artist Seth Minkin with free space in its offices so employees can work in close contact with his talent and energy.
6. Creative cultures allow for good mistakes. Creative cultures frown on bad mistakes—sloppy efforts and bad results. But they give employees permission to be creative and make good mistakes—strong efforts and bad results.
After all, we wouldn’t have Teflon, Post-it notes, microwave ovens and hundreds of other innovative products if hard-working mistakes had not been made along the way.
Yet far too many organizations tell people to take risks and then punish them when they make mistakes. So employees wind up generating safe, ordinary ideas. “We play it safe” are four words you’ll never hear uttered by people in highly creative cultures.
“Virgin would not be the company it is today if we had not taken risks along the way,” said Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin. “I never see a setback as a bad experience. It is just a learning curve.”
7. Creative cultures effectively communicate ideas. Whenever I give talks on creativity, a few people always come up afterwards to say something like, “I have lots of good ideas, but I just can’t get my boss to approve them.”
You can bet those people aren’t working in creative cultures. Because nothing kills creativity quicker than drawers stuffed with rejected ideas. On the other hand, one of creativity’s best motivators is a deep belief that decision makers will accept and implement good ideas.
Firms with creative cultures understand that idea-selling is a vital step in the creative process—and that creative people must be taught to effectively communicate and sell ideas. Contrary to popular opinion, good ideas do not sell themselves.
“There’s no correlation between how good your idea is and how likely your organization will be to embrace it,” says marketing expert Seth Godin. “It’s not about good ideas. It’s about selling those ideas and making them happen.”