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Why Your Company Culture Is Killing Creativity (And How to Fix It)

Creativity is a byproduct of your company culture. Start by adopting an abundance mentality and promoting diversity of thought.

By Gustavo Razzetti

April 7, 2021

Creativity is the top skill your organization needs. Here's how an abundance culture will help you promote creativity across your entire organization.

Steve Jobs almost prevented Apple from creating the most profitable product in the world. The team was trying to convince him that this innovation was a perfect fit for Apple. Jobs couldn’t see the path to success – it took him six months to recognize he was wrong.

Luckily, a culture of creativity saved Apple from its own founder.  

After months of discussion, Jobs gave his blessing and two teams were tasked to experiment with different paths. Should Apple add calling capabilities to the iPod or turn the Mac into a tiny tablet that doubled as a phone? As a result, the first iPhone was born. The rest is history.

Is Your Company Culture Killing Creativity?

Most companies don't lack ideas, but a conducive culture that helps them see the light of day.

In The One Device, Brian Merchant shares the secret history of the invention that changed everything – how the iPhone moved from being the child of an over-worked, under-appreciated engineering team, to Apple's most successful product.

So, what does it actually mean to be creative? And how can you design a culture that promotes creativity?

We usually think of creativity as artistry or the flash of genius. However, creativity doesn't just involve producing a work of art or inventing a new product – it's vital for employees to come up with new ways to solve a problem.

Academics define creativity as the generation of novel and useful ideas. In business, originality isn't enough – an idea must also be actionable and beneficial.

According to the World Economic Forum, creativity is the third-most-important skill for employees, behind complex problem-solving and critical thinking. A study by LinkedIn also found – after analyzing two million job postings – that creativity is the top skill companies need.

When it comes to organizations, the problem is not a lack of ideas, but getting attached to the wrong ones.

Nobel laureate Kahneman believes that ideas are abundant rather than scarce. "I've never thought that ideas are rare," Kahneman said in a recent interview. "If that idea isn't any good, then there is another that's going to be better."

Building a culture of creativity requires an abundance mentality rather than a scarcity one. When you feel confident that there are always more ideas, it's easier to let go of weak ideas and welcome better ones.

That's the problem Jobs had: he hated mobile phones and cell phone companies. He called the notion of developing an Apple phone, "The dumbest idea I've ever heard." Jobs was attached to the wrong idea of a smartphone.

Kahneman's abundance mentality means not seeing ideas as extensions of oneself or an expression of self-worth. Instead, explore new ideas with curiosity – what seems silly now could quickly evolve into a winning solution.

Letting go of a scarce mentality requires understanding that ideas can come from anyone in your organization, not just creative types. Leaders must promote creativity in every department, across all job functions and levels.  Successful ideas are neither the result of a single person nor something exceptional.

Detaching oneself from one's ideas is a crucial skill for leaders. It will help you be more receptive to others' ideas and avoid being blinded by your own. Even though Jobs was a visionary, without his team perseverance and abundance mentality, the iPhone wouldn't exist today.

Diversity of Thought: How to Challenge Our Ideas

The purpose of creativity is not to reinforce our ideas, but to improve them.

Unfortunately, we often favor feeling right over being right. That's one of the fundamental premises in Adam Grant's new book, Think Again. The organizational psychologist suggests that we must develop the habit of forming second opinions.

When we think and talk about our ideas, we often play one of these three archetypical roles: preacher, prosecutor, and politician. According to professor Philip Tetlock, in each of these modes we adopt a different identity that blinds our thinking:

Preacher – we deliver sermons to promote our beliefs and protect our ideals as sacred.

Prosecutor – we pick apart the logic of the opposition's idea to prove our own point, stressing the flaws in others.

Politician – we politick for support, seeking to win (or sway) a crowd to stay in a relative position of power.

Building a culture of creativity requires diversity of thought – we need to see the world through different lenses, not just the most comfortable or convenient one.

Steve Jobs played the prosecutor, finding flaws in his team's arguments and attacking their idea to build an Apple phone. He acted like a preacher when he thought that all phones "sucked" and that the market wasn’t up to Apple's standards. Jobs played the politician trying to persuade his team that he was right.

Ultimately, the team's pushback worked. Jobs finally trusted the engineers and gave the go-ahead to the experimental project. However, he wanted to see "an interface that is intuitive and exciting" before he was sold on the idea.

