In today's organizations, creativity is the name of the game. Employees want a workplace that enables and promotes their creativity and employers want creative employees. While creativity is partly an employee mindset, it is also an outcome of the right conditions set forth by the employer. A creative workplace is more than brightly colored walls and brainstorming meetings. It stems from a creative culture that is fed by management styles, operation mechanisms, and employee evaluations and team dynamics. The same way we innovate products and services, it may be time to innovate workplace norms to foster creativity. Findings from science and leaders of some of the most creative organizations suggest that some of our widely workplace accepted may be unintentionally hindering employee creativity.
Here are seven practices to reconsider:
1. Your workspace has an open office layout
After being first designed by German team in the 1950's, the open office layout has been adopted by almost 70% of companies as a way to promote collaboration, communication, and serendipitous encounters among employees. But research has found that these layouts actually decrease innovation and experimentation because employees feel like they are continually being exposed and evaluated. Constant exposure to noise also reduces motivation and performance. To better promote creativity, provide open spaces for collaborative conversations between teams and serendipitous employee encounters over meals and breaks. Balance this with the closed off, quiet spaces for people and small teams to make phone calls and get in a focused creation zone when they need it.
2. You organize employees by their role
When you follow a linear development process, it is efficient to arrange similar job functions close together. For example, all the product people might work together to define requirements before submitting their ideas to developers and designers for build. From there, the product may finally make itself to marketers to learn about and sell the product. This is very much like turn-of-the-century assembly lines. But creative processes, by definition, are not linear. Ideas may quickly defined, built, and tested before they are iterated on and tested again. To move as quickly as possible through this process and accelerate innovation, it's actually best to bring people with diversified perspectives together. Coined the "Medici Effect," a diverse team has a better chance of coming up with ground-breaking innovation because of its varying approaches to a problem. Help boost team creativity by organizing people around a common goal, rather than their job title.
3. You tell employees what to work on
Organizational psychology shows that when people are told what to work on, they are less engaged and thus less creative than when they are able to realize and set their own goals. In his book Creativity Inc., Pixar President Ed Catmull discusses the perils of a manager who seeks control, which in turn creates a culture of fear. "The antidote to fear is trust," he explains (124). By empowering your employees with your trust, they will take more initiative to creatively explore solutions they believe are best, and maintain the company's best intentions in mind if things go wrong. Instead of coming up with projects for your employees to work on, a better method is to share your company's vision and current goals with teams, then allow them to create projects and initiatives in service to those goals.
4. You reward individuals for meeting their goals
Stanford professor Robert Sutton has found that while hierarchic organizations are common at companies, status totem poles discourages people from sharing ideas. He suggests that by flattening out the playing field, people will be more likely to speak their minds. To accomplish this, he encourages leaders to redefine the term "superstar" as members of an organization who help others succeed. By encouraging employees to collaborate and push one another to jointly find the best solution to a problem, the whole team wins. Reward creativity by recognizing employees who help and collaborate with others to meet team goals.
5. You give biased feedback
In companies where feedback is top-down, employees' creative attempts are left to the HiPPO (highest paid person's opinion). But this person is not unbiased or prophetic. Drawing only from his or her own past experience, one single person has no way of determining the future success of a new creative pursuit. At Pixar, directors receive feedback by means of a counsel called The Braintrust. This group is unique in that it is comprised of creative leaders who have no authority. The Braintrust helps directors identify problems, then consider directors the experts in diagnosing how to deal with those problems. Catmull explains, "Braintrust meetings are not top-down, do-this-or-else affairs. By removing from the Braintrust the power to mandate solutions, we affect the dynamics of the group in ways I believe are essential" (93). While a Braintrust per se may not make sense for your company, reconsider the way you and other leaders provide feedback on ideas. If it's with an opinion, "yes," or "no," instead consider helping teams identify potential risks and problems then allow them to figure out how to proceed.
6. You discourage failure
When people are scared to fail, they are less likely to take risks. In his innovation frameworks, entrepreneur and author Eric Reis explains that the best way to win is to learn faster than anyone else. But he insists that "if you cannot fail, you cannot learn." His Lean Startup methodology for agile innovation describes how it is good to fail, and fast. During my time at Intuit, teams were continually launching experiments to observe customer behavior and improve their product. When things didn't go expected, they made changes and tried again. When he learned of failed experiments, our founder Scott Cook, encouraged us to continue experimenting. He asked employees of only one thing: to keep learning. Any outcome was a successful one if we learned something. The faster people can test their creative ideas, fail, and learn something, the faster they can try something new. Encourage your employees to learn as much as possible as quickly as they can, even if that means failing along the way.
7. Your main focus is to "feed the beast"
In the early 90's, Disney was seeing great success with its films. Each successful film was celebrated, and also created a hunger for more. Catmull called this the obsession with "feeding the beast." The pressure to create a pipeline of movies-- and fast--was met with a rigorous schedule. This started Disney's decline. The antithesis of the beast is the "ugly baby." Something creative and original that needs time and nurturing to become something great. If the beginnings of an idea is shared with the wrong people too early, it can quickly get shut down in favor of feeding the tried and true beast. Catmull advises that part of the job of a creative leader is to protect these "ugly babies" from being destroyed before they can achieve their true beauty. While a proven solution may offer short-term progress, it is likely that when given a fair chance, creative, new ideas will offer long-term success. Recognize the importance of your company's current revenue-generators, and also find ways to protect and nurture what has potential to be your future.
While your current practices may be enabling you to maintain a well-oiled organization, take some time to evaluate whether they are also fostering a community where employee creativity is encouraged and supported. And remember that like with any innovation, there is no clear-cut path. Experiment with different methods and invite your employees to come on the journey with you.