We live and work in challenging times. Times of volatility, uncertainty, change and ambiguity (VUCA). Times when business disruption can seem to come from anywhere, not always the normal channels we were taught in business school to look out for - like the obvious competition. The future is such an uncertain place to step into that it’s beginning to look like broadcasts from the Apollo 11 Moon mission - pixellated and fuzzy. The ability of an organisation to activate creativity from within, to create an innovative, forward-thinking culture has never been more important.
We’re used to thinking of creative companies as being hotbeds of the coolest people. Creative agencies full of clued-up hipsters and insightful visionaries. The Apples and Pixars of this world or the Mothers and Fallons. But what if you’re a manufacturer who makes radiators or toilet seats, what if you’re a legal firm or accountancy practice? How do you create a culture of creativity inside a static organisation, that’s mired in processes and hierarchy? And what would you gain?
I have found that there are four critical stages to activating creativity inside organisations. They are Seeing, Sensing, Thinking, Acting. In each of the levels, we also need to engage both our cognitive and intuitive abilities concurrently and take information and inspiration from both sides of those coins.
How do we learn to really see?
The reason we need a culture of creativity is so that we have an organisation which is agile and able to react to rapid change, able to innovate and therefore not only keep pace with change, but be ahead of the proverbial curve. This means being able to see problems that are happening, or sense those that might happen. Being on the look out for problems, doesn’t always mean you can actually see them. As we have long been taught cognitive processes in business schools all over the world, sensing into the future still feels like so much hocus pocus around many boardroom tables.
Of the four, seeing and sensing are by far the hardest barriers to overcome because there is often low confidence and lack of experience in people of the creative process, because we are trained to think and not see and feel, and because frequently the creative process feels a little bit awkward, uncomfortable and unbusiness-like.
Let’s take an example from Ed Catmull of Pixar, a company with a reputation for creativity which he talks about in Creativity Inc. After Toy Story was released, the company was preparing for A Bug’s Life when Catmull realised that his production managers were reluctant to re-hire as they felt they had been treated like second class citizens during the making of Toy Story. Catmull, a leader with an open door policy, had missed the dynamic which has allowed the production managers to be seen as ‘sand in the gears’. That dynamic turned out to have been a system of communication which required everyone to communicate issues through their direct manager rather than person to person. The situation was further complicated by the fact that production managers had been pulled in specifically to work on Toy Story and felt impermanent. And yet again by the fact that they so motivated by creating Toy Story with John Lasseter that they were prepared to overlook the frustrations.
Although Catmull had a completely open door policy, this problem completely passed him by, the bad was hidden inside the good. It serves to illustrate how complex it can be to unearth the origins of a cultural issue. It takes digging, it takes open-ended questioning, it takes insight to discover where the blocks are. It takes an ability to see through different eyes. So to activate any kind of creativity, we first have to activate the ability to see.
That’s one reason we begin with visual explorations in our Activating Creativity masterclasses. Before you start diving into complex tasks like dismantling organisational systems, and moving to self-managed structures, one of the first things to develop in your people is seeing and sensing. Being able to see past what is obvious, and actually see what is really going on. Being able to sense into the unseen and unpredictable future and be able to thrive in the chaos of the creative process.
For example, what do you see in the image below? How do you feel about it? How do you relate to it? What does it make you think about? Keep looking and almost meditating on the image, and note down everything you think and feel. Even when you feel your mind has gone blank and you’ve exhausted every possibility, stay with it and keep going until you’ve squeezed every last possibility of reflection out of you and you’re as dry as the Sahara.
Recreate the chaos of the creative process
One of the best ways to activate creativity in a group is by recreating the chaos which often exists at the start of any creative process - whether that is advertising, film-making, a sculpture or work of art. We allow people to experience an atmosphere where they can develop ‘trust’ in their ideas, trust in each other to be able to express their ideas freely without fear or embarrassment, while working in and with the process that is the catalyst for creativity to emerge.
By teaching them how to put frameworks around the process of creativity, setting a deadline for an outcome, we also enable them to activate the sense of personal responsibility that means they do learn to shape their creativity into an end product. It’s a pressure-cooker way to experience developing the best mix of cognitive, intuitive and creativity you can bring to resolve a problem. In reality, cultural change takes a lot longer to embed; but you have to first feel what it’s going to be like and what it can deliver, and really desire to embrace it.
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new thingsSteve Jobs
Building a sustainable creative culture is about deeply understanding interaction between humans. One of the biggest barriers to seeing and sensing, is having the confidence to express what you think it is that you see. Who amongst us wants to look an idiot? Who wants to invite criticism or hear a subtle giggle that indicates your idea might just be no good? You could say successful creative cultures are about the search for meaning in human life and discovering the understanding of the mix of people that can make innovation and creativity spark. This is something more infinitely complex than we expect it to be.
Mitigate the sense of risk by taking small steps
One of the ways to get around this when first activating creativity inside an organisation, is by experimenting with lower risk problems. If you can achieve success in small steps, you can gradually foster an appreciation for creative innovation. I recently worked with a successful regional business which started out making lavender soap around 15 years ago and had grown into a sizeable brand with several shops, garden centres and a successful own brand of lavender-based products. They had arrived at a place of inertia around future growth because they had so many different opportunities to choose from. You might think that’s a grand problem to have. But underlying the inertia were other issues; poor sickness records in staff, lack of engagement, concern in the leadership team about whether they should be looking for an exit strategy.
By taking a creative approach, we looked at the organisation through the lens of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and explored what everyone inside the organisation actually cared about and engaged with. By presenting people with a fresh lens through which to look at their world, we were able to spark deeper and more interesting conversations than had we simply talked about lavender. We asked them to imagine what their organisation might be like if it engaged with any one of the goals they connected to. We allowed teams to consider what future revenue streams might look like, what kind of activities they deeply wanted to engage in. We set creativity, curiosity and imagination free within a framework which meant that we arrived at commercial conclusions that would drive not only the culture, but also the business, forwards. It’s entirely possible that any external creative agency could have come up with all and any of the solutions put forwards. But there would never have been such a permanent shift in culture and engagement had the solutions come from outside rather than inside. The whole project started by seeing differently and by sensing into a future they had not imagined could exist.
We run 1 and 2 day Activating Creativity Masterclasses for organisations who are experiencing difficulties in delivering growth, innovation, who want to be able to respond better to market changes and who are worried about thriving in times of uncertainty. Bringing together the expertise of global brand strategist Jenny Andersson and creative artist and people development specialist Tracey McEachran, we have developed an experience which can act as a catalyst to activate the first step in cultural transformation. To speak to us about Activating Creativity in your organisation, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07702 285207.
To get started with creativity, and get some hints and tips, why not download my FREE Ebook Activating Creativity, input your details at the top of the column on the right!