Managing a business is a balancing act between creativity and structure. Too much of the first and the business is immersed in chaos. Too much of the second and it becomes mired in rigidity. Staying right atop that fine line where everything is perfect often becomes the illusive goal.
Ah, but beware the false promises of perfection! Effective management is not about the futile pursuit of a mirage, for no such fine line exists. Instead, it is about the flexibility of flowing harmoniously between creativity and structure, like the yin and yang, for therein lies the secret to growth and success.
It is tricky of course. Process is always easier to implement because it has structure, and can even get over-bearing as the business grows. Creativity, on the other hand, is seen as an elusive entity that a few lucky businesses possess while the rest wish that they did. Standing on the side lines waiting for the creative spirit to blossom or a nouveau idea to emerge is a risk that can spell disaster in our times of accelerating change.
There is good news though. Studies show that the most creative companies follow a very systematic process to nurture creativity and capture the best ideas. Here are the steps you can take to increase creativity in your company – unless everything’s perfect!
Establish a Culture of Creativity
Get everyone involved so as to establish a culture of creativity. David Burkus, in his excellent book The Myths of Creativity, talks about the myth of the lone creator. Even Michelangelo had at least a dozen artists working with him while painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Some of the greatest innovations have come from knowledge sharing, in the arts, the sciences and in technology. Intuit, a financial software company, asks its employees to bring in products that truly delight them, from a backpack to a sippy cup, as ways to instill creative thinking and develop appreciation for good design. Although it is not a design company, it is often in these moments of creative reflection that it has seen disparate ideas emerge through analogies and insight and lead to thinking outside the box. Inviting speakers who have successfully implemented creativity in their businesses, arranging a trip to an art gallery or craft store or organizing days of healthy creative competition are all ways to get the creative juices flowing.
Facilitate Individual Moments of Flow
Set aside time on a regular basis that is devoted to individual creative engagement, when meetings cannot be set up and all distractions, especially technology, are left at the door. This is particularly important in our times when the overload of information, the addiction to social networking and the urgency of work life hijack every moment of the day. All creative people have been known to do so. Pop-star Sting sets aside time for creativity even while on tour. It is in these structured sessions that we increase our chances of getting into ‘flow’, a distinct state of a total loss of self-consciousness and fear when we produce our most creative work. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term ‘flow’, has studied thousands of people in varied kinds of work and has found that this state can only be achieved by matching people’s highest strengths to their tasks. As a manager, recognize your employees’ highest strengths (have them take the VIA survey) and encourage them to re-craft their jobs to maximize moments of flow and increase creativity and well-being.
Encourage Constructive Criticism
Learn from some of the most creative companies that harness the power of criticism to generate the best ideas. Pixar, perhaps the most creative computer animation film studio, holds special sessions called ‘shredding sessions’, where the production in progress is criticized frame by frame until it is at its best possible version. To really understand the extent of this criticism, it would be worth mentioning that each second of film contains 26 frames! However, equally important is to understand that the criticism is purely task-oriented so that it is productive and is not taken personally. As human beings, and especially as women, we are empathic and sensitive, and can often take the negative opinions of others to heart. To harness the power of criticism towards growth and creativity, instead of bitterness and self-defense, certain rules have to be set in place. Some companies designate a ‘devil’s advocate’ while others have come up with the concept of ‘plussing’ – each criticism has to be accompanied by a suggestion to make things better.
Make Room for Failure
Understand the power of failure in the emergence of the most creative solutions. Ron Friedman, in his latest book, The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, talks about research on creativity showing that the freedom to try many different solutions without fear of retribution is what allows the best solutions to emerge. According to legend, Thomas Edison failed 999 times before inventing the light bulb. As the story goes, he simply saw it as having “learnt 999 ways how not to create a light bulb”! If each employee can take risks within a structure of positive feedback, another essential component of creativity and moments of flow, they can learn from failures instead of shutting down in fear. Positive feedback does not mean denying the improvements that need to be made. It means noticing and appreciating what is working and building awareness around the changes that can be made to further move towards pre-set goals.
Prioritize Personal Growth
Be serious about the individual wellbeing of each employee. Gone are the days of the industrial model of workplace efficiency. Our employees need to understand not only how they are affecting the trajectory of the business, but also how it is aligning with their own life journey. As work continues to expand and individuals struggle with the illusive work-life balance, it is incumbent upon employers to ensure that individuals live in harmony with the many roles they fulfill. Empowering employees with the autonomy to re-craft their jobs in line with their strengths, the flexibility to work from home when needed and the permission to bring in their outside passions to share at work leads to multiple benefits. When employees feel cared for, they genuinely care for the business. And when they feel aligned with all aspects of their being, they are able to explore, expand and be fully engaged, thus enhancing the chances of creative expression.
Nurturing creativity is no longer a privilege. We live in a world of constant change. With the spiraling speed of life, it is the businesses that cultivate, appreciate and reward creativity that will survive the pace of change. This is where you as an employer play a critical role. You are no longer the classroom teacher of your era. You are the inspirational orchestra conductor of today. It is the authority, empathy and authenticity with which you nurture creativity and encourage growth that will bring out the brilliance of your people and determine the success of your business.