How to Develop a Creative Culture

How to Develop a Creative Culture

There's no secret sauce on How to Develop a Creative Culture. It's a hard work, absed on consistency and intentional design. And 30 starting principles.

How can you intentionally develop a Creative Culture? Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. has been a foundational book in understanding the foundational elements of creativity. 

At the end of the book, the author builds a list of Thoughts for Managing a Creative Culture. Inspired from that, here is a slightly adapted and commented list, which also takes from other external inspiration and tries to link to other concepts we have explored in this blog. Developing a Creative Culture becomes a way to ensure the required consistency with all the other organisation elements.

Table of Contents

Don’t get stuck with a slogan

I know that when you distill a complex idea into a T-shirt slogan, you risk giving the illusion of understanding—and, in the process, of sapping the idea of its power. An adage worth repeating is also halfway to being irrelevant. You end up with something that is easy to say but not connected to behavior.

Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc..

I think the above illustrates once more the deep thoughtfulness of the author in avoiding quick recipes and simplifications. He defined the quick statements at the end of the book as “principles”. The trick is to think of each statement as a starting point, as a prompt toward deeper inquiry, and not as a conclusion.

The Building Blocks

Get the Team Right

It all starts here: getting the right mix of people.

Build the Right Culture

Your organisation will not deliver creativity if not based on the right culture.

Understand your True Goals

We all assume to be good at detailing goals. But often we miss the point.

Establish the Right Organisation

It is all about Intentional Organisation Design

Build for Change, not Stability

Instil openness for change in all what you do.

Fail Fast, Learn fast

The basic for Creativity is to allow failures and learn from them

The 30 ideas on How to Develop a Creative Culture

Here below a Table of Content of all the topics, I will cover in this lengthy post.

1 Get the Team Right

Building the right team is the foundation of every organisation. But too often processes and practices that focus on the past dilute the effectiveness that people bring in

1.1 Build the Right Teams

Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better. If you get the team right, chances are that they’ll get the ideas right.

This is a fundamental idea of Ed Catmull’s book and one that too many managers fail to recognise. We often fail victim of the concept of “great ideas”, and don’t focus on the team that instead can make any idea great.

1.2 Hire looking into the Future, not into the Past

When looking to hire people, give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level. What they will be capable of tomorrow is more important than what they can do today. 

Hire for Attitudes and not for Experience is a crucial foundation point for new organisations to work through the current VUCA environment. 

1.3 Hire Smarter People

Always try to hire people who are smarter than you. Always take a chance on better, even if it seems like a potential threat. 

How much is this against the current practice of so many managers who chose people that are less smart to appear more intelligent? It is one of the worst things that can happen in an organisation, and one of the reasons why we should question if we need all the traditional management levels

2 Build the Right Culture

It all starts with culture; that’s the key message from the work of Ed Catmull. Although we’ve seen this also in other readings, I think his insights are key even in terms of priorities. So let’s see the critical building blocks for this.

2.1 Freedom to tell is the foundation block

If there are people in your organisation who feel they are not free to suggest ideas, you lose. Do not discount ideas from unexpected sources. Inspiration can, and does, come from anywhere. 

Not feeling afraid of speaking up is the main element in a culture that can foster creativity. It is the diversity of points of views that delivers the additional value and needs to be nurtured continuously. 

2.2 Build a culture of Candor

There are many valid reasons why people aren’t candid with one another in a work environment. Your job is to search for those reasons and then address them. 

Likewise, if someone disagrees with you, there is a reason. Our first job is to understand the reasoning behind their conclusions. 

Candour is not an easy value to be built. You need time and effort, which is why you need to be deliberately intentional about this. 

2.3 Look where the truth is

If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.

Which is where candour displays more frequently: at the coffee machine, in the hallways, in what we often define as simple gossips. But this is unhealthy because it doesn’t face the issues and problems openly, and creates a culture of distrust. 

2.4 Control Fear

Further, if there is fear in an organisation, there is a reason for it—our job is (a) to find what’s causing it, (b) to understand it, and (c) to try to root it out. 

Fear is the most negative emotion that can pervade an organisation, and if present, it can hinder your capability to innovate and perform. 

2.5 Build True Trust

Trust doesn’t mean that you trust that someone won’t screw up—it means you trust them even when they do screw up.

I think this is one of the key lessons, as trusting people is comfortable when things go well, much less when we start having difficulties. And is the most significant antidote to fear.

