In my role as a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs, I find that many of you have your most creative ideas for your company's first big bang, but often get bogged down with details as the company grows.
On your part, it takes a totally different focus and skill to foster a creative team, compared with designing and building that first innovative product or solution. But I believe the necessary skills can be learned, and it isn't rocket science.
If you are struggling to build and maintain a creative culture in your organization, I recommend an ongoing focus on the following key strategies:
1. Keep your teams and infrastructure small.
Small teams are inherently more agile, and tend to work in harmony, by communication and direction from their leader, rather than second-guess one another and play politics. You need handpicked people who know and trust one another, and rely on individual complementary strengths to assure creativity.
2. Incent the team to speak their mind and take risks.
Send the message often that you want to hear what people really think, and they won't be punished for disagreement or taking a risk. Then practice what you preach, by highlighting creative but risky proposals that worked, and emphasizing the value of learning from the ones that didn't work.
3. Reward ideas with peer recognition and praise.
In a highly innovative culture, rewards come in many creative forms as well as money. Public recognition and positive feedback in front of peers always works, but special perks, including travel to favorite events, support of employee causes, and career opportunities, are long remembered.
4. Promote team passion by pitching a strong purpose.
With a fully engaged and passionate team, creativity and innovation makes work fun. Passion and engagement come from having a higher purpose, beyond growing the business. Your task as a leader is to find that purpose, such as saving the environment or feeding the hungry.
When Yvon Chouinard founded Patagonia with creative outdoor products, he pitched also a purpose of helping the environment. By dedicating at least 1 percent of sales to environmental groups, he locked in engagement from both employees and customers.
5. Extend trust to allow people to call their own shots.
Granting autonomy only works if you first provide a clear message of what you need, and then get out of the way. They will not trust you, or be motivated to make decisions, if the process is too complex, or you continually demonstrate that decisions are only made by you or override them.
Jeff Bezos at Amazon talks often about how he has learned how to disagree and yet commit to a creative proposal brought forward by his team, because of trust and the level of confidence he has for the insight of his teams. He always gets their full commitment.
6. Sponsor experiments, and celebrate the learning.
Using the term "experiment" implies a test, with the opportunity to learn from failure. The alternative of giving creative projects high-sounding names makes people fear the stigma of something going wrong and retribution. The key is to flush out ideas quickly, and close in on the final solution.
Thomas Edison was famous for experimenting, positive learning, and never giving up on his electric light bulb ideas. He is quoted as saying, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Only when he had a proven solution did he market it.
7. Create and capitalize on a diverse team culture.
In almost every business, your customers are diverse, and you need to understand the world from their perspective. That won't happen unless you have meaningful diversity in your own team. In addition, a diversity of experience and thought leads to more creative ideas and approaches.
In my experience, continuous creativity in business is the ultimate competitive advantage, and a lack of it is the quickest path to failure. You must build and sustain a team culture that does not tolerate standing still as the customer world around you moves on.
If you can do it, and do it with discipline, the opportunities to succeed and have fun at the same time are endless.