Creative Culture as a Strategy

Going beyond and processes and building a culture of creativity

Brian Hickling
Oct 26, 2020 · 9 min read
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uch has been written on why it is imperative for companies to be innovative and promote creativity within their organization. Innovation is critical for organizational long-term prosperity, particularly in dynamic markets. In view of today’s economic climate, increasing global competition, and rapidly changing unstable business landscape, an organization’s ability to innovate is regarded as a key factor, not only for success but also for mere ongoing survival.

And while many companies and their leaders would all agree that innovation is important to gaining or maintaining a competitive advantage, many do not put in place the things required to inspire creativity and promote high-performance innovation teams.

To build and maintain high-performance innovation teams, you need to create the conditions for success. Organizations need to create a culture where people set aside their self-interest and focus on creating something collectively that they could not achieve by themselves.

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“The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual. People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society. Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”
- Vince Lombardi

American author of a number of books on human development and child development Joseph Chilton Pearce believes that “culturization” is the reason we lose our creative abilities. He believes that “cultural conditioning makes it unlikely that we ever consider anything outside the confines of cultural acceptances”. Pearce describes that creativity as “moving from the known to the unknown.” believes that our present culture often exerts a negative force on creativity. It is too critical and risk-averse.

The late Sir Ken Robinson also believed that creativity was constrained by cultural dynamics. In a nutshell, he felt that everyone is born with immense natural talents but that our institutions, especially education, tend to stifle our creativity and as a result, he felt society was in danger of impeding human and economic disaster.

Which leaves me wondering what are the optimal conditions and culture for creativity and innovation in companies?

What do we mean by “creativity”?

Many people believe that creativity is somehow dependent on “natural talent”. Most scholars, however, suggest that the talents inherent with imagination are things that can be studied and trained.

First, we must distinguish between individual and organizational creativity. The two are connected but are far from the same.

Individual creativity is ideas or innovations by a single individual — an author writing a book or a process manager thinking of a new process, for example.

Organizational creativity is ideas or innovations attributed to a group of people that all work for the same organization. That could be a team developing, creating, and marketing a new product.

In other words, while all organizational creativity is a consequence of individual creativity, not all personal creativity is organizational. Both are related, but they are not equal.

Common traits found in high functioning creative people.

Creativity consultant Joyce Wycoff identifies four traits found in creative people:

  • They are willing to take risks and have the courage to be wrong.
  • They are willing to express their thoughts and feelings.
  • They have a sense of humour.
  • They accept and trust their own intuition.

David Perkins, Professor of Education, Emeritus of Harvard University, has identified several some other traits common in creative people:

  • They have the drive to find order in a chaotic situation.
  • They are interested in unusual problems, as well as solutions.
  • They have the ability to make new connections and challenge traditional assumptions.
  • They temper idea creation by testing and judgment.
  • They enjoy pushing the boundaries of their competence.
  • They are motivated by the problem itself, rather than any kind of reward or recognition.

These individual traits give us an indication as to the type of conditions required for creativity to exist. Trust and safety are some of the key drivers.

Common traits found in high-functioning creative teams within organizations.

Team diversity. It is now generally accepted that assembling diverse teams is useful in finding holistic solutions to problems. Like football, different specialties with a common goal is a great way to go.

Team chemistry. There are two critical roles for each team member in a team; a functional role, based on our role/technical skills, and a psychological role. Too often though, teams are built merely on functional skills, and it is assumed that good team performance will somehow miraculously follow. This is never more evident than in professional football, where even the most expensively assembled teams often fail to perform based purely on the individual talents of each player.

Great teams are about personalities, not just skills; therefore, it’s critical to assess and curate the assembly of teams, not just on skills, but also on personality traits. And if a team is working well together, managers must also take into account how the new incoming team member’s personality will impact team performance and dynamics.

Team goal buy-in. In great teams, everyone knows what winning looks like. They have a clear picture of the objectives. It is important that everyone is on the same page.

Conditions that hamper organizational creativity.

Generally, companies, like people, tend to be risk-averse and shy away from change. However, companies that want to up their innovation game in order to have a competitive advantage will have to tolerate and even encourage more risk. Most companies tend to create environments and conditions (company culture) that instead promotes guardianship and risk mitigation over exploration.

The most important barriers to participation in organized creativity group include:

Lack of psychological safety. If there is not an acceptance and a tolerance for criticism and questioning the status quo, people will not express their ideas for fear of being an outcast in the group. I have worked in companies that have both supported outlier thinking, and others that abhor it. In the environments that supported — and even demanded my crazy ideas, I was more confident and prolific. In the ones that were ultra-conservative, I retreated from my boldest thinking.

Lack of motivation and trust. Motivation and trust are an essential factor in the development of creative teams. If the motivation for participation in a creative group is compromised or not clearly defined — members will lack engagement — which will hamper their creativity.

Lack of clear and agreed on goals. It is essential for a creative group to understand the goal. What winning looks like or the problem that needs to be solved. Any lack of clear direction on the “WHY” they are working together will compromise the group’s enthusiasm.