2.6 Truly Empower People

The people ultimately responsible for implementing a plan must be empowered to make decisions when things go wrong, even before getting approval. Finding and fixing problems is everybody’s job. Anyone should be able to stop the production line. 

How dangerous it is the idea that our organisations are ensuring that managers don’t see problems. Because this is what often happens, let’s focus on this and make sure we avoid this by true empowerment

3 Establish the Right Organisation

Culture lives inside organisations and is the best tool to enable it to achieve its goals.

3.1 Build the right Rituals

In general, people are hesitant to say things that might rock the boat. Braintrust meetings, dailies, postmortems, and Notes Day are all efforts to reinforce the idea that it is okay to express yourself. All are mechanisms of self-assessment that seek to uncover what’s real. 

A lot of the methodologies that help creativity (Design Thinking, Agile, just to name a few) come with their rituals or ceremonies. These are important because they help to focus on the goal. You don’t have to copy the Braintrust that Pixar successfully implemented, but creating a gathering that is focused on getting candour out, will make sure everyone understands how important this is, which is why these rituals need to be part of your Operational Governance

3.2 Communication is not a Hierarchy

A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organisational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody. 

Too often, people tend to communicate by following hierarchy lines, which creates slowness and what we all know as bottleneck effects. People should be entitled to talk to any colleague in the organisation, without having to climb back and forth the corporate ladder. 

3.3 Move away from Personal Status

Many managers feel that if they are not notified about problems before others are or if they are surprised in a meeting, then that is a sign of disrespect. Get over it. 

This is just an example of how sometimes status consideration can impact the way an organisation performs. Something very well captured by Corporate Rebels in one of their posts. But its not just the status symbols that need to be managed, the example of Catmull is much more profound and impactful from a cultural perspective. Develop a Creative Culture becomes also a way to build upon real equity and equality.

3.4 Don’t create too many rules

Be wary of making too many rules. Rules can simplify life for managers, but they can be demeaning to the 95 percent who behave well. Don’t create rules to rein in the other 5 percent—address abuses of common sense individually. This is more work but ultimately healthier. 

This is were bureaucracy and micro-management reign. Always question rules, even in moments that seem to make them more needed. Once a rule is established, somebody will put a control in place, and it will build a small in the trust of people. 

3.5 Create Frameworks

Imposing limits can encourage a creative response. Excellent work can emerge from uncomfortable or seemingly untenable circumstances. 

This should be the focus of authentic organisational design and operational governance: give enough structure to allow for creativity to thrive, but not too much to hinder the creative process. 

3.6 Build a Healthy Organisation

The healthiest organisations are made up of departments whose agendas differ but whose goals are interdependent. If one agenda wins, we all lose. 

The continuous balance of these inter-dependencies is what can make or break an organisation. If you only pursue financial stability, for example, you will soon start lowering resources for innovation. It’s a matter of establishing a culture based on the force of and, as a foundation element on How to Develop a Creative Culture. Consistency becomes an added value, to be pursued focusing on all aspects of Organisation Design: from Business Model to Strategy, to Operating Models and Organisation Models.

4 Build for Change, not Stability

It’s not about change management, but rather about embedding change as a continuous learning process in the organisation. 

4.1 Change is here to stay

Change and uncertainty are part of life. Our job is not to resist them but to build the capability to recover when unexpected events occur. If you don’t always try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead. 

This is a crucial mission for management: make sure that your organisation is always open to change. Which is why I agree we should not design organisation to be Future Proof (that’s impossible). We need to plan them to be open to listen and learn and let the Future come in. 

4.2 Be Transparent

Careful “messaging” to downplay problems makes you appear to be lying, deluded, ignorant, or uncaring. Sharing problems is an act of inclusion that makes employees feel invested in the larger enterprise. 

If you hire smart people, you should not hide the truth from them. This is going to be the best weapon for your openness to change, as people will always know that you’re open for them. 

4.3 Remember that organisations don’t like change

An organisation, as a whole, is more conservative and resistant to change than the individuals who comprise it. Do not assume that general agreement will lead to change—it takes substantial energy to move a group, even when all are on board. 

An interesting note: we build organisations for stability, and then we ask them to thrive in change. This does not happen quickly, and we often don’t recognise this. 

4.4 Protect the Future, Not the Past

Our job as managers in creative environments is to protect new ideas from those who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness. Protect the Future, not the past. 

A true strategic direction: we’re often so worried about managing the known that we forget we should direct our outlook towards the Future. 

