The MPW Insiders Network 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 give your employees time to be creative at work?” is written by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.
It was not always the case that workplaces encouraged creativity. Traditionally, many companies were organized in a structured and hierarchical way. People were told to follow what their boss told them. Those with the most experience held the upper hand on the way forward. In many ways, it was more of a punch-in, punch-out mentality. Work was for work, and the concept of a workplace “culture” was not well recognized.
In today’s era of constant change, there is an imperative to drive disruption in every industry. Disruption is often inspired by an individual or small group of people, with ideas that are nurtured and allowed to grow. The key question every business leader should ask is: How can we foster an environment that allows these “breakthrough ideas” to bubble up?
In the last decade, we’ve seen the “cool kid” companies create fun environments with perks like ping-pong tables, nap rooms, and beer taps as a way to encourage a culture of innovation and freedom of thought. But while these amenities may look great at face value, it’s what lies beneath the surface—and what constitutes the culture of an organization—that really makes a difference.
Just look at the companies that have gotten ahead: They’ve ingrained creative thought as part of their inner fabric. To be successful, you need to think differently and look at the world through a new lens. Who would have thought that GM (GM) and Ford (F) would find Google (GOOG) to be one of their fiercest competitors? Or that a young interior designer who couldn’t afford his rent could go on to become the founder and CEO of Airbnb, thereby completely reinventing the hotel industry? All businesses need to look to marketplace disruption and to the possibility that game-changing innovation could completely alter their world.
But how do you encourage people to be creative?
Mark Zuckerberg, in his address to Harvard’s graduating class this year, said that you shouldn’t trust the idea of innovation that Hollywood puts forth, explaining that it is not a single Eureka moment. In fact, he went on to comment that the idea of a sudden flash of insight just makes people feel badly that they haven’t had that Eureka moment yet, and discourages people from trying something out. So instead of waiting for the inspiration to hit like a bolt of lightning, try taking these steps to encourage creativity in your organization:
Allow time for passion projects
Give employees time to work on projects that are aligned with their personal passions. One of our digital and analytics leaders is very interested in artificial intelligence and smart homes. We had purchased several Amazon Echo devices to stream music in work areas, and he started to play around with developing pilots that could help in our marketing and communications programs. The applications we are looking at now span a wide variety of industries—from helping patients manage health problems to changing the way we interact with new products that are redefining our home environment. We are now an approved developer for Amazon (AMZN), another great addition to our agency’s digital transformation.
Celebrate the battle
It is well known that the greatest successes in creativity and innovation come from having the freedom to fail. Great medical advances are built on many clinical trials that miss. I once heard about a pharma company that held a party to celebrate the failure of a trial, just to emphasize that trying and failing are important steps to finally succeeding. The point is, on the journey to end a project, whether it is ultimately successful or not, there are a lot of lessons learned which give rise to new thinking. It’s important to make people feel empowered, and to urge them to get back up on their feet and try again, even if the outcome wasn’t what anyone hoped for.
Sometimes, the best way to be creative is to hear another person’s idea. Most ideas are built from something else. Without information sharing, we run the risk of falling into our own ruts. An innovative organization tries many new ideas, and makes it part of the way of doing business. Today, informal channels like Slack, videoconferencing like Skype or WebEx, and new collaboration tools like Spark all facilitate teamwork, even when you are miles apart. Each week, I recognize one of our teams to our global network, calling out a great program, spotlighting innovative efforts, and highlighting how the team achieved the result. This helps us see how teams approached a challenge, and gives inspiration to other teams.
At the end of the day, while perks like free food and on-site dry-cleaning services may get talent in the door, it’s the way the company’s culture fosters the ability for people to challenge themselves, work together, and see their ideas come to life that retains them. Being creative in an organization is about being open to change, to testing ideas, and to adjusting to realities. It takes a lot of hard work to encourage and sustain a creative culture—because that great, creative idea doesn’t just hit like a bolt of lightning.