What I do as a director is really create a safe environment that everyone can feel very comfortable in and experiment within so that they don’t hold back anything. You never ever want someone to go, ‘Oh I shouldn’t have done that.’ There isn’t anything you shouldn’t try. If it’s terrible, who cares?
- Paul Feig, Filmmaker

Creating optimal conditions for creativity.

In 2012, Google embarked on an initiative code-named Project Aristotle to study with the goal was to answer the question: “What makes a team effective at Google?” Google researchers believed employees can do more working together than alone.

The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who was on a team and more about how the team worked together.

Here are their findings in order of importance:

Psychological safety: In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

Dependability: On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time (vs the opposite — shirking responsibilities).

Structure and clarity: An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness. Goals must be specific, challenging, and attainable.

Meaning: It is important that the goal of the team is trying to solve is meaningful and deemed important.

Impact: The results of one’s work, the subjective judgement that your work is making a difference, is important for teams. Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organization’s goals can help reveal impact.

Size: While team size didn’t pop in the Google analysis, however, there is a lot of research showing the importance of it. Many researchers have identified smaller teams — containing less than 10 members — to be more beneficial for team success than larger teams. Smaller teams also experience better work-life quality, less conflict, stronger communication, more cohesion.

Creating optimal conditions for brainstorming sessions.

Most companies now use design thinking and brainstorming as one of the techniques for exploration and ideation, however, it is important to run these sessions in a way that is engaging for your creative teams.

In the book, A Whack on the Side of the Head, author Roger von Oech (1983) describes the characteristics that promote the creative process which can be used as guidelines for a brainstorming session:

  • Generate as many answers as possible. Don’t look for the one “right answer”.
  • Don’t ask if something is “logical”.
  • Don’t judge the quality of an idea by looking at its “practicality”.
  • Allow ambiguity.
  • Don’t worry about being wrong.
  • Indulge yourself…let yourself play.
  • Let yourself go into new areas.
  • Be foolish and silly.
  • Accept your own creativity.
  • Make yourself receptive to new ideas.

As discussed previously, Psychological Safety is the most important aspect of great creative environments including brainstorming. In the countless brainstorming sessions that I have been a part of over my career, there is always one or two people who feel it is their role to be the “Devil’s Advocate” and to caution the group on the dangers of a particular creative path being considered. Not only do they kill the “flow” of the group, but they also make the environment cautious and risk-averse thus killing adventurous ideas. This is especially dangerous if the “Devil’s Advocate” is a respected leader. Whenever this “caution flag” occurred under my leadership, I would thank the commentator for raising their concern and point out to everyone that we must be in some exciting new territory!

Role of positivity in creativity.

I found some interesting research from Terry Greene, Professor, Department of Psychology, Murray State University and Helga Noice, Professor (Full) of Elmhurst College (Influence of Positive Affect upon Creative Thinking and Problem-Solving in Children, 1988). They found that the act of complimenting students on their clothing, hair and/or jewelry significantly improved their performance on creativity tests. The study suggests that creativity is somehow related to the emotional state of the creator.

Positive compliments mostly likely had a psychological effect on the subjects — raising their confidence, and having confidence in your abilities is an important factor in successful creative endeavours including company innovation hunting.

It is generally accepted that for winning sports teams, confidence is a major ingredient in having success on the field. People within your organization are no different. High-functioning creative talent has unbending confidence in their ability to come up with solutions to problems and that they enjoy leaving the beaten path and exploring unusual possibilities.

Ruby Nadler, a graduate student at the University of Western Ontario also studied the effects of positivity on creativity. She along with her colleagues Rahel Rabi and John Paul Minda carried out a study published in Psychological Science where she found that positive mood was found to enhance creative problem solving and innovative thinking.

Can creativity be taught?

In the late 1970s, E. Paul Torrance from the Department of educational psychology at the University of Georgia conducted several experiments to determine if creative thinking can be taught. After numerous trials involving hundreds of subjects, Torrance and coworkers found that brief and intensive training can change our thinking to include more right-brain processes. After training, subjects in their study were better able to apply right and left hemisphere modes in a complementary way.

Creative Culture as Strategy.

You need to do more than just group diversity and brainstorming techniques. More than video platforms and virtual whiteboards. You need to put “creative culture” as a key pillar to your strategy. Doing so, not only helps you maximize your innovation investments, but it will lead to fully engaged people, who will be in the best shape to come up with the game-changing breakthrough innovations that your company needs.

If you believe that it is imperative for your company or organization to be at the top of its creative game, make sure you go beyond just the tools and processes and create the cultural environment necessary for great teams to thrive. Bake positivity, thoughtful team curation, creative learning, and tolerance for risky ideas and outlier thinking into your strategy.

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Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and…

Brian Hickling

Written by

I believe in the power of creativity to change the world.

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

Brian Hickling

Written by

I believe in the power of creativity to change the world.

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

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