Fostering a More Creative Work Environment: Purpose, Power, and Politics

Creativity and innovation are always in demand.  Well, to be more accurate, the ideas of wanting creativity and innovation are always in demand. The reality is often far different. Most of us recognize the necessity of creative processes at work, regardless of whether we’re taking about strategic planning, insights development, product design, or the next big campaign. We recognize creative thinking as central to generating new ideas that lead to greater brand recognition, breakthrough products, and increased profits. 

We know all this and yet creativity is something that often dies before it can get a foothold. That begs the question, if creativity is so valuable to an organization, why does corporate culture regularly frown upon the very pursuits that lead to ground breaking innovation? Why do companies so often suppress creativity, both tacitly or overtly? While there is no doubt room for as many opinions as people, I think it largely comes down to three primary elements: Purpose, Power, and Politics.

Purpose. Companies hire people tasked with strategic thinking and innovation that they think are smart, inventive, and inclined to curious. They invest in people who tend not to think in terms of perpetuating the status quo or who are inclined to think in a linear fashion. They hire people who think differently. While those people are intriguing and exciting during the interview and indeed the first few months of joining the corporate team, they are also disinclined to conform to the standard practices of the organization. They do not sit typing at their desks, revisiting the same spreadsheets endlessly, or thinking about how to shave 10 cents off the production price of some widget. They are the people who find new product ideas while visiting the museum, create new strategies while shopping for dog food, and draw insights that can be applied to messaging through reading a Victor Hugo. Unfortunately, these sorts of activities run counter to business culture. If the activity can’t be readily quantified or tied to a specific project of the moment, it is trivial at best, a waste of time at worst. What this means is that if creative thinkers don’t conform to the expected, day-to-day behavior of the organization, they are ultimately devalued, even though it was their non-traditional methods that got them hired in the first place.

Innovative thinkers don’t simply solve problems. They are engaged in a process of discovery that is its own reward. If that way of thinking is understood at the institutional level as superfluous or meritless, then creativity and innovation die. These people have a quality that allows them to identify significant opportunities and to find creative solutions. If they aren’t rewarded or if they are devalued, they leave. And the organization loses out.

Power. Power can be defined in many ways. Most simply, it is the ability to get what you want. But what is it people want? Often it is greater power and recognition by the organization of their indispensability. Control leads to greater value and an increase sense of self-worth. Often, embracing creative thinking is interpreted by members of leadership as opening oneself to personal and professional risk. The result is that creativity is subject to conflicts from the highest levels of the organization, down to the lowest.

With power comes, many times, a decline in the ability to step outside your own way of looking at the world and embrace new ideas. While leadership leads to a unified vision and direction for the company, power often also distorts reality. Many leaders come from a traditional cultural system that rewards organizations producing regular, predictable outcomes and profits. There is a singular focus on how things should be done that often produces a lack of flexibility. Encouraging more creativity means letting go of control and questioning the status quo. This has two results. First, it means that uncertainty is now part of the business equation. Business people are, understandably, typically trained to avoid risk, making this a difficult shift in thinking. But relinquishing a degree of control frees up creatives to explore uncarted water. Embracing the way creative types think, learn, and act often means more than relinquishing a degree of control. It means reevaluating power roles and your own sense of purpose.

Politics. For all practical purposes, organizational politics are essentially an extension of the issue of power, but I separate the topic here simply because it is about those in search of power rather than those who have it. Creative thinking means being willing to think about the big picture, to embrace the whole rather than the parts. That means people are asked to do things in ways they haven’t before, thus challenging not only their worldview, but also their place in the pecking order. Once a happy rut has been established, it is difficult to get out of it. We are encouraged by the system to stay within the confines of these ruts, receive our paychecks, and maintain the status quo. We guard our kingdoms jealously. Consequently, innovation and creativity become subject to internal jockeying and stale thinking. The flatter the organization, the more likely it is that creativity can flousrish.

So What? So what can be done to foster creativity in an organization? What needs to change? First, reward people for doing things differently and providing new, creative ideas. Encourage teams and individuals to experiment with new ways of learning. Encourage engineers and designers to spend a day at the natural history museum. Promote reading books other than the latest business book – poetry, science, anthropology philosophy, whatever gets the mind running at top speed and in new directions. In other words, give people license to think and act in creative ways rather than tying them to the same chain of behavior they have been tied to in the past.

Second, there needs to be more than sustained excitement at the top. Be sure there is long-term, clear, open support by leadership and management at all levels. Make it very clear that it is encouraged throughout all levels of the organization. If leadership does not openly embrace and loudly promote its commitment to creative thinking, it will die on the vine. Ultimately, talking about being a creative organization and actually performing as a creative organization are very different things. And that starts at the foundational level.

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Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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