One of the keys to success is creating a culture of creativity, lots of companies talk about this, but very few do it effectively. To help you take the idea of creativity and turn it into action in your organization I asked my good friend and expert on this topic, Jim Harrison, to share a few thoughts in a guest blog post on the state of innovation and creativity today.
As Creative Director at the University of Florida, my team was asked one year to develop a creative presentation to state leaders about UF’s innovation ecosystem. Our audacious concept was to get their attention by letting the first slide introduce “The Trouble with Innovation: It’s easy to say, but difficult to pull off.”
Everyone talks big, and it’s easy to engage in “shallow innovation” with symbolic calls to action, minor initiatives, and little follow-through. Very few leaders are committed to braving the deeper challenge of what it takes to allow innovation cultures to manifest from within their organizations.
Increasingly, as business and industry are more focused on the imagination and experience economies than ever, it’s clear the trouble with creativity is very similar. Both Creativity and Innovation are words everyone likes to use because they represent big concepts that attract attention. Simply invoking creativity or innovation (or both) can send a message that a company is seemingly forward-looking and prioritizing the right things. But it’s often a message with little to no meaningful plans behind it, few ways to measure it, and frequently discussed in tactical terms rather than as a cultural mindset.
Creativity and innovation can be very different in practice and application yet have one very problematic thing in common: Going past promises and putting them into play in the business world means navigating some incredibly difficult aspects of organizational culture and challenging long-standing structures and procedures. All for results that can be intangible or tricky to measure, and that often takes place over extended time frames. Investing in creativity and innovation is a long play, yet smart companies can use that investment to maintain their edges in the short-term while continuing to differentiate and grow in the most competitive landscape the world has ever seen.
Plenty has already been written on implementing and managing innovation cultures. I do highly recommend Alf Rehn’s captivating Innovation for the Fatigued as an expert look into the ways innovation cultures can ironically become barriers to real innovation. If you’ve worked in a large organization, Innovation for the Fatigued will ring true in more ways than you can count.
Okay then, so what’s the issue with creativity? In a word, creativity as a process is messy. It’s a different, never-the-same-twice, unpredictable adventure. Even if you are familiar with design thinking or any of its offshoots (like experience design or systems thinking), it can be intimidating just to consider taking an organizational problem – a customer experience, a standard business challenge or entrepreneurial pursuit – and integrating the messy, disorganized world of how artists and designers operate to find good solutions.
In a world where businesses are built around ideas of predictability, analysis, and repeatability, the creative mind knows there is value in play, exploring the unpredictable, and preferences for new experiences over safe ones. The rise of design thinking for the past 2+ decades has been an effort to reconcile these incongruities and shape the world with fresh thinking.
One thing that makes leveraging creativity troublesome is that research tells us the primitive lizard brain of the average human animal is encoded to make safe choices. The desire to feel safe is fundamental for human beings – and we are hardwired to react to threats to that safety. The risk-avoiding habits that once kept our ancestors alive are now present in modern-day loss avoidance: a measurable preference for results we can predict, experiences we trust, things we know. The term “Loss Aversion” was coined by behavioral economists David Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1970s when their research showed that people hate losses somewhere between 2 and 2 ½ times as much as they enjoy equivalent gains. So powerful is the principle that people have been shown to take risks just to avoid larger losses. This explains a lot of interesting business decision-making, not the least of which is that pesky leader we’ve all met who can’t seem to make a decision to begin with. Many also believe the loss aversion concept explains both the Endowment and Status Quo biases.
So even though we may rationally know being creative is the key to unlocking fresh thinking and new, powerful opportunities for our business, it still feels different. It may mean breaking a habit or changing a routine. Challenging the status quo. And our reptilian brains are saying “That’s a risk, you know”. Add stakeholders and shareholders and board members to the mix of pressures around solving business challenges, and suddenly the stereotype of the risk-averse leader, once bitten and twice shy, begins to make a little more sense.
How do we get past all that and make creativity work for our teams and our business? Let’s look at five top issues leaders who aspire to cultivate cultures of creativity should be managing:
1. Encouraging Curiosity As A Way of Being
We’ve all heard or read the advice that creative teams need the freedom to play and have fun. Creativity expert John Cleese speaks of creating “an oasis of play” without restrictions or expected results. Why? The childlike state of play rekindles our sense of wonder with the world and leads to a deep curiosity. Probing into the reasons why things are the way they are is the #1 habit of creative minds seeking to innovate. Allowing teams to unleash constant and deep curiosity free from metrics or goals is to promote a mindset that will, ironically, drive metrics and meet goals — with fresh innovations. The energy to consistently dive deeper than the competition comes from the pursuit of what former VP of Innovation & Creativity for Disney, Duncan Wardle calls the most important question for innovation: “Why?”.
