We’ve bought the books, been to the conferences, and committed to becoming creative organizations. The problem is that becoming a creative organization requires us to allow people to be creative. For real.
Welcoming creativity requires us to abandon stale, outdated operating models and fundamentally change how we view success, risk, and failure. Below are some examples of how an organization can stifle creativity and cause creative people to leave, along with suggestions for how to foster an environment where original ideas can take root and grow.
1. Value perfection over progress and improvement
“Perfection is the enemy of progress.” — Winston Churchill
It’s clear that despite the hyper-accelerated global market, many companies are running businesses with 20th-century operating models whose primary driver is a trenchant insistence on certainty. This is why management consulting remains a booming business and bookstores are jammed to the rafters with books on how to shake things up, find the special sauce, or flip the script. We know we need to change and will drop heavy dime to find out how, but in the end, the draw of the familiar is often just too strong.
Creative and transformational ideas are seldom perfect out of the gate. New ideas normally need to be adjusted and often don’t produce immediate results. Creative solutions often offer valuable improvements that emerge over time, which can cause tremendous anxiety for organizations that remain tied to 20th-century models that demand perfection over improvement.
Most organizations have an authentic desire to build creative cultures and understand this is critical to innovation but remain invested in antique operating models characterized by the proliferation of rules and convoluted decision-making structures.
A creative person working in a 20th-century operating environment will soon discover that their work is only valued if the end-product is flawless or immediately adds to the bottom line. Expecting projects or programs to be perfect stifles creativity and encourages innovators in your workforce to browse new career opportunities on their phones during lunch.
If you are losing creative people, it’s likely time to perform an honest assessment of your business model and operating structures. Specific areas to assess for improvement are the project and program ideation processes along with the talent management systems.
Socrates said that “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Leaders that are serious about creativity also accept that their blind-spots could be part of the problem and are willing to ask hard questions. Bertrand Russell was more grouchy than Socrates, but wasn’t wrong in observing that “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”
Sometimes it’s clear what needs to change and sometimes it’s not. Whenever I’m uncertain about the source of a problem or where to direct my energy, I find it helpful to get very basic with the types of questions I ask. As Russell pointed out, we trick ourselves into believing we know, when we very clearly don’t, and untricking ourselves is the first step towards meaningful change. Here are some basic questions that can help determine if your work environment values perfection over progress and improvement.
- Are we using systems and practices modeled on thinking that no longer applies?
- Are our systems flexible enough to allow for creativity? Do we have review and approval processes in place that are unnecessary?
- What processes, systems, and expectations are in place that prevent creative people from thriving or even being hired in the first place?
- Do managers use command-and-control or blame-and-shame models to accomplish work?
- Does leadership empower staff by driving decision-making down to the lowest level possible?
A review of exit interviews, employee engagement data, and turnover can help indicate if your organization is set up so that creative people can succeed. Pay attention to those Glassdoor reviews, even if it can seem like a trollfarm for disgruntled employees. Some of the material is valuable intelligence that can inspire organizational change and show you exactly where to focus transformation efforts, and some of it is just Paul going off because they discontinued flip-flop Friday.
This is not to say you tailor all operations to one type of employee, but listening and paying attention are essential when trying to identify systems that need to be changed or thrown out. Listening to employees is also a lot cheaper than hiring a third party to identify organizational blind spots. Current and former employees will point out opportunities to improve for free. Free is good.
Again, most companies agree in principle with ideas like employee engagement and will pay dearly to have someone measure and interpret it for them, but that’s just the first step. An authentic commitment to a creative work environment means being willing to tear the whole engine out and start over. It can be dirty, difficult work, where the bolts are often rusted tight and we lose knuckle skin pulling things apart. It’s worth it. The hard stuff usually is.
The rise of agile project management and the minimum viable product (MVP) development model are examples of movements that recognize that in striving for perfection we limit our ability to see things differently and respond to rapid change.
