Unlocking creativity as a fuel source for any business is a holistic endeavor that requires the skill of a chemist.
Balancing and re-balancing the demands of running a successful and reliable enterprise against the need to explore the unknown is no longer a matter of predictable process. Today, successfully managing a company in a disruptive industry is dependent upon the leader’s ability to tap into the natural energy sources that flow within most organizations.
In my work as a coach and confidant to leaders of some of the world’s most creative companies, I have identified the five forces that power the very best. These are the forces that produce "Profitable Creativity."
Image: Flickr user Kristin Shoemaker
The best companies are attracting talent faster than they are losing it. Given that some of their competitors have a retention rate of less than 60%, this creates immediate competitive advantage. A recent article by the Management Innovation eXchange reports that today’s workforce has never been more mobile (35% prefer to be self-employed), fluid (those entering the workforce today are expected to have 10 career changes before the age of 40) or disinterested (87% of workers worldwide say they are disengaged at work).
In this environment, a company can not hope to tie its best thinkers in place for 20 years. It must attract and retain talent gravitationally.
Gravity is present within every business at startup. It is the force that draws together enthusiasm, determination, and the ability to solve new problems with original thought. Over time, that energy dissipates and many companies are left in a state of weightlessness, searching for relevance and focus.
Restoring gravity is the result of Asking Hard Questions, starting with:
- Why does this company exist?
- Why anyone should care?
This provides you with focus and a definition of the problem your company is in business to solve.
Talented people want to make one thing above all else. A difference. And companies like Google are winning the talent wars because they offer the opportunity to do so. "Organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible," is not just a website mission statement. It is a gravitational imperative for tens of thousand of people. What’s yours?
Gravity is a fickle force. One day you feel safely anchored to a rock-like set of beliefs. The next, you are floating in space, wondering what happened to yesterday’s truths.
A busy company is not necessarily a successful or a sustainable business. And being clear about whether your point-of-differentiation is still different, is crucial to maintaining gravity.
Vince Barabba, describes three company types in his book The Decision Loom.
In my experience, companies in the first group are in the commodity business. And gravity is at its weakest in that environment. The leader’s job is to constantly be looking for ways to move higher in the gravitational food chain. This requires a Willingness to Thrill Your Customers.
As Henry Ford once said, "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse." His willingness to look beyond his customers’ wants to their needs created decades-long gravity.
Image: Flickr user Larry Jacobsen
Many organizations wisely shy away from "paralysis by analysis." But even more avoid healthy debate in exchange for easy answers. Unlocking original thought requires a willingness to let originality emerge from the shadows.
Tension is at the heart of every business that depends on creativity. And yet, many leaders spend time and energy searching for ways to reduce its presence. This is a self-destructive quest, because lowering tension requires you remove the stimulus that creates the best answers in eight crucial debates:
- the individual vs. the organization
- now vs. later
- freedom vs. structure
- fashion vs. sustainability
- culture vs. values
- evolution vs. revolution
- pushing vs. leading
- waiting vs. starting
In every case the first proposition is immediately tempting—which doesn’t automatically make it wrong. The best answer in each debate is driven by context, specifically the question: :where are we headed."
But there is never a black and white choice, and relentless willingness to embrace the tension of opposing views is necessary to ensure that what you’re getting is the best, not the quietest or easiest, solution.
Tension is the partner of consequence. And when the result of an opportunity or investment is less than expected, the cause is usually a failure to explore the other possibilities in the planning stage with enough determination.
Creating healthy tension requires Starting With Clear Definitions of Success. This ensures that attention is placed on improving outcome, not leaning on philosophically-driven answers. The result is a greater collective willingness to engage the debate.
Warby Parker, the extraordinary eyewear company, pays close attention to its Net Promoter Score—a measurement of customer satisfaction. This focus on the consequence of each decision encourages debate and avoids easy answers that can be quickly rendered irrelevant by a rapidly changing marketplace—or world.
Tension requires seeing that there are at least two sides to every story - a trait that traditional leadership struggles to embrace. Confident leaders push for the opposing point of view secure in the knowledge that being wrong is not a mark of weakness but a sign of strength.
At an organizational level this is amplified in an environment in which "Idea Ownership" is Replaced by "Idea Improvement."
At agency 72andSunny, ideas of any kind become the immediate property of the group engaged in solving a problem. The result is that every suggestion can be debated rigorously without offending sensibilities or feelings. This encourages all possibilities onto the table, and focuses the tension on the outcome not the origin.
Image: Flickr user Kevin Dooley
One of the characteristics that sets apart exceptionally creative companies is the ability to rapidly take an idea from inspiration to fully formed expression. They keep each part of the organization simmering, their people engaged and focused. The result is that it doesn’t take long to bring ideas to the boil.
Heat is also an essential but potentially dangerous change agent. Turn it up quickly and the consequences can be catastrophic. Apply it slowly and its impact is barely noticed until it has created the pliability you’re looking for. Exceptional leaders use it judiciously, knowing that a little goes a long way.
Heat is at its most effective when applied consistently. This condition is naturally created when the organization has defined standards. This creates two sources of heat. Top-down and middle out. Top-down heat is management directed and has been applied by businesses since the Industrial Age. But, the creative economy that we are now entering requires different management approaches to unlock the potential of today’s talent.
The millennial generation is less impressed by bureaucratic power than any group of talent that has come before. Instead, they are more influenced by the expectations of their peers. If you want to apply heat that raises both expectations and performance, you must do it through standards that are inherently built into the entire organization. The presumed authority that comes with a title is no longer enough to get the operating temperature where you need it to be for sustained, exceptional performance.