What saved the iPhone from never seeing the light of day was not one person, but a culture of creativity. The engineering team helped Jobs realized what he was missing. Thus, Jobs finally let go of his attachment to his beliefs and adopted a scientist mindset instead – a trial-and-error approach that guided the iPhone's development.

Throughout my career, I've been an avid promoter of diversity of thought to spark innovation; it helps to avoid groupthink, overconfidence, and unconscious biases. I learned one vital thing helping organizations become innovative: creativity is a generous process – success requires integrating opposing ideas with a "yes, and…" mindset.

Lately, there's been a debate around the idea of diversity of thought. Some people are worried that it’s an easy way out to avoid real conversations about diversity. Others, that it's becoming superficial jargon about having different opinions instead of leveraging the more concrete ways people prefer to think – analytical, organized, interpersonal, and strategic.

We need both. Creativity is a game of abundance – the best results happen when we build off of each other's ideas. Keeping our minds open requires integrating multiple viewpoints and ways of thinking. We can't separate our background, bodies, or stories from our perspectives.

Misinformation and fake news boil down to one thing: mental laziness, according to an MIT professor. Feedback is a powerful tool to challenge our thoughts and take our ideas to the next level.

In Think Again, Adam Grant shares the story of Austin, a first-grader who was assigned to make a scientifically accurate drawing of a butterfly. His first draft looked precisely like what most six-year-old would draw. However, the sixth draft was a completely different story. After various rounds of feedback from his "critique group," Austin's final iteration looked like the real thing.

Creativity is a byproduct of diverse thought. Take Pixar's secret sauce as an example: a culture of collective creativity, as I explain in this in-depth post. The movie studio realized that innovation is a team sport. Ideas grow stronger when people create together instead of letting egos drive the show.

Design a Culture of Creativity in Your Organization

Innovation is not a specific building block within the Culture Design Canvas. Creativity, similar to diversity or wellbeing, are byproducts of beliefs, norms, and behaviors. Building a culture of creativity requires addressing the entire system.

How is innovation embedded across your culture? Does your organization reward mistakes or punish them? Do your company rules limit people or provide freedom for experimentation? Are your feedback practices at the service of creativity?

Here are some practices to get you started.

Ideas Are Fragile; Nurture Ugly Babies

Most ideas will never see the light of day. They die too early in the game simply because they don't look good enough. That's the challenge with creativity: we must evaluate an idea's potential, not its current state.

Ed Catmull, Pixar co-founder, believes that the initial ideas for any movie are far from perfect. Turning "ugly babies" into successful films is both an art and a science. Pixar uses braintrusts, a feedback process where team members get early feedback and input from colleagues. Early ideas are fragile and require nurturing.

Judge the work, not people

Sparring is a team ritual created by Atlassian to get quick, honest feedback from diverse perspectives. This structured approach provides a safe space for team critique.

Just as martial artists or boxers don't train alone, a sparring session helps people improve their ideas. The first rule of Sparring is: You judge the work, not people.

Shorten Your Virtual Sprints

Mastercard has successfully adapted its brainstorming process to the post-COVID world. Its labs team used to run 4 or 5-day innovation sprints – virtual sprints are now shorter and faster.

Adapting sprints to the virtual workplace has been successful. Through collaboration and video tools, the team came up with the idea of Shopopenings.com. This new website offers information about open businesses in local communities and which ones provide contactless payment options.

Encourage Unreasonable Solutions

The ideal innovation lies at the intersection of desirability, feasibility, and viability. However, determining whether or not an idea will be profitable, operational, or scalable can kill ideas too early in the game.

Sometimes, it pays to think about impractical ideas. That's the case of Corning, one of the world's leading innovators in material science. Its CEO, Wendell Weeks, has built a reputation for encouraging unreasonable solutions.

It's not unusual for scientists to bring up ideas that would make everyone laugh. However, that’s how they start exciting conversations. When one engineer proposed a solution for increasing the efficiency of a technology by 25 percent, Weeks asked, "Why not 50 percent?" This unreasonable challenge helped uncover new possibilities that would have been otherwise overlooked.

Similarly, when facilitating a brainstorming session, we share different prompts to encourage new ways of thinking. The most effective is also the most unreasonable; we ask participants to develop ideas that could get them fired.

Integrate Multiple Perspectives

One of the challenges of being more open to different viewpoints is a lack of empathy. Perspective-taking – trying to understand a situation from another person's point of view – usually falls short. Instead, we must pause and lead with curiosity.

