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Establishing a Creative Culture

Establishing a Creative Culture

In an organizational context, most of us have experienced or witnessed moments of sudden and often profound insight into the nature of a situation or circumstance and have formulated what seem to be (and often are) genuinely original ideas or solutions. In retrospect, these innovations/inventions can be seen as:  a) unpredictable, b) require challenging or changing some underlying belief or assumption about what is and is not possible, and c) generally appear obvious after the fact. The point is that these kinds of insights require a different order of creative thinking outside conventional and reasonable frames of reference, what is usually meant by ‘outside the box’ thinking.

The key question here then is can anyone learn to be creative simply by beginning to change how he or she relates to the circumstances? To do so, however, requires that we let go of our notion that we are objects in an objective world and adopt a worldview in which we are individually and collectively creating the circumstances that we are observing. In this instance, therefore, the creative idea became a successful innovation because people added to the original creativity in a multitude of small ways.

Leaders who are often described as being creative are those we normally consider to be ‘visionary’ and charismatic and who are often seen as gifted in their capacity to keep moving forward and creating openings for action regardless of the circumstances. For the leader who relates to the world in this way, a vision is not a big goal or picture of the future, but a strongly positive and even optimistic attitude towards the future and that things can be better (usually with a little imagination and persistence).

Although leaders can set the right (or the wrong) tone for creativity and innovation to flourish or not within a given team or department, the other major factor that often has a huge influence is the wider culture of the organization as a whole.

So, what would an innovative organizational culture look like? At least in general, it would probably be one in which employees are motivated and confident enough to continually try new things out (and not feel “crushed” by the authority structure). To this end, employees would ideally be equipped with the right types of knowledge, skills and abilities to both effectively generate and implement new ideas. However, creativity and innovation will only flourish if the work environment is supportive of these efforts. This means employees should ideally be given opportunities to explore, investigate and experiment and leaders should provide support through active encouragement of these types of behaviors. At a broader level, the organization itself should therefore have structures and processes in place that allow for smooth transitions from appearance of new ideas to their implementation, if worthy.

How can such a culture be developed (albeit often only slowly over time)? A wide variety of research in recent years has highlighted some of the overlapping means by which a positive innovation culture can potentially be grown. These are by:

  • Selecting more creative/innovative employees in the first place
  • Training for creativity and innovation
  • Developing a learning culture
  • Empowering employees
  • Setting up idea capture schemes
  • Developing managers to support the innovation of others
  • Improving more widespread employee participation in decision-making
  • Having appropriate reward systems for innovation
  • Allowing risk-taking as an acceptable mode of practice
  • Benchmarking other organizations as a standard practice

In looking to create a more innovative culture, innovation needs to be treated as part of normal business, not something that is done in an ad-hoc way when someone has a bright idea: it has to become institutionalized. This requires processes that systematically challenge, review, support, develop and exploit innovation. To achieve the above, the “right” balance must be struck between structure and freedom. James Shapiro, a leading innovation practitioner and author, has identified twelve key factors that help to create a powerful culture of innovation. Expressed as questions, these include:

  • Is your organization willing to break with tradition?
  • Does your organization allocate resources to innovation?
  • Does your organization focus most on outcomes or on procedures?
  • When delegating, do managers focus on ‘what’ rather than ‘how’?
  • Does your organization encourage leadership and change?
  • Do your process owners serve as advocates for creative/innovative thinking?
  • Are individuals sufficiently empowered?
  • Are individuals chosen more for their communication and management skills than for their technical skills?
  • Are the efforts of individuals and teams privately and publicly acknowledged?
  • Are people shown the results of their efforts?
  • Are their successes acknowledged and celebrated?
  • Do you and the organization strive for simplicity?
  • Is over-analysis avoided?
  • Do you use a ‘build it, try it, fix it’ approach whenever you can?
  • Do you strive for ‘the fast failure’?
  • Do your leaders demonstrate their commitment to creativity/innovation?
  • Do your leaders serve as creative/innovative role models for the rest of your organization?
  • Do you take pains to eliminate administration?
  • Are your knowledge workers kept free to focus on adding value?
  • Is your use of critical resources effectively optimized?
  • Is your organization customer-focused?
  • Are you able to stand in your customers’ shoes and observe their processes in action?
  • Do you put more effort into redesigning your customer processes than into your internal processes?
  • Do you create customer need rather than just respond to it?
  • Are you easy to do business with?

Shapiro argues that by asking questions such as these we start to strengthen the creativity and innovation culture, and attract people who like to be creative or to innovate in different ways (thereby creating a “super” creative culture).

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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One Comment

  1. Anne SandbergNovember 15, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    Nice case study. The key is doing as much prepartion as you would if you were an external candidate.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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