Simply asking your employees to be more creative isn’t enough. You have to foster an environment that turns creativity from an occasional spark to an always-burning fire.
Small business owners understand the value of a good idea. When you’re creating and delivering your own product, you live and die by the worth of your team’s ideas and their ability to execute on them. And in this economy—where slowed spending paradoxically creates a need for faster innovation—creativity in the workplace is more important than ever.
But simply asking your employees to be more creative isn’t enough, and it wouldn’t work, anyway. You have to foster an environment that turns creativity from an occasional spark to an always-burning fire.
How? Scott Belsky says the forces that create good ideas are readily accessible to all of us. Belsky is founder and CEO of Behance (an online platform for showcasing creative work), a TEDx speaker on turning creative ideas into action and author of Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality.
“The people and teams who make ideas happen, time and time again, are able to do so not because their ideas are any better,” Belsky said. “Ideas don’t happen because they are great, or by accident. They happen as a result of other forces, namely organization, community and sound leadership.”
To provide that kind of leadership might take a few tweaks to your existing processes. Or it might take major changes in the office culture. Whatever it takes, though, it’s doable—and worthwhile. Here’s how.
1. Take Away the Easy Answer
A fair amount of good ideas end up on the cutting room floor because they seem impossible to execute. But that attitude, says Gogi Gupta, founder of online marketing agency Gupta Media, amounts to cutting off the creative process before it even gets started.
“Especially with my designers and developers, there is an unwritten rule: Don’t ever say that it can’t be done,” Gupta said. “When you take away the easy out, people get creative in solving problems.”
2. Encourage Experimentation
Rarely are the best ideas born fully formed. More often, it takes a process of trial and error before you’ve created something viable. Realizing that is one way to ensure that creativity is the normal way of doing business rather than a once-in-a-while effort.
“What we seldom realize is that innovation boils down to experimentation—testing new ideas and iterating until you get something novel that works,” Belsky said. “As small business leaders, we need to push our teams to test out new ways of doing things. Whether it’s the way we work or the service we provide, we need to keep making small tweaks to stay on the cutting edge.”
3. Make Room for Failure
If you’re going to experiment, you have to be ready for failure. Don’t just excuse it; embrace it. That’s the best way to create an environment where people aren’t afraid to take risks and propose the ideas that nobody else thought were possible—and that nobody else is bothering to pursue.
“The truth is that we’ve all got ideas and are not short on creativity,” Belsky said. “However, we seldom feel welcome to take risks and experiment with the ideas that we come up with.”
4. Pay Attention to the Physical Environment
Several years ago, Kevin McConkey, principal at Grip Design, noticed that some people on his staff would experience seasonal depression during Chicago’s cold, dark winters. When he realized that might have a negative impact on the office vibe, he made a change.
“When we purchased a building to house our new agency, a major architectural improvement was to add as much natural light as possible,” McConkey said. “We now have enormous skylights and large, elevated windows that create kind of a solarium effect on even the dreariest of days.”
The physical environment at Gupta Media matters, too. Walls are a no-no.
“It’s such a loud, fun, open place,” Gupta said. “I’ve offered people offices and it’s a ‘please, please don’t pick me’ situation. When you have people like we have, walls kill creativity.”
New emails pour in every minute. New tweets pop up every second. If you don’t manage your time carefully, you might find yourself constantly in reactive mode. And the problem with reactive mode is that you never get to work on your own ideas; you spend all of your time responding to other people’s ideas.
“I call this the era of ‘reactionary workflow’ because we can easily react 100 percent of the time and never make a dent in our long-term goals,” Belsky said. “For this reason, I think it’s critical that we force ourselves to unplug more often and focus on the long term, the list of two or three things we’re trying to do for our business and in our lives over time.”
6. Look for People With Diverse Skill Sets
In small businesses, it’s common for people to wear multiple hats. Sometimes that happens out of necessity, but it’s actually valuable for creativity. The designer with the finance background can think analytically. The product manager with the degree in poetry understands the power of words. People with diverse skill sets have unique perspectives, and those perspectives come in handy when you ask them to come up with unconventional ideas.
At Gupta Media, the focus on this type of employee starts in the interview process.
“Regardless of position, we are seeking people who think laterally and across design, media and technology,” Gupta said. “My best writer is our chief software architect, and our creative director started in the media department.”
7. Come Up With Your Own Creative Solutions
Don’t reserve creativity just for the product or service you’re selling. Apply it to your own inter-office conundrums.
At Grip Design, where several clients are in the hospitality and F&B industry (including beer and wine), getting a solid understanding of the customer can mean a little extra indulging.
“More like all-out nuclear war on our livers and waistlines,” McConkey said.
To balance out that indulgence, the company brings a personal trainer to the office to lead weekly group workouts.
“What we found was that by orchestrating a once-a-week workout, most people would put in an additional day or two on their own,” he said. “Soon everyone was losing a little weight, feeling good about themselves and buying new threads, and that happiness resulted in a more productive and enjoyable workplace. Everybody won.”
8. Act On Ideas When They Come
Good ideas take work, but that doesn’t mean you can always create them in a structured way. Encourage your team to be receptive to the ideas that come outside of brainstorming sessions.
“Every time we try to sit down and be creative, it’s a frustrating failure. I haven’t found a way to turn it on or off,” Gupta said. “Personally, I have some of my best ideas at 4 a.m., and I’ll wake up and email the team. It’s not uncommon that idea will have a few replies, additions and comments appended to it by the start of the business day.”
9. Get an Early Start
A July 2010 Harvard Business Review article discussed research by Christopher Randler of the University of Education Heidelberg, Germany, who found that a higher percentage of people who called themselves “morning people” agreed with statements such as “I feel in charge of making things happen.”
If mornings are good for producing, then it would be wise to remove any impediments to an early start. The problem, though, is that the typical morning routine includes a stop for breakfast or coffee before employees even set foot in the office and fire up their computers.
To remedy this problem, Grip Design buys each employee whatever breakfast food they want and ensures that it’s stocked in the kitchen. Oatmeal and fresh berries? Done. Yogurt with granola and coffee? No problem.
“Given that most creatives are a slow-to-rise group of individuals, we want to encourage early morning routines,” McConkey said. “Rather than blowing precious time at a Starbucks and then arriving at the office to chit chat about bands, movies or whatever, our crew rolls out of bed and heads to the one place that has the breakfast they want, free.”
McConkey says employees are more productive—and, hence, creative—as a result.
“The outcome is that we get to work early and are quietly humming before most studios even clock in,” he said. “The most valuable time for creative stimulation is utilized and expanded. The hard cost of this program is surprisingly low, and the return is crazy-good.”
With all of the focus on idea making, don’t forget the most important step: Act on the good ones. Nothing will kill employees’ desires to create new ideas faster than a failure to implement them. After all, what’s the point of being creative if it leads nowhere?
To do that, Belsky says, you need a community where people provide not just good ideas but accountability and refinement around those ideas.
“If you don’t build an action-oriented team with a plan to execute ideas, [those ideas] are unlikely to ever see the light of day.” One+
One+ August 2012,
quest for talent,