In July 2010, IBM released the results of an interesting survey, after asking a worldwide group of 1,500 CEOs what they thought were essential skills for success in today’s world. About 60% identified creativity as the most important leadership quality over the next five years. While the IBM survey marks a step toward acknowledgment of the significance of creativity in the workplace, does the corporate culture really support a more creative and innovative workplace environment or is it just wishful thinking?

Corporate or organizational culture is the personality of the organization derived from the sum total of all the norms, values, history, stories and expectations within the organization. It is the personality of the organization. This collective personality can be the largest stumbling block to a more creative environment. It often stymies or kills ideas.

As individual members of an organization, most of us realize the necessity of creative processes at work. We recognize creativity is a key to new ideas and innovation. We understand we need creative solutions to improve existing products and services. We know creativity allows us to accomplish more tasks with less money.  So, if creativity is so valuable, why does the corporate culture regularly frown upon these pursuits? Why does it seem organizations suppress or discourage creativity, either tacitly or overtly? There seems to be a distinct disconnection between the knowledge organizations need to be more creative to survive and a culture that knowingly or unknowingly hinders creative activities.

The Status Quo
Why does this happen? First, leadership and its attitude toward creativity permeate throughout the organization. Many leaders come from a traditional system that rewards organizations producing regular, predictable outcomes and profits.  Encouraging more creativity means letting go of control, messing with the status quo, and becoming at ease with uncertainty. If leaders are uncomfortable, unsure, or wary of the process, this can create rules, written or unwritten, keeping the majority of individual members from participating. These rules become barriers to new ideas, forming a culture that is not idea-friendly.

Think about your own organization. Does the culture support creativity and ideas or does it shun them? Are creative efforts communicated and celebrated or are mavericks ostracized? Does leadership support creativity in both word and deed? Are failures and mistakes viewed as learning experiences or horror stories? What creative barriers have you encountered during past efforts? Upon closer examination, it often becomes obvious something needs to change within the organization.

Shifting Attitudes
What needs to change? The first step to cultivating a more creative workplace culture is clear and open support by leadership and management. If leadership does not advertise this fact heavily in any and all organizational communications, there will probably be little offering of ideas from members. Explicit support helps remove fear, criticism or ridicule for offering ideas. The more members hear about idea initiatives, the more comfortable they can become with the process. They need to know its okay to throw ideas around, that management encourages and appreciates their efforts.

Next is the removal of other barriers to ideas and creativity. Some barriers are obvious, such as the lack of accepted channels to input ideas, i.e. a suggestion box, intranet site, etc., and some will be more subtle, such as prevailing attitudes about where and who ideas should come from.

Members need to change mindset too. Many of us are not as open-minded as we like to think we are. When someone has the courage to speak up and offer a new idea, we say, “That sounds good BUT…” We shoot ideas down, automatically and quickly. We let our habits, fears, assumptions and even jealousies cloud our openness to new ideas. We have to become more comfortable with idea inputs from all sources, without judgment or criticism. If you are a manager or supervisor, it is also your task to build an atmosphere of acceptance and trust of new ideas in the workplace.

Adapt to Survive
Change to a more innovative culture that supports rather than extinguishes ideas is a progression. It begins with an adjustment, not only in leadership attitudes but an organization-wide shift of philosophy to one willing to remove all barriers. One that is receptive and open to new processes.  The culture must support ideas and creativity in its day-to-day operations, its policy and its actions, from the upper reaches of management down to entry level. Until the organizational culture shifts to support creativity and its inherent unpredictability, there is little possibility for more ideas and creativity at work.  It is, however, a change worth considering, because ultimately organizational survival is at stake.