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Creating a Creative Climate
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Creativity does not happen in an intellectual vacuum nor in the emotional icebergs that many companies fashion for themselves.
Research around creative culture and general climate has led to the identification of key areas on which companies can focus to develop an effective climate in which people are not only creative, but where they are motivated to develop these ideas into value-adding contributions to the success of the whole organization.
If a company wants to become more creative, rather than just encouraging people or teaching tools, then perhaps the best way is to develop the organizational climate. Rather than telling the plants to grow, this is about tending to the soil in which they can become what they are capable of becoming.
To do anything, people must feel motivated, an internal need to act. The climate of the organization thus must provide the cues and forces that lead people into the deep motivation that is required to push through from idea to end product.
People feel challenged, that there is a basic drive to extend their personal boundaries, develop latent talents and explore new possibilities.
People who feel challenged emotionally engage in their work. It becomes a part of them, not just something they do. They feel the need to get out there and act, not just to sit back and dream or mope.
Organizations can challenge people by linking a deep understanding of individual talents, potential and motivation with the strategic intent of the company. MBO (Management By Objectives) got itself a bad name in the 1980s, mostly because it was done badly. Done well, it means telling people what is wanted (the Objectives) and then letting them do it in any way they see fit. The trick also is in giving high-enough level of objectives that people feel excited and challenged, not constrained and directed.
Having fun is not always realized as being a productive state. Yet look at little children. Their 'fun' is almost all learning and discovery. We get this beaten out of at an early stage in school, where learning is supposed to be serious.
A climate where a certain (child-like, but not childish) playfulness is in the air lets people try things out without knowing what will happen.
Another important characteristic of a fun-loving culture is humour. You can see such climates simply through the smiles that people almost always seem to wear on their faces as they tease and joke with one another. Jokes are about unexpected things, as are creative ideas. Making jokes is, in itself, a very creative activity, and develops the 'creative muscle' needed to constantly innovate.
Once people are motivated to be creative, they need the environment in which they can be creative.
People empowered to act in ways that are not tightly constrained by narrow job descriptions and management oversight. They have the personal freedom of choice and resource that gives them true authority to achieve the challenge they have been given.
Empowerment has been slated and abused, for example where the power is retained by managers whilst individuals are asked to achieve things without the power to act. Done well, however, it truly delegates power and the freedom to choose what to do and how to do it within a significant part of people's jobs.
Discovering and developing ideas takes time. They need to incubate in your subconscious for a while, like hatching an egg or a dastardly plan. When people are tightly constrained, working a full nine-to-five (or more) job, then they will not have the ability to go beyond basic ideas, which in their base state are usually not valuable, but would be with a certain amount of developmental effort.
When people have a certain amount of unallocated time in their timetables, then if they feel challenged and feel freedom to act, then they will use that time productively to develop those ideas. Some companies deliberately leave a proportion of time, even up to 10% or more (and particularly in some parts of the organization) in which ideas may be developed.
When I have spent time and freedom in working to achieve the challenges I have found, then I will at some time reach the stage when I need further help, for example to allocate additional resources for development or in presenting the idea to people who may not be that ready to change their entrenched viewpoint.
In these situations, the person developing the idea needs the gravitas, the authority, the wider capability of more senior managers. In fact the more valuable the idea, the more support it is likely to need, as it may lead to entire changes in direction for the whole company.
Alongside a motivated and empowered organization, a harder edge is needed that drives forward towards towards success.
Getting an idea from first notion to final product can be a long and arduous process. This requires a dynamic environment in which people are energized and constantly pushing forward. You can walk into many workplaces and feel the lack of energy and enthusiasm, whilst others have a definite, almost palpable buzz about them.
Buzz and energy comes from the leaders of the organization. This includes the formal management and informal social leaders. People look to these leaders for cues in how they behave. If the leader is full of energy and enthusiasm, then this emotion will 'infect' others and the motivation will spread through the organization.
Ideas in action almost always bump into other ideas as well as natural conservatism that seeks to preserve the status quo. People attach themselves to idealistic positions and will act to defend them, sometimes by pre-emptively attacking what they see as threats.
A climate where conflict is allowed, enables these felt challenges to be voiced and for people to argue their cases. In a creatively supporting climate, the conflict is mostly about the problems of the organization and the viability of ideas, and is most certainly not about personalities and the value of different characters. When conflict turns to personal attack, then ideas and their value go out of the window.
Creating healthy conflict requires both an openness to challenge and then a focus on the problem, not the people. A respect for the individual thus is a fundamental element of creative cultures.
Conflict and debate are very close, and again the basic concern is to focus first on the idea. In debate, the pros and cons of ideas are discussed openly and challenges are welcomed and analyzed to see what additional benefits they may bring.
Debates can also go on across boundaries of time and space, and thinking about an idea can engage an entire company.
It is one thing to think up a idea, it is another to put it into practice. Ideas that are not explored and experimented with will either never see the light of day or may well fail on their first outing.
An experimenting culture has a strong bias for action in trying things out. It does not expect things to work first time but it does expect to learn through careful trials and subsequent analysis.
Experimental companies often extend this culture out into the marketplace. They do many trials with customers. They release many different products to see what sells and what does not.
Trust is the bedrock of human interaction. If I do not trust others then I will not believe them and will put a lot of my effort into protecting myself from their potential attacks or callous lack of concern.
In the development of ideas, trust is needed on both sides of the house. The person with the idea must feel they can speak their minds without fear of criticism or punishment. The person on the other side also needs to trust that the person with the idea has the company's best interests at heart and will not abandon their other work in the sole pursuit of a very shaky idea.
Trust thus has to develop across the organization. It is a fragile thing, that when lost through betrayal of trust is not easily restored, and thus needs very careful management.
Offering ideas and trying out experiments requires the ability and motivation to take risks. Individuals and the entire company need to be able to stick their necks out and 'give it a go'. Personal risk is thus reduced so people can be open and experimental.
Rather than blind risks, successful cultures manage these in a way that takes a realistic view of the real exposure of the company. Big risks are mitigated carefully. Small risks are recognized as such and may more easily done as 'blinders' to see what happens. Risk and potential reward are thus balanced and managed carefully as a single unit.
Ekvall, G. (1971), Creativity at the work place, Stockholm: Swedish Council for Personnel Administration
Ekvall, G. (1987), The climate metaphor in organizational theory, in: Bass, B.M. and Drenth, P.J.D. (eds), Advances in organizational psychology, 177-190, Beverly Hills: Sage Publications
Ekvall, G. (1999), Creative climate, In Encyclopedia of creativity, Vol. 1 A - H, Runco, M.A and Pritzker, S. R. (eds.), 403-412 San Diego: Academic Press Place of Publication
Isaksen, S.G., Dorval, K.B., & Treffinger, D.J. (2000). Creative Approaches to Problem Solving: A Framework for Change. Buffalo, New York: Creative Problem Solving - Group Buffalo