In today’s hyperconnected global economy, management and employees, no matter the industry, must be ready for anything — a global pandemic, a new technological development, a competitor’s product launch, a natural disaster, an economic crisis. Nurturing a creative culture is essential to surfing such turbulence. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, creativity is “the ability to make or otherwise bring into existence something new, whether a new solution to a problem, a new method or device, or a new artistic object or form.” That formulation, both simple and wide-ranging, makes the stakes clear: What could be more important than discovering new ways to help your learners, customers or clients? Without creativity, in my view, there is no business.
But how to establish a strong spirit of innovation at your company? Here are three places to start:
Build a Creative Work Environment
No company can be truly creative without building an environment that encourages it. Exactly what that creative environment should look like depends on the industry you’re in.
In Billund, Denmark, for example, Lego’s child-centric approach is evident everywhere you turn, from the playrooms that stimulate workers’ imagination to whimsical touches like a curving tubular slide instead of stairs. At Cirque du Soleil, our focus is naturally a bit different. Our headquarters in Montreal is where we dream up shows and rehearse acrobatic acts; design and create costumes, shoes, headgear and everything else our artists wear on stage; compose and rehearse music; build stage sets and much more. It’s a place where our artists, who come from all over the world, can also meet to relax, exchange ideas and imagine new projects.
Walking through any company’s headquarters should make you feel the pulse of creativity underlying its core business. If you work for a clothing company, why not have racks of clothes everywhere for employees to wear around the office to understand how they feel or to see how they really look on someone? That puts your learners in your customer’s shoes — literally — and can help generate ideas for better design, marketing and advertising. When you stay close to your product, a wide range of ideas can flower.
Even if your employees work remotely, it’s important to create a work and learning environment where everyone feels supported and encouraged to play around with new ideas, free from judgement. To be creative is to make yourself vulnerable. It’s human nature to hesitate to open up unless we feel we can trust the people around us. That’s why it’s crucial that your workplace, whether physical or digital, becomes a safe harbor.
Don’t Hire, Cast
In the movie business, it’s obvious how critical it is to find just the right actor to play a part. Without Humphrey Bogart, “Casablanca” would not be the same film. The reverse is true with bad casting: if there is no chemistry between the leads in a romantic comedy, the film will likely be a flop. Every company should look at hiring the same way — as casting decisions that can make or break your business.
To succeed, candidates must have more than just raw talent. They must also be a good fit with the company culture. At Cirque, that’s a tall order. It means athletes who are also artistic and artists who have the discipline of athletes.
I recently asked our casting and performance team to define what it takes to become a Cirque performer. One staffer put it this way: “These people are so passionate and have committed themselves so deeply to develop their skills, that you watch them and say, ‘How did they learn to do that?’ That’s what makes them special. They are never satisfied and are constantly pushing themselves to be better.’”
That’s a great definition the ideal learner: Someone who constantly drives themselves to improve and find more creative ways to do their jobs. Managing such employees is relatively easy. You give them the tools they need to perform — and, in our case, make sure they don’t hurt themselves — and let them indulge their free-flowing passions. In my experience, no manager can push truly dedicated employees harder than they push themselves when they are doing something they love.
Allow Creative Freedom … But Monitor It
It’s important that employees know they can create and dream without interference from above.
The best way to keep employees inspired and engaged is by making them feel that they are not just following orders but putting their own personal stamp on their job. Providing that freedom, however, does not mean management has no clue about a new product or service under development until it’s finished and ready to offer to customers. That’s a recipe for disaster. You must periodically monitor the process to make sure the product or service is marketable, consistent with your brand, and sufficiently original to establish or maintain your company’s reputation and standards.
A creative culture is not built overnight. The first step is recognizing the need to break out of the boxes we inadvertently construct around us. To those who don’t think of themselves — or their jobs — as being especially artistic, I have a heartfelt message: Creativity is for everyone. When developed with discipline and care, it can bring you and your learners, and your company, to a whole new level of accomplishment.