2. Be afraid of risk
“It’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult.” — Seneca
Creative people instinctively generate new ideas and different ways of connecting things. They appreciate hard data but do not find it the most useful place to start when problem-solving.
Normal risk analysis favors hard data over abstraction. Hard data offers valuable insight regarding risks, but if imagination is shut out of the process it can become likely new programs and projects won’t produce big innovations.
The challenge is that risk and the fear of failure are linked together.
Managers are often trained to remain bound to rules and systems, so even if they support a new idea in principle, they are often tied to processes that do not allow them to take risks that fall outside standard operating procedures. It is for this reason that creative people often need to go to higher-level personnel with their ideas.
The presence of an overly-complex network of stage gates is another sign of risk aversion. Stage gates, toll gates, and pitstops all essentially serve the same function; they funnel ideas through different processes of approval and validation designed to reduce uncertainty as exposure to risk grows.
In many cases, the stage gates are over-engineered and simply re-enforce what the company does well today. The funnels end up producing weak, incremental ideas that do not little to respond to rapidly changing consumer expectations. This approach ends-up filtering out truly innovative ideas in favor of those that carry minimal risk.
Decision-making bodies may send back proposals for additional research and work, creating time-consuming, creativity-numbing rework loops—as opposed to getting early insight on how potential challenges can be addressed to give confidence to a new idea.
3. Tell people you value failure then overreact to it
“Creatives fail, and the really good ones fail often.” — Steven Kotler
Failure produces an opportunity to look at what was learned and how people grew as part of the creative process. Most organizations have an academic understanding of how failure and mistakes are the engines of creativity and innovation but struggle to translate this understanding into meaningful changes to their operating models.
Several years ago, I worked with a company that was having problems recruiting and retaining talented developers. This is a common headache in tech, but in this case, the issue was not fierce competition for talent, but an unacknowledged penalty system that punished developers who introduced offending code into the production environment. If a platform issue was traced back to a code push, those responsible were punished in a fairly public way, and in some cases where issues had significant dollar impact, the developers were simply fired.
This was happening while open position descriptions described the company as an environment where creativity and failure were welcome. No one bought it. Word gets around and the company faced a continual PR nightmare in terms of recruiting.
The real issue wasn’t the developers, but a fossilized change management process that had not evolved on pace with larger company growth and market realities. The recommendation for a Six Sigma project focused on change management was rejected out-of-hand as too expensive and disruptive to the organization.
Creative people head for the door—and tell their friends why they left—if you tell them the organization values failure then punish them when a creative idea they try actually fails. This punishment is seldom outright or obvious but can take the form of passive-aggressive management strategies, such as denying people access to new projects or overlooking them when it’s time to perform succession-planning.
An organizational value isn’t real if it is something that on close examination cannot be seen in the actual culture or behaviors of leadership.
One way to test if the organization truly values failure is to examine how success is rewarded. If the organization only focuses on celebrating and rewarding success it will be rare to find someone who has been able to rise in the ranks with a failed experiment or project in their portfolio.
Another behavior that will cause creative people to leave is to marginalize them when their ideas fail or don’t immediately produce the desired results. Some leaders use the performance evaluation process as a way to log failures, discouraging people who were acting on the idea that failure would not be held against them. This is another 20th-century practice that will cause creative people to disengage.
Sometimes failures are held on to, talked about, and worried over for long periods of time. The consequences of a failed creative effort may be long gone, but some organizations find it necessary to endlessly process and revisit real or imagined impacts, even if this processing chips away at productive planning for the future. The hidden belief seems to be that by over-processing an event the organization can prevent future failures. This dynamic makes it very difficult for the organization to recognize real opportunities to grow.
The organization that wants to learn how to fail well also needs to learn how to let go of fear.
By valuing improvement over perfection, embracing real risk as a normal business process, and setting aside overreactions to failure, an organization can attract and retain creative people. Without creatives, a business can still enjoy moderate levels of success, but to move forward and win in an exceedingly competitive environment, old ways of looking at creativity must be abandoned.