5 Fail Fast, Learn Fast

Creativity is not just about getting ideas, but growing them, testing them and setting priorities for them to grow. We’ve seen about this when we spoke about becoming deliberately developmental. How to Develop a Creative Culture becomes the quest not just about the growth of individuals but also about their ideas. It’s also about learning how to fail fast.

5.1 Push for new ideas, always.

It isn’t enough merely to be open to ideas from others. Engaging the collective brainpower of the people you work with is an active, ongoing process. As a manager, you must coax ideas out of your staff and constantly push them to contribute. 

This is the spirit of continually focusing on curiosity and Learning Agility as a critical feature that can sustain the work of the Future. 

5.2 Don’t assume you are right

There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right. 

One of the biggest mistakes, especially from experienced managers, is to fall in love with your conclusion and immediately assume you’re right. This is one of the primary triggers that hinder innovation and open discussion.

5.3 Learn from Errors

Do not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors, you won’t have errors to fix. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them. 

I think this is a core message here. How to Develop a Creative Culture? Make mistakes fast is a concept that pervades Pixar culture and becomes a fundamental assumption in its quest to value and develop creativity.

5.4 Failures are Great

Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new. 

Failure becomes the best way to learn as an organisation. Which does not mean you need to set yourself up for failure, but you need to ensure you don’t start the “blame game”, and that you use failures to learn as an organisation.

5.5 Don’t trust the first conclusion

The first conclusions we draw from our successes and failures are typically wrong. Measuring the outcome without evaluating the process is deceiving. 

Way too often, we immediately draw conclusions too quickly. The reason why postmortem analysis, also of successes, is needed, is precisely to study and understand the real reasons that lead to the results.

5.6 Risks are not preventable

Similarly, it is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them. 

This is vital advice. Way too often we think of managers as people that have to prevent all risks, which ties back into the excessive rules we’ve seen before. But risks are not entirely preventable. You need to ensure safety when people take risks and develop new ideas, as a basis to Develop a Creative Culture.

5.7 Think of Hairy Problems first

Engaging with exceptionally hard problems forces us to think differently. 

Don’t set the big problems on the side just because they are complex. 

6 Understand Your True Goals

Too often, organisations and managers tend to lose focus on the real goal. Instead of serving customers, building new products, improve service and launch new ideas, they focus on internal tasks, reorganisations, process improvements. 

6.1 Don’t abandon your true Goal

The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal—it leads to measuring people by the mistakes they make rather than by their ability to solve problems. 

Do not accidentally make stability a goal. Balance is more important than stability. 

We try to plan and organise everything around the idea we can control the Future by managing processes and people. But this is wrong.

6.2 Perfect is the enemy of good

Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way. And that’s as it should be. 

Another issue is that we try to strive always for perfection. Which is wrong in many ways as it prevents us to establish a way to move forward and experiment. Design Thinking, Lean and Agile can help us in the running away and strive to test first. 

6.3 Don’t focus on the Process

Don’t confuse the process with the goal. Working on our processes to make them better, easier, and more efficient is an indispensable activity and something we should continually work on—but it is not the goal. Making the product great is the goal.

It’s another issue we have: way too often we layer ourselves in focusing on the process. But despite the need to focus on efficiency, this should never be the lone goal. 

6.4 Be in love with crises

New crises are not always lamentable—they test and demonstrate a company’s values. The process of problem-solving often bonds people together and keeps the culture in the present. 

6.5 Excellence is earned

Excellence, quality and good should be earned words, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves.

The ultimate lesson for too many organisations that simply decide that “quality” or “excellence” deserve to be identified as internal values and hung on the walls. There’s nothing more dangerous than creating self-complacency through this. All the variations of good are defined by our customer, not by internal process or procedures. Which is what makes a true Creative Culture.

7 Conclusion: How to Develop a Creative Culture

A ride through 30 Starting principles to embed creativity in any organisation on How to Develop a Creative Culture. Again, not a need only for companies in specific industries. Because creativity is the sole way that can help companies survive in an environment that pays high dividends to innovation and disruption, in all sectors. 

I think we now have all understood that the only way to achieve this goal is by being deliberate and intentional in the buildup of such a culture. Intentional Design becomes a key focus.

None of these is an easy recipe, and all these need to be read through in conjunction with the hard work that is necessary to implement the principles. All successfully complemented by the Skills that need to be built fro the Future of Work. As well as a key way to embolden our vision to bring back Human in HR.

What do you think?

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Cover Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

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