So you want more creativity in the workplace? Are you serious?

As human beings interact with each other they participate in a process of civilising. An ongoing social process of negotiating the norms and cult values* that constitute what is acceptable in our societies. Over time these patterns, dependent on how well they are accepted and reinforced, become fixed and repeated and result in a collection of local traditions, beliefs and behaviours that we call culture. (Or an ongoing process of culturing to recover the verb from the jaws of ‘thingification’) Like a fractal, nested patterns of culturing can be observed at a variety of abstract levels – country cultures, regional cultures, industry cultures, company cultures, departmental cultures, team cultures, local pub cultures and so on. When we find ourselves participating in these various patterns of culturing we are presented with a choice – we either join in or we don’t. We either fit in and become part of the established pattern or we stick out and risk rejection and shaming (the degree of risk is often dependant on the degree of power and status we are perceived to have.) Sometimes we are consciously aware of this choice, such as in the first few weeks of joining a new organisation or visiting a foreign country for the first time. However most of the time the existence of these cultural patterns and the choices we make moment by moment lurk only in the dimmest recesses of our here-and-now awareness.

This is of course an oversimplification of the complexity of human interaction, however it nicely illustrates a fundamental factor that is overlooked in most efforts to nurture corporate creativity. Putting aside the CEO’s inspirational words that “We need to embrace creativity with open arms” or “We empower you to come up with ideas” essentially what we are talking about here is putting out an open invitation for everyone to be counter-cultural! An intentional effort to disturb the peace. A call to form an opposition against the established norms and cult values. A permission slip to employees allowing them to be more mad, bad and wrong.

Whenever I am engaged in scoping out a piece of work that is looking to nurture corporate creativity (or it’s more grown up sounding sibling “innovation”) I almost always begin with two questions: “Are you serious?” followed up soon after with “So, how serious are you?” I’ve learnt the hard way that it can be tempting to be lured into visions of utopia and believe that those commissioning the work know how bloody difficult it is going to be. I’ve learnt that not asking these challenging questions typically ends up with me finding myself in a horrible limbo where, despite the ‘official’ invitation to be more creative, the actual reality is that the window of permission is so narrow and laden with personal risk that all we do is create more anxiety and apathy. I now believe that it is vital to take time up front to explore a number of challenging and slightly odd questions that reflect the psychological and social tinkering that this work requires. Asking these questions (and any others you can come up with) helps everyone pause and check that they are absolutely sure of what they are getting themselves into before going too far.

What are you prepared to let go of?
Our initial thoughts on culture change typically arise from the same patterns of thinking that got us stuck in the first place. Unless we are able to let go of some of our daily norms, all we end up doing is trying harder and makes little progress or unintentionally make the existing culture even more stuck. Our first moves should feel counter-intuitive, illogical, somewhat unpalatable, the opposite of common sense. Reflecting on what we hold dear to us that we might need to let go of gives us a sense of the discomforting nature of this work. We begin to surface what might be ‘untouchable’ (or un-let-a-go-able) and a variety of status and power dynamics begin to surface such as “Oh no, I want them to be open to new things, not me!” This question helps illuminate any warning signs that we need to go back and re-explore the initial question of “how serious are you?

What are you going to do when somebody does something you don’t like?
The utopian vision of a creative culture can be quite problematic. Whilst there is always an outside chance that we might witness moments of beautiful people lounging around on bean bags, pointing thoughtfully at flip charts full of wacky new ideas, early on we are most likely to witness people wandering around in a state of heightened confusion and scepticism. We are likely to witness employees not believing that they really have creative permission (caged animal syndrome.) We are likely to notice individuals avoiding taking anything other than culturally acceptable risks to give the illusion that they are making an effort but are secretly a little scared. Momentum is only really built when the first big disturbance occurs and somebody does something brave that challenges a dominant and well ingrained cultural pattern. Culture change should, by its nature, be experienced as counter-cultural so these big , brave moves, if they are bold enough, should feel somewhat discomforting and unwelcome. What happens to those who are brave enough to make these moves is of utmost importance, irrelevant of whether what they try is considered successful or not. Are they rewarded and encouraged for their bravery? Are they told in a slightly school teacher-like way “Yes, we want creativity but not THAT type of creativity!” Or are they shamed, punished and banished? Whatever the answer, an acceptance that somebody is going to do something that those in charge don’t approve of is a reality that we are very likely to face. It only takes one person to be publicly shamed for trying and we are likely to find ourselves more culturally stuck than we were to begin with.

How uncomfortable are you prepared to be?
I want you to change them” is often an unspoken request when being briefed on this work by those in power. Even though most senior leaders can pull a Ghandi quote out of their pocket when they need it, the majority are unable be the creative change that they want to see emerge before them. This is because to do so involves relinquishing status, power and, at a much deeper level, identity. How are those in power going to be intentionally more counter cultural and maintain the important elements of their role at the same time? What risks are those in charge going to take and what will happen to them when the do? How are the top bods going to fail happy and be OK with publicly appearing imperfect? What is taking this too far for those in charge? What is making this too uncomfortable for the board? All of these are valuable questions to explore as both comfort and distress are stuck positions: In comfort we are lulled into apathy, in distress we are paralysed with fear and anxiety. In order to enable a more creative culture we need to experience enough discomfort in order to cause movement and that goes double for those in positions of power and influence who are often those most reluctant to experience it.

What’s your policy on ugly babies?
Howard H. Aiken once said “Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.” A truly novel idea is, by its very nature, misshapen, weird and ugly. It stands out as different to the norm. And, at the same time it is incredibly fragile and vulnerable to attacks of logic and common sense. If the culture in which it is born is volatile, judgemental and critical then these ugly baby ideas don’t stand a chance. They are purged in favour or those that are more aesthetically pleasing (and conforming). Ugly baby ideas need even more love, warmth and nourishment than their more appealing cousins in order to help them develop and grow into something amazing. If we cull an ugly idea too early, not only do we kill the idea but we also kill its children and grandchildren – the other, possibly genius ideas that it might have led to. Exploring what happens to ugly ideas and securing the resources that they need to survive is a critical element of early scoping work before unleashing the imagination of the wider employee population.

How long is a piece of string?
I’m often accused of being anti-planning or anti-structuring which is not entirely true. I do think strategies, plans, agendas, measures, KPIs (etc) have a place as a helpful navigation aid or a transitional object that helps dampen down anxiety but the problem arises when we become too attached to them and believe in them. When the plan becomes the truth. When the map becomes the territory. Whilst we have an idea of what we would like to happen as we embark on our creative adventures we have little idea of what will actually happen. Therefore plans need to be a serving suggestion rather than a mandated recipe. Our strategies serving as low level emergency lighting in the background of our here and now experience. An over attachment to measures, metrics and milestones whilst intervening in a complex, emergent social process is akin to wanting to know a sporting result before agreeing to go into the stadium. An inability to let go of detailed plans and an addiction to measuring everything is another early sign that there may be trouble ahead. “Leap then look” is a more helpful, momentum building mantra, at least in these early stages.


This article was originally published in the fantastic Open for Ideas online creativity magazine in October 2016.

* Cult values as described wonderfully by Norbert Elias in the early 1930s.
Picture: “Schroedinger’s Peek” by Steve