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Creating a more creative culture

Diagram with culture written in the centre and eight spokes - people, organisation, values, reward, leadership, environment, standards and policies, systems and resources

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Why read this? : We dive into the 3 key drivers of creating a more creative culture. Learn how to set up your business to boost creativity. Read this for practical examples of ways to build a more creative culture.

Your business’s culture shapes how it works. It’s how things get done.

We’ve touched on its link to creative thinking and breakthrough ideas before. But the link to creativity is so strong, that we felt it was worth a deeper dive into how you build a more creative culture.

Culture is a tricky topic to pin down. It’s intangible. You can’t see or touch it. But, as per our creative thinking guide, the key is to focus on :-

  • People.
  • Leadership.
  • Environment. 

Diagram with culture written in the centre and eight spokes - people, organisation, values, reward, leadership, environment, standards and policies, systems and resources

People

Nothing in your business happens without people.

If culture’s how things get done, your people are who make it happen. What they think. How they feel. What they do. And how they interact with others. Those all shape how creative your culture is. 

So, to build a creative culture, you have to find the right types of people. You have to think about how you organise, reward and motivate them.

This isn’t easy. 

Five people's hands side by side on a wooden table

People have different experiences, opinions and styles. You want to get the best out of everyone and help your team work together constructively and collaboratively.

Finding creative people

Defining what you mean by being creative is a good starting point. 

Many people assume this means being good at creative skills like writing or graphic design. That you’re “not creative” if you can’t write or draw well.

But this is a very narrow definition. For us, creativity goes much broader, and everyone can be creative in some way. 

In marketing, this narrow view of creativity partly comes from agencies and their creative teams.

Young child holding a blue paint tube and squeezing it out

These are copywriters and art directors with specific skills in writing and design. They create advertising campaigns, on which you give creative evaluations and creative approvals at creative review meetings. Marketers get into the habit of judging creative, rather than being creative. 

But there’s clearly more to being creative.

Creative thinking starts with creative ideas. And that’s about idea generation, and how you creatively solve problems. For example, how to differentiate your brand. Drive your customer experience and develop your brand assets. (See our benefits of creative thinking article for more on this). Creative thinking also drives what you do with those ideas. How you build on them. How you overcome barriers to creativity and learn from your mistakes

Good creative thinkers share certain traits. They’re open-minded. They like to learn new things. They’re curious, and don’t settle for the status quo. They get a buzz from nurturing new ideas and hate killing ideas. They’re good at bringing down barriers, such as you often find in marketing and e-Commerce.

But that doesn’t mean they all think the same way. Differences in approach to creativity are important too. These differences add breadth and depth to your creative thinking. They strengthen your creative culture. 

Let’s look at some examples of different creative styles.  

Kirton Adaptive Innovation model styles

One common way to do this is the Kirton Adaptive Innovation (KAI) model. It helpfully states up-front that everyone is creative. They’re just creative in different ways.

It’s based on filling in a multiple-choice questionnaire about your preferred “innovation” working style.  For example, the type of problems you like to work on. How you like to define and solve problems, and how you like to implement solutions. 

Your answers generate an overall “score” against a spectrum of creativity, with adaptive innovators at one end and innovative innovators at the other. 

Adaptive innovators

Those with an adaptive innovator style prefer to work on ideas which make existing things better

These types of ideas are smaller in impact, but faster, easier and cheaper to put into practice. These are evolutionary ideas which give you slow but steady improvements and growth. It’s often about tweaks and upgrades to your existing marketing mix

Volkswagen is often held up as a good example of adaptive innovation. 

Close up of the centre of a Volkswagen steering wheel

When they launch new car models, they often don’t look much different on the outside. But underneath, you find they’ve made hundreds, if not thousands of small, but cumulatively meaningful improvements. That’s adaptive innovation. 

Innovative innovators

On the other hand, innovative innovators are more interested in fixing future problems. They favour big, disruptive and breakthrough ideas which transform the market. They want to do things differently

That’s not helpful when you’ve got immediate problems to fix, though. And often, these big ideas don’t pan out. Innovative innovators are a much riskier source of ideas. But when one of their ideas does work, it’s a game-changer. 

There are plenty of examples of this innovative innovation working successfully.

Lots of mobile phones from the end of the 1990s and early 2000s

For example, Apple launching the iPhone to transform the mobile phone market. Netflix’s move into streaming which killed off video shops like Blockbuster. But for every success, there will also be many more innovative ideas which didn’t make it.  

A balance of creative thinking styles

The main reason we like the KAI model is it suggests you need both approaches to creative thinking. There’s no single “best” way. You improve your creativity with a balance of creative thinking styles.

The adaptive approach never sounds exciting. But as the Volkswagen example shows, lots of small, easy improvements can give you a solid platform for reliable growth. That helps protect your position in the market. That’s exciting. 

