MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization? is written by Barbara Dyer, president and CEO of The Hitachi Foundation.
When you walk into a creative workplace – you can sense it. There is a buzz in the air; the spaces are often playfully unorthodox, and people are energetic and engaged. Some may think that buying colorful furniture and instituting a casual dress-code constitutes as ‘creativity.’ Think again.
All organizations have creative people and they should be encouraged. But there is an important distinction between welcoming the occasional out-of-the-box idea and cultivating creativity as an approach to doing business. Promoting a culture of creativity requires honing the skills of observation and invention – generally the purview of artists and designers – throughout your organization and aligning core systems to reinforce the creative process.
Creativity thrives in an environment of disciplined chaos. The discipline begins with learning how to look at situations from multiple angles, removing blinders and opening possibilities. These are the tools of observation.
For instance, Project for Public Spaces has honed the skill of looking at a problem without bias or preconceived solutions. They worked to transform New York’s Bryant Park into a vibrant urban space by first observing how people used the park. This process entailed a disciplined, rigorous approach to looking, listening and learning. It wiped the slate clean of past solutions and let fresh observations fuel creativity.
The observation process leads to the invention stage. Invention starts with an unbridled team of ideas. This is the chaos part of disciplined chaos. Invention entails freedom to run in multiple directions, often at once: What if we tried this? What if we added that? It necessitates failure – preferably early – in order to get it right.
Ultimately, the operations and incentives of the organization should reinforce creativity. People at every level of the organization must be supported as they develop and apply the tools of observation and invention in their jobs. Everything from the company’s vision to its HR procedures and financial management structure, when properly aligned, can encourage creativity in the workplace.
Zingerman’s Community of Business in Ann Arbor, Michigan is a prime example of such alignment. Zingerman’s is a collection of food-related businesses including a deli, bakery, creamery, coffee company, candy manufacturer, etc. At Zingerman’s, it’s not enough to make great sandwiches and bread – their goal is to ensure positive experiences for everyone they encounter – customers, suppliers, peers and neighbors.
Open-book management – giving every employee in the business, from hourly staff up to the CEO, the tools, education and information they need to think and act like owners – drives this alignment. Guided by a long-term vision, Zingerman’s employees persistently focus on what success looks like and what they need to do to achieve it. This is reflected in how employees engage in annual planning, and how they develop targets and solve problems during weekly team huddles. For example, their Roadhouse restaurant was concerned that food costs were escalating. A dishwasher observed that he was throwing away huge quantities of fries each day. Working with the team, they tried an idea – decrease the initial portion size of fries and offer free refills. This saved money without compromising great service. Observation and invention were effectively applied.
Creativity is rapidly shifting from a “nice to have” to a “must have” quality for all types of successful organizations – from delicatessens to design firms. A firm’s embrace of creativity in their workplace culture requires a disciplined approach to unleash the chaos of inventive ideas.
Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization?
4 ways to stop worrying and embrace creative risks by Laura Pincus Hartman, professor of business ethics at Boston University.
Why you absolutely need creative employees by Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association.