This ritual designed by Glenn Fajardo sparks questions to better understand other perspectives. Inspired by psychologist Nicholas Epley's idea of "Perspective Getting," this ritual is ideal when diversity of thought is needed.

At the beginning of a meeting or brainstorming, invite people to take 5 minutes for a Perspective Pause. Have them reflect in silence using the following prompts:

- What would you guess in each person's perspective on this issue? Assume good intent.

- Treat your guesses as hypotheses by turning your assumptions into questions.

- What questions might you ask your colleagues?

This short ritual will open everyone's mind, encouraging your team to understand rather than judge diverse viewpoints.

Share Your Ideas in the Open

Transparency is crucial for building a culture of creativity. From sharing pressing issues to building off of our colleagues' ideas, participation promotes diverse thinking.

At Buurtzorg, its internal social network plays a vital role in the sharing of knowledge and problem-solving. Nurses can quickly locate and contact colleagues with the expertise they are looking for. Transparency helps the Dutch home-care organization improve the way employees deliver care.

Jos de Blok, CEO of Buurtzorg, shares every decision he's about to make in the open. By posting his ideas on BuurtzorgWeb, all employees can immediately chime in by asking questions, challenging the idea, or providing "Yes, and…" solutions.

Download the MURAL template

Make Space for Innovation

Most companies promote creativity, but then forget to reward the right mindsets and behaviors. Your culture is not what you preach with words, but the behaviors you reward and punish.

That's one surprise that NASA found out when asking its employees what was preventing them from innovating more.

NASA's leaders are undertaking a study to understand and remove major barriers to innovation. People responded with nearly 300 recommendations. The main opportunity is to make space for innovation: to give employees more time, money, recognition, and dedicated physical space for experimentation. They are asking NASA to put the money where its mouth is.

Make Ideas, Not Titles, Win

Hierarchy is the enemy of innovation – power struggles turn creative conversation into something personal. Leaders quickly adopt a prosecutor mindset and start judging their team. They want to feel in charge, not to be right – just like what happened to Jobs.

Spotify rewards "A good engineering culture." Employees are encouraged to experiment, make mistakes, and break the rules with a purpose ("If it works, keep it. Otherwise, dump it!" or "Rules are a good start, then break them.")

The Swedish company has a rule that sends a clear message when it comes to building a culture of creativity. At Spotify, ideas, not the highest pay grades, win.

Hire for Cultural Fitness, Not Just Fit

The notion that people can or can't fit into a specific culture is at odds with building a culture of creativity. Cultural fit as an operating requirement not only forces new employees to adapt, but also hinders your culture's ability to be influenced by outsiders. It fosters groupthink rather than diversity of thought.

Of course, it's important that new employees are aligned with your company's purpose and values. However, you also want people who think differently. Hiring for cultural fitness requires bringing in new talent that will add new viewpoints, methods, and ways of working.

A successful company culture needs to stretch and grow, not get stuck and repeat itself. Patagonia, for examples, prioritizes culture add even over culture fit.

Zappos' approach promotes diversity of thinking by encouraging people to bring their weirdest self to work. This is aligned with two of its core values ("Create Fun and A Little Weirdness" and "Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded"). Zappos hosts dozens of employee events to celebrate diversity of thought and viewpoints.

Many organizations are realizing that neurodiversity is a competitive advantage. The benefits of hiring people with autism spectrum disorder go well beyond promoting diversity. Large companies such as SAP are seeing a boost in innovative capabilities, productivity, and quality – tapping into individual needs helps leverage the talents of all employees.

Build a Culture of Collaborative Innovation

Creativity is a byproduct of your company culture. Start by adopting an abundance mentality and promoting diversity of thought. Collaboration, transparency, and feedback are vital to encourage a trial-and-error culture.

Use the Culture Design Canvas to map how the different building blocks are either encouraging or blocking innovation. What norms are getting in the way? Are you rewarding the right behaviors? How can you use feedback or team rituals to promote creativity?

Next time your team presents you with an idea that looks ugly, think twice before killing it. You might be looking at the first iteration of the most successful product in the world.

Culture Design Canvas Template & Facilitation

The Culture Design Canvas was designed by Gustavo Razzetti to help organizations and teams map, assess, and design their workplace culture.

Read the licensing and use terms.

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Download Culture Design Canvas (PDF) – By signing up you'll receive more free articles on how to use and examples

Facilitation Guide and Intro to the Culture Design Canvas

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