2. Enabling Psychological Safety
When people feel they don’t need to be afraid to raise an issue or present an idea, teams work better. We’ve all seen it: In a meeting or conversation, the fear of ridicule often collides with imposter syndrome and other fears of job security and office politics to undermine our ability to feel safe in sharing our thoughts, ideas, and perspectives. That awkward silence in meetings, where no one wants to be the first to share, is a telltale sign that psychological safety might be an issue. Leadership approaches that build psychological safety include:
- An openness to ideas
- The freedom to experiment + a culture of learning
- A tolerance for risk and failure
- Processes to develop ideas and the talent behind them
- A commitment to empower ideas by making resources available
Google performed a massive study on what makes teams efficient, called Project Aristotle. It found that psychological safety was possibly the most important indicator of an efficient team. It turned out being friends with your coworkers or having a strong leader did little to predict whether a group was efficient or not. But psychological safety had a massive correlation to efficiency.
3. Building Cognitive Diversity
Enhancing the importance of diversity in gender, race, culture and sexual orientation, Cognitive Diversity is the natural result of an organization’s deep commitment to building diversity of experiences and perspectives into the DNA of their teams. For organizations focused on deep creativity, cognitive diversity is the fuel for ideas and innovation.
In addition, the research of Alison Reynolds and David Lewis revealed cognitive diversity plays a critical role with psychological safety to enable the kind of curiosity that drives teams to perform and solve tough problems.
4. Embracing the Uncomfortable
In a world we want to be as predictable as possible, it’s the creative thinkers who are most often very comfortable with discomfort. What gives an analytical thinker anxiety: the unplanned, uncharted and unpredictable, a creative mind sees as an opportunity to play, learn and explore with joy.
Cultures of curiosity with high psychological safety will naturally gravitate towards this level of comfort with the unknown. Whether your team is working to create a new business, striving to grow, or leading a large corporation facing the challenges of a rapidly changing market – meeting uncomfortable and unfamiliar problems with applied creativity is where success begins.
And for leaders, projecting the confidence and willingness to embrace the uncomfortable is where you can truly inspire your employees.
5. Practicing Collaborative Creativity
Teams have been shown time and time again to outperform individuals in the brute force search for new ideas and smart solutions. The power of a group to combine the energies of cognitive diversity with the bravery to pursue lateral thinking that leads to ideas – and then to work together to strengthen those ideas – is unmatched. Teams engaged in deep creativity practice these four characteristics consistently:
- RESPECT: Treating people with consideration of their feelings so that trust, bravery, psychological safety and constructive criticism all begin to flourish.
- RECIPROCITY: As a leader, understanding that an expectation to be creative or innovate cannot come to fruition without appropriate support. Give people what they need.
- RESPONSIBILITY: Helping everyone to understand their role in success, and that everyone must play a role. Passivity, basic civility and other forms of non-engagement can be deadly to a team pursuing well-considered solutions strengthened by healthy debate.
- REFLECTION: Processes and habits to evaluate feedback, like celebrating questions and challenges or maintaining a constant dialogue, ensure an organization continues to learn and develop.
When our teams are not consistently operating in most or all of these ways, very often ideas won’t develop fully and people won’t engage.
Despite the clear challenges of integrating creative thinking into organizations and the business structures that govern them, the advantages are undeniable. In the decades since the birth of the internet, just think how much everything around us now is constantly on the move. Yet how much of our present thinking tends to be stagnant? In Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation, Idris Mootee points out a very powerful truth:
“Knowledge is no longer power … while still useful, it is not enough to thrive. Creativity is the new power. Success is no longer about what we know, but what we can create.”
About Jim Harrison
Jim Harrison is an award-winning creative director, brand strategist, and speaker based in Gainesville, Florida. He is a former Senior Creative Director at the University of Florida, where he guided strategic branding efforts for the university, taught courses in graphic design theory and design thinking, and co-created the Academy of Strategic Creativity, a 6-month professional development curriculum for UF faculty, staff, and leaders. His design studio MetaVisual specializes in branding, visual systems, and design strategy. His graphic work has been featured in multiple solo gallery exhibitions and is in the collection of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. He is a past recipient of a prestigious SAPPI Paper “Ideas That Matter” grant and the founding Vice-President of AIGA Gainesville.
As a speaker, his Forward Thinking masterclasses help unlock the creative potential in people, teams, and organizations by demystifying the creative process and demonstrating how ideas happen within our own minds and in teams.