The innovative approach can help you make major leaps forward. When they work, these ideas can give you a competitive advantage for many years to come. But they’re often hard to implement. They take more time and are more expensive to do. Plus, there’s a high risk they won’t work, and you’ll weaken your position. You think very hard before you go after these ideas. 

Organisation

Putting together different approaches to creativity is part of how you organise your business.

It’s how you set up teams, and get those teams to work together.

Most businesses are organised by function. The marketing team, the sales team, the IT team and so on. But to deliver projects, you have to set up cross-functional teams with experts from each function. 

How you pick and organise these teams has a big influence on whether that team will succeed.

Rope - system

It’s not just functional expertise that matters, but how people work with others, especially if they have different styles.

For creative projects to fix existing problems, you go with more adaptive innovators in the team. And for new problem-solving and breakthrough ideas, you go with more innovative innovators. 

Other models to organise teams

However, there are other models to organise teams, which can give you diverse approaches to creative thinking. For example, the Myers-Briggs and Insights models look at factors such as whether people are more extrovert or introvert. Extroverts get their energy from working with others and being social. Introverts get their energy from within themselves and use quiet time and reflection to find new ideas. Your creative team usually needs both types. 

Both these models also identify whether people prefer working on projects which involve tasks, or which involve emotions. Good creative teams cover both areas.

Another common tool is the Belbin model. This looks at 9 different roles people can play in teams. People in the team answer questions to work out their team role preferences. For example, “plants” come up with lots of ideas. “Shapers” make ideas happen. “Monitor evaluators” are good at analysing ideas. Creative teams are stronger with a mix of people who can cover different team roles.

Rewards and motivation

In terms of creative culture, people is also about working out how to reward and motivate people.

Creative teams have to feel there’s some benefit for them in being creative. 

Traditional reward and motivation approaches focus on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). People commit to delivering their KPI on a project by a certain date. They’re rewarded when they hit that KPI.

However, creativity KPIs can be tricky to set and track.

Close up of a hand with thumb up

The results of creativity are clear, and easily measured. You launch (or don’t launch) an innovation or a new advertising campaign, for example. But how you get to those results often depends on how many ideas you come up with, and how you manage those ideas through the business. Those are harder to measure. 

In addition, traditional KPI setting tends to favour adaptive innovators, and “safer” projects. If people are rewarded for hitting KPIs, they pick KPIs which are easier to hit. It’s harder to set KPIs for breakthrough ideas because they’re naturally harder to achieve. 

So, you have to figure out how to reward and motivate teams to take more calculated creative risks. Often, this means moving the conversation away from being about money. It can be about recognising bold thinking, for example. Or letting people work on riskier ideas so they learn new skills. Reward and motivation often come down to helping teams stretch their knowledge and build their confidence. 

The leadership team usually drives this. They establish a creative culture which encourages teams to push more boundaries. They take away the fear of being punished for ideas which don’t work out. And they reward and motivate people to come up with new ideas to grow the business.

Leadership

Leaders set the creative direction for the business.

It’s up to them to find the right people and organise, reward and motivate them. Building these great teams is part of creating a more creative culture. Great teams can fix bad ideas. Bad teams, however, will kill good ideas.

Leaders should articulate how much creativity matters to the business. They should set expectations on what creativity needs to deliver. And they have to run the business so it’s easier for everyone to be more creative.

Close up on a man's hand on the steering wheel of a ship

They’re not about preventing risks, but making it safe to take them. 

For example, the leadership team normally drive key areas like creative evaluation and approvals. These are critical marketing decision-making areas. But they often lead to differences of opinion, and that creates conflict. Leaders need to make sure it’s the right type of conflict. 

Constructive conflict is when people build on each other’s ideas. People challenge ideas, so they’re combined, refined or adapted into better ideas. That type of conflict is good for creativity and should be part of your creative culture. 

Destructive conflict on the other hand kills ideas. This type of conflict creates barriers, promotes negativity and makes people unhappy. That’s bad for creativity. Leaders should make sure this type of conflict has no place in the culture. 

Standards and policies

It’s also up to leaders to set expectations on creative standards, and how the creative process works. 

So, for example, how creative feedback will work. Leaders need to make clear how and where they’ll give feedback. And what they expect teams to do with that feedback.

One of our favourite examples of how to do this is Pixar, where creativity is highly valued. They use what they call a “Brains Trust” as part of their standards for reviewing new ideas. 

Toy doll Woody from Toy Story lying on the floor

This is a small group of experienced in-house experts, who’ve been through the creative process many times before. They give constructive feedback on early-stage ideas. They aim to help those ideas grow. But importantly, they can’t veto those ideas at that point. (See also our business writing article for more on this).

This is a different approach to many businesses, which review ideas at formal committee “hurdle” meetings.

