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 Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify.
Not long ago, I was certain I was the most uncreative person on the planet. In fact, I often said to people that for a reasonably successful CEO, I felt like I had an embarrassing lack of imagination. I knew what I liked when I saw or heard it, but coming up with a cool or fresh idea on my own was a serious challenge.
It was only recently that it hit me: Creativity isn’t necessarily measured by the idea or the output. It’s actually a fundamental way of thinking. Now that I can handle. My best skill isn’t coming up with the original idea, but rather knowing how important it is to encourage an environment where the many talented people I work with have the ability and freedom to create. So how do you get there?
It isn’t just marketing
When we think about creativity in a business setting, I’d venture to say most of us think about marketing: pretty pictures, engaging copy, campaigns, social media — all of the “fun” stuff that changes frequently and doesn’t appear to involve a lot of routine. Creativity actually does involve routine — the marketing output is just far more visible than other areas of the business.
The first step to fostering an environment of creativity is appreciating how it applies to everything your company is doing. From your product team designing and building a unique market-leading product, to your sales team negotiating complex