Is Your Company Faking Creativity?

Is Your Company Faking Creativity?

Business May 03, 2016 / By Justin Brady
Is Your Company Faking Creativity?

Many companies implement gimmicks and free stuff in an attempt to appear like a creative company, but it's all fake. The company leaders who actually foster creativity get out of employees way and LET it happen naturally.

Some companies crank out creative ideas one after the other and reap the benefits. Others struggle, always one step behind. Trying to copy what they think is the competition's formula for success, they add flexible work hours, new technology, collaborative workspaces, fun tools, free child care and free food.

But the creative ideas never come. In the end, company leaders are left wondering how these gimmicks led to innovation for some, but not for them. Why? Because creativity—or what is commonly referred to as innovation or out-of-the-box thinking—is not the product of gimmicks. It is true that creative companies like Clif Bar, Zappos and Starbucks are known for using collaborative workspaces and offering free child care and employing similar concepts. But these gimmicks don't make a creative environment, they come out of one that already exists. That environment comes from only one thing: leadership. 

Most leaders talk about creativity (or its cousin, innovation) without understanding what it is and how it happens. The process of real creativity is messy, chaotic, sometimes even disgusting, and it reeks of failure, experimentation and disorganization. Because of this, most leaders don't actually want creativity, they just want the results of it. 

Such leaders aren't bad people. They aren't trying to squeeze employees for all they're worth (or most aren't, anyway). They don't stroke white cats, wear black trench coats and laugh maliciously as their minions slave away. These leaders might care about their employees, but because they are leaders, they feel everything is on their shoulders and they must take all responsibility, assuming as much control as possible. This is an incredible amount of pressure, especially if you have stockholders or ownership to please. Encouraging creativity seems like an invitation to anarchy.

I have observed many different strategies that leaders employ, hoping to spark creativity in the workplace. I've had discussions with the owners of local Ma & Pa shops and Fortune 500 executives. Some leaders inspired creativity, others didn't. But the education or experience of their teams, the hiring of individuals known for their creativity, and the company's size or its pay scale had nothing to do with it.

The creative output of any company always comes out of leadership that exhibits one very basic principle with three facets. Creative environments aren't planted, they are cultivated by leaders who:

Listen: Listening is much different from hearing. When someone is truly listening, they keep eye contact and they strain to find meaning. When you are listening, you discover insights that weren't obvious before. In addition, your demeanor noticeably changes, making the person who is talking feel valued and thus more likely to be helpful—and creative. 

Empathize: This is a giant problem today, not only in companies but in politics and even relationships. Empathizing takes work. People who truly empathize not only try to put themselves in the other person's shoes, but they also make it a priority to find truth in their words. This shift of focus is dynamic, and unlocks explosive creativity.

Trust: Listening and empathizing are useless if you can't trust another individual. Some ideas or concepts won't make sense to anyone but the innovator. That's what makes them innovators, they were capable of seeing a solution or connection no one else could. Any groundbreaking innovation is always poked and prodded when it comes out. Trusting is the final step of the creative process. 

I call the three facets above the LET principle. Only when a leader exhibits all of them is a team truly creative and successful. Teams guided this way will adapt quickly and accomplish much. They will correct problems, in most cases before half the team even knows there is a problem. 

Consider the case of Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, who gained some renown for his role in a training exercise the U.S. military called Millennium Challenge 2002. Gen. Van Riper was given the task of leading an inferior "red" team with archaic technology and a smaller army but was able to defeat the more sophisticated U.S. Armed Forces or "blue" team. He avoided the technology that he knew "blue" was monitoring, and he used low-tech World War II-vintage communication methods, such as lighting signals or hand-delivered notes. 

The general's red team won because of his creative leadership. He allowed individuals to make their own decisions, using the experience and intelligence of the people on his team. It was a messy process, he later admitted, but it meant that his team could respond quickly and efficiently.

Creative teams will fail, I guarantee it. In a creative culture, however, failure and experimentation are normal and viewed as learning opportunities. If you don't want that type of culture, you don't want creativity.

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on May 21, 2013, titled "Some Companies Foster Creativity, Others Fake It"

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