Netflix defines nine behaviors and skills the company values most. Each has at least four separate measurements. They make hiring and compensation decisions based on how well you meet those standards. "Adequate performance gets a generous severance package." Which removes the emotional resistance many managers have to letting people go. In a company striving for excellence, nothing turns down the heat like a willingness to tolerate average.
One of the most valuable sources of energy is the internal heat that comes from your staff. If you can unlock their passion it is a powerful source of renewable energy.
Talented people want to contribute. To make a difference. They want to know they have a chance to do something important. Tapping into this requires encouraging trial and error.
In large, risk adverse organizations, the most effective technique to keep heat simmering is the use of pilot programs. Small explorations staffed by one to four people with a passion for making something new happen.
Exceptional leaders look for opportunities to start these on a regular basis. If they succeed, add resources. If they don’t, you will almost certainly have learned something valuable, and your staff will be hungry for more.
Elon Musk made a billion dollars creating PayPal. Then spent it all trying to get Tesla off the ground before he succeeded, with the help of government funds. Now he’s out to commercialize space with SpaceX. In the Creative Economy, the willingness to literally reach for the stars attracts both talent and investment—two powerful sources of heat.
Image: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson
Speed and time are inextricably linked. Which make speed the lever of creativity’s most important metric—the opportunity cost of the time spent to solve a chosen problem.
Working faster means learning more. In a creativity-driven business, that is extraordinarily valuable compensation.
Exceptionally creative businesses use time more effectively. They move no slower than entrepreneurial speed, and in some cases at social speed. When your competitors can do no better than enterprise speed, the result is greater impact of your people and sustained advantage for your company.
Bureaucratic organizations are constructed with built-in inhibitors. The most obvious are those that require multiple check-points for daily processes. One company we came across required twelve people to approve a request to work with a new vendor. This included a multi-layered requisition form, completed in triplicate.
The key to increasing speed is Removing Bureaucracy from creative thinkers. This is not the same as removing rules. It does require leaders walk through a process to ensure that it satisfies common sense rules of working. If they find they would be annoyed by it, they should fix it or remove it.
One hour spent by a leader in improving process does two things. Engenders respect—from employees and vendors alike. And returns a multi-thousand-fold investment in saved manpower and increased speed. The consequence of which is exploration over hesitation. A prerequisite to unlocking creativity.
Entrepreneurial energy is a natural and renewable resource, ruthlessly squandered by most companies. Unlocked and directed, it produces dramatic increases in the speed with which a company responds and evolves. Inhibit—or worse, ignore—entrepreneurial intent and you will be faced with a groundswell of frustration and resentment.
Unlocking entrepreneurial energy requires A Commitment to Other People’s Ideas, and their right to share in the benefit. That is as much an emotional commitment as a financial or practical one—the ROI of which is almost limitless.
Lori Senecal of KBS+ has moved her company from one focused on innovation to one that delivers invention. To do so, she and her leadership team have worked to unlock entrepreneurial energy at every step of the organization, investing in capabilities that allows staff to turn ideas into prototypes, and to benefit economically if the idea has commercial value. Her stated goal is to have her staff make her obsolete—which should be the definition of success for any entrepreneur.
Image: Flickr user Aurélien Durand
Creativity requires risk. That we might fail. Or be wrong. It also requires we explore the unknown.
Overcoming these personal hurdles and making these dimly lit journeys are infinitely easier when we feel supported along the way by people and organizations we trust.
There is a straight-line link between generosity and trust. Act in someone else’s best interest, without regard for your personal situation, and they will trust you for life.
This is a high ideal. But it creates extraordinary fuel for creative thinking.
And has two other benefits.
It is entirely within your control to provide. And costs nothing.
Dana Anderson of Mondelez recently asked an industry audience to "give until it hurts, so that we spur creativity in the people around us." She cited the example of George Meyer—one of the writers of The Simpsons—who routinely wrote jokes for episodes without attribution and asked for the hardest assignments so that his co-writers could flourish. His personal motto 'Show up, work hard, be kind and take the high road.' The writing team he created has been described as one of the finest the industry has seen.
Generosity requires courage because it demands that The Leader Must Take the First Step. And that step has all the risk, the most immediate of which is looking foolish. Putting ego and fear aside is a distinguishing feature of contemporary leadership, and is at the heart of instilling generosity.
The old adage says that, "a rising tide lifts all boats." Most companies accept that as true, then focus on their boat. Generous companies focus on the tide.
Elon Musk recently announced he has decided to release a number of the patents Tesla hold on their electric car technology in order to allow competitors to enter the industry and spur more rapid innovation. "We don't want to cut a path through the jungle and then lay a bunch of land mines behind us."
As a practical definition, generosity means putting the needs of the organization first by making brave and sometimes personally uncomfortable decisions: a willingness to have honest conversations, including the most difficult ones: letting people go that are struggling before you know how to replace them (a service to both them and the organization); hiring people more talented than you; taking on the difficult client personally and refusing to take credit. Each of these makes life better for others and raises their ability to exceed their own expectations.
Without generosity, we are left with a zero-sum environment in which there must always be winners and losers. Susan Credle of Leo Burnett describes this as a "Culture of Scarcity." In its place, Susan advocates a Culture of Abundance—a definition that looks first to create the best outcome possible for the other party instead of protecting our own status quo.
Gravity. Tension. Heat. Speed. Generosity. Five powerful (and functionally free) sources of fuel for the leader of any company intent on increasing its capacity for creative thinking.