7 Habits of Highly Creative Organizations

Kelsey Ruger
Vice President Design and Innovation

Think you or your employees need to be artistic geniuses to be creative? Think again. While no one can deny the fact that some people are blessed with a talent for it, creativity doesn’t come from a mysterious source. Anyone can increase their creative output with the right focus and environment. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand how creativity works well enough to harness it effectively in business.

At its core, creativity is the ability to come up with ideas that are novel, relevant, and focused on the problem at hand. When companies understand it, creative intelligence represents a huge opportunity for growth. In today’s business world, however, this critical ability to approach problems in new and novel ways is both undervalued and underdeveloped. When I ask managers about this “creative opportunity” the most common response I get is, “Hmm, I’m just not creative. How can I take advantage of this?” or “My role doesn’t require me to be artistic.” Most people believe that you find out early in life whether you are creative or not, and that creativity is a fixed characteristic. The truth is, we’re all inherently creative, but to varying degrees we allow that natural skill to be blocked.

In order to build a more creative workforce you should not focus on making people more creative; that doesn’t work. You should instead focus on creating an environment that encourages and fosters creative behavior. To help you frame this for your organization, here are 7 habits and behaviors that top creative organizations have in common.

Habit 1Balance their focus between problems and solutions
How many times have you heard someone say “Don’t come to me with problems, come with solutions”? Many managers think this way. When they have problems, they immediately look for solutions, without giving the problem a lot of thought. Organizations that understand the habit of creativity know that creativity emerges from problems not creations.

Instead of focusing purely on solution-oriented activities like brainstorming and idea generation, they also focus on activities intended to continuously uncover and explore problems. They know that great creativity, much like a great story, comes from the relationships between people, organizations, things and the unique problems they have. Like a story, if there is never tension, other people, or a “problem,” the narrative never moves forward.

Habit 2Balance creative thinking, creative risk and creative action
Sometimes, it’s possible that traditional ideas about creativity actually get in the way of being creative. Let’s take brainstorming for example. Whenever the topic of creativity comes up, brainstorming is the solution that most people fall back on. Aside from the fact that most brainstorming sessions have rules that actually lead to fewer creative ideas, I have also been to a lot of brainstorming sessions that end up being well – just brainstorming. Lots of talk, a ton of ideas, but not many actionable steps or an environment that supports work on ideas that aren’t 100% predictable. When you couple that with the fact that many companies don’t have an effective way to try ideas without extensive planning, it’s easy to see why their creative progress is slow.

Organizations that have the creative habit believe that while coming up with lots of ideas is critical, getting started on ideas is more valuable than trying to perfect them. The next time you have an idea, try building a quick prototype, without worrying about perfection. Even if you are way off base, prototypes will help motivate your team and get them thinking differently.

Habit 3Embrace periods of playtime
I grew up with people telling me to stop playing around. I still have colleagues and friends who say, “You guys sure do have fun at work.” My response is usually, “What’s wrong with that?” American businesses are suffering from an epidemic of terminal seriousness, with a common belief among American managers that work and play are separate activities. The truth is, play may be more important to creativity in the workforce than ever before.

Companies that have the creative habit purposefully break away from the traditional ideas of “being serious at work.” This allows employees to get better at dealing with ambiguity, complexity and improvisation. These are the very things that drive play and creativity. As children we spend a lot of time playing games. We also learn to use pictures and storytelling to communicate our message and explain ourselves. As we grow older we are taught that this type of activity is frivolous and something that adults shouldn’t do. Re-learning to play as we did when we were children helps us communicate, create, and improvise more easily. By turning creative time into play-time, you will spark more frequent and impactful creative ideas.

Habit 4Differentiate between execution and exploration
When I was younger, I had a supervisor whose mantra was “work hard and be creative.” It would be years before I realized that the efficiency of execution and the exploration of creativity don’t go hand in hand. In fact, when it comes to creativity, hard work and execution are overrated. In order for your brain to see and connect the patterns that lead to creativity, it needs downtime. I’m not saying that managers shouldn’t demand execution. That’s silly. What is true, however, is that the mechanisms that put you in flow for execution are very different from the mechanisms that put you in an optimal state for creativity. Just as you can’t repair a car or machine while it’s operating, creativity happens when your brain isn’t operating at full speed. By requiring employees to operate at 100% all the time, you may actually be reducing their creative output.

Creative companies know that if you want to optimize creative talents you have to allow people time to work on innovation when they aren’t worried about projects, deadlines or other work-related concerns. This is one of the reasons that play is so important. It allows you to relax and shift into a mode where ideas can be explored, merged, and reordered to find interesting new combinations. Whether it’s a few minutes a day, or a few hours a week, take time to let your mind relax and be creative.

Habit 5Encourage curiosity
Curiosity is the root of creativity. Creative companies know that people who are inherently curious tend to experience life much differently. They tend to learn in ways that people who depend only on their expertise can’t. As a rule they want their employees to consistently ask questions of others around them (and themselves), especially in situations where they may already be an expert.

If you want to learn how to do this just take a look at how children explore the world. They are naturally inquisitive and ask why a lot! They don’t have to be taught to be creative, it just sort of happens that way. It takes a lifetime of experiences and organized education to kill that natural talent. Kids take chances where adults won’t because they intuitively understand that if you aren’t prepared to admit
the things you don’t know, you won’t be your most creative.

Habit 6Externalize creativity with diverse groups
Creative solutions are rarely the result of an epiphany. Most creative solutions are the result of combining elements that existed before. Think about Apple’s creation of the iPod. Apple didn’t invent the touch screen phone or the MP3 player. The technology existed and in fact there was potentially better technology in both categories. All Apple did was understand that everything they build is about empathy, connection, engagement, and interaction, and put together the best team of people to design and market the device. In a time when skills are becoming more and more specialized, creativity has increasingly become a group process, requiring many skills and disciplines to work optimally. To take advantage of this, creative companies encourage prototyping and sharing often. When a creative idea occurs they want it to be externalized so that they will be rewarded when people do make connections. Those connections are the final pieces that ultimately create moments of insight.

Habit 7Know that being creative isn’t about art or being smart
Many times employees work in environments that thrive on showing how smart they are. When faced with a challenge the default answer is to show “case studies” of how they have solved the problem a dozen times before. People are comfortable reapplying a formula that has worked in the past. Whether this is an aversion to risk, or a dependency on an educational process that is heavy on case studies, they just try to use a template from an existing success, which is the reason we see so many copycat products and copycat strategies.

Creative companies know that if you are afraid of being wrong or “not smart” it’s going to be difficult to lead the creative process. Creativity often starts by adopting a child’s mindset or looking at things for which there is no existing comparison. If you are only talking about things that can be proven or don’t feel alien, you will miss out on a lot of creative opportunities. If you want to be original, then you have to get past this first layer of predictability.

Kelsey Ruger helps companies discover and cultivate inspiring ways to create experiences people love. As Vice President of Design & Innovation for Houston based ChaiONE (chaione.com), Kelsey designs and develops new forward-looking products for ChaiONE and its customers. He is particularly interested in the impact emerging technology can have on business and personal productivity.