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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 share the 3 key areas which help you build a more creative culture in your business. Learn from our practical tips and examples how to manage people, leadership and your environment to improve creativity. Read this to learn how to build a more creative culture.

The culture of a business shapes how it works. It’s how things get done.

We’ve looked at it before in terms of how it shapes the way you do creative thinking, and come up with breakthrough ideas.

But it’s so strongly linked to creativity, we felt it was worth diving deeper into what it takes to build a more creative culture.

Culture’s a tricky topic to pin down. It’s intangible. You can’t really see it or touch it, and it seems to cover many different areas. 

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

As per our creative thinking guide, we see it as broadly covering 3 main areas :-

  • People.
  • Leadership.
  • Environment. 

People

Nothing in your business happens without people.

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

So, to build a creative culture, you have to find the right type 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

Let’s face it, many people aren’t easy to work with. You have to deal with different experiences, opinions and styles. You want to get the best out of each person, and help them work together in a constructive and collaborative way. 

Finding creative people

Defining what you mean when you talk about being creative is a good place to start. 

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 of creativity. 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. These teams 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 than this. Creative thinking starts with creative ideas. And that’s about idea generation, and how you creatively solve problems.

Then, creative thinking drives what you do with those ideas. How you build on them. How you overcome barriers to creativity, and how you learn from your mistakes

Creative thinking people have certain traits in common. 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 new ideas. They’re good at working out how to overcome barriers. (see for example, our articles on barriers in marketing and barriers in e-Commerce).

But that doesn’t mean they all think in 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 typical differences in creative styles.  

Kirton Adaptive Innovation model styles

One commonly used approach to working-style is the Kirton Adaptive Innovation (KAI) model. It’s a great model because it states up-front that everyone is creative. They’re just creative in different ways.

With this model, you fill in a multiple-choice questionnaire about your preferred “innovation” working style.  What type of problems you like to work on, for example. How you like to define and solve problems, and how you like to implement solutions. 

Your answers generate an overall “score” which places you on a spectrum of creativity. That spectrum goes from adaptive innovators at one end to innovative innovators at the other. 

Adaptive innovators

People who approach innovation in an adaptive style prefer to work on ideas which make make existing things better

These types of ideas are usually smaller in impact, but they’re faster, easier and cheaper to put into action. It’s the type of thinking you do to tweak or upgrade your existing marketing mix. These are evolutionary ideas which give you slow but steady improvements and growth. 

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

Innovative innovators

Innovative innovators on the other hand 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’s plenty of examples of this innovative innovation working successfully.

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

Apple’s launch of the iPhone which transformed the mobile phone market, for example. Netflix’s move into streaming which killed off video shops like Blockbuster. But for every success, there’s also likely to be at least another 10 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 types of approach to creative thinking. There’s no single “best” way to be creative. You improve your overall creativity by having a balance of creative thinking styles.

The adaptive approach never sounds exciting. But as the Volkswagen example illustrates, lots of small, easy improvements can give you a solid platform of reliable growth. They’re usually cheaper and faster to implement, and help you 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 often these ideas are harder to implement. They take more time, and they’re more expensive to do. And there’s a high chance they won’t work, and end up weakening 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.

The organisation of most businesses is by function. The marketing team, the sales team, the IT team and so on. But to deliver projects, they set up cross-functional teams with experts from each function. 

How they pick the people for 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 obviously 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’s lots of other models you can use to organise teams, so you have 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 a mix of both types. 

Both these models also identify whether people prefer working on projects which involve tasks, or which involve emotions. Good creative teams will have a mix of people, so that overall, they 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 preference. For example, “plants” come up with lots of ideas. “Shapers” make ideas happen. “Monitor evaluators” are good at analysing ideas. Creative teams are stronger when they have a mix of people who can cover all these 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 need to feel there’s some sort of 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.

But 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. And that’s much harder to measure. 

In addition, traditional KPI setting tends to favour adaptive innovators, and “safer” projects. If people are rewarded on 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 need to figure out how to reward and motivate teams for taking 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 comes down to helping teams stretch their knowledge and build their confidence. 

This is usually driven by the leadership team. The leadership team establishes 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 to organise, reward, and motivate them in the right way. They need to put together great teams as part of creating a more creative culture. Great teams can fix bad ideas, but bad teams can kill good ideas.

Leaders need to articulate how much creativity matters to the business. They need to set expectations on what creativity needs to deliver. And they need 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 there 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 clearly bad for creativity. Leaders need to 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 well is Pixar. Clearly they’re a very creative company. One of the ways they do is that is by using what they call a “Brains Trust” as part of the 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. Their aim is 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, who 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 need to help nurture ideas. To set clear standards of what “good” ideas look like, and remind people of the end 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 that 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 idea. For example, a 70-20-10 ratio for creativity is quite common :-

  • 70% of the creative budget goes to strongly evolutionary creative 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 level of risk and reward.
  • 10% is saved for risky and revolutionary ideas. These are longer-term with much higher levels of risk and reward.

Environment

The final part of your creative culture focusses 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. You could fill this with motivating quotes and inspiring stimulus material, for example. 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. 

So 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 also need to think about when creativity happens. It doesn’t come with an on-off switch.

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

Google, for example, 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’s how things get done in your business. Creative culture is how you set up your business to come up with the new ideas which will drive your future growth. 

There’s 3 broad areas to think about. 

First, there’s how you manage people. You need people open to being creative, and inspired by being creative. There’s all sorts of 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. 

When these 3 areas line up, that’s when you see the value of a more creative culture. 

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

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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