If those ideas don’t hit pre-specified criteria, they get killed. This ends up blocking many ideas rather than improving them. That’s very demotivating for all those involved.

So leaders should help nurture ideas. To set clear standards of what “good” ideas look like, and remind people of the goal.

Good creative ideas connect with the target audience and grow the brand. 

Running track with hurdles set up for a sprint race

70-20-10 creative investment

That’s not to say every creative idea should survive. Or you should favour one type of creative idea over another. But leaders should clarify how much they expect to see safer evolutionary ideas, and what the role for more breakthrough ideas is. 

One way to do this is to set a ratio for how much investment goes into different types of creative ideas. For example, a 70-20-10 ratio split like this :-

  • 70% of the budget goes to strongly evolutionary ideas with lower risk and more immediate returns.
  • 20% goes on ideas which are somewhere between evolutionary and revolutionary. They’re mid-term in terms of delivery with higher risk and reward.
  • 10% is saved for bold, revolutionary ideas. These are longer-term with much higher risk and reward.

Environment

The final part of your creative culture focuses on where creativity happens.

Creativity needs a place to happen. 

So, where your team works when they come together on a creative project, for example.

Teams need spaces where they can easily work together on their ideas. But, they also need quieter spaces where they can think about ideas without being disrupted. 

Many open rainbow coloured umbrellas

Creativity also often needs stimulus.

So you need spaces which encourage teams to think creatively. Often, this isn’t the same space where people do their day-to-day jobs. A change of scene can be good for creativity.

That’s why companies often go off-site for creative workshops. Use your agency’s offices. Or hire a room at a hotel, bar or sports venue. These creative spaces have a different vibe. More informal seating. Better views. And a ready supply of whiteboards, flip charts and marker pens. Oh, and lots of snacks. Being creative uses up energy, so it makes people hungry

Build a creative space

But going off-site shouldn’t stop you also having a dedicated creative space in your own office. For example, you could fill this with motivating quotes and inspiring stimulus material. Or create an ideas wall where people can post random thoughts for others to build on. Or set up regular informal stand-up sessions on what’s happening with new ideas.

You can also get more specific and practical when it comes to the environment you use as part of your creative culture. 

Think about creative stimuli like the colours you use in your building and furniture, for example. Do these inspire people to be more creative? What about music? Music can affect moods and emotions and helps people gain energy or relax. This could be part of your creative culture.

You should also think about when creativity happens. It doesn’t come with an on-off switch.

You have to give people notice of when they need to be creative so they can prepare. And you have to give them some freedom to be creative with their own time. 

For example, Google famously allowed its teams to spend a day a week working on their own innovation projects. They trusted them to do the other work as needed. That’s a very motivating and inspiring way to encourage a more creative culture.

Light switch on a wall, labelled Creativity on and off

Systems and resources

Finally, think about the practical ways to support all this creativity. The whiteboards, flip charts and marker pens to write ideas down. The ready access to snacks to keep energy levels up. And the technology to capture, store and share all these creative ideas around the business. 

Yes, these all come with a cost. But they’re an investment in your creative culture. A way for you to make sure your teams come up with and use lots of new ideas to grow your business. The more you put into creativity, the bigger the benefit you get back from it. 

Conclusion - creating a more creative culture

Culture is how things get done in your business. Creative culture is how you set up your business to come up with new ideas to drive your growth

There are 3 areas to consider. 

First, there’s how you manage people. You need people open to being creative, and inspired by being creative. There are many different ways to be creative. You want a broad mix of different styles you can apply to different creative challenges. 

Close up of a man's hands holding a light bulb that's illuminated

How people then work together is driven by the leadership of the business. They organise, reward and motivate people. They set the standards and policies which encourage people to be more creative. And ultimately, they’re responsible for making sure creativity happens in a way which grows the business. 

Lastly, you need to create an environment where creativity can thrive. That’s about creating physical spaces and giving people time to be creative. You invest in systems and resources to create a place and a time for people to be creative. 

Getting these 3 areas to line up is key to creating a more creative culture. 

Check out our creative thinking guide, and our how to be a more creative company article for more on this. Or give us a shout if you need help building a more creative culture. 

Photo Credits

Thumb up (adapted) : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Hands : Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Kid squeezing paint tube : Photo by Dragos Gontariu on Unsplash

Volkswagen : Photo by Julian Hochgesang on Unsplash

Mobile phones : Photo by Eirik Solheim on Unsplash

Rope : Photo by Clint Adair on Unsplash

Steer Ship : Photo by Nathan Lindahl on Unsplash

Toy Story Woody doll : Photo by Melanie THESE on Unsplash

Hurdles : Photo by Jeremy Chen on Unsplash

Colour umbrellas: Photo by Malte Bickel on Unsplash

Creativity Switch (adapted) : Photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash

Light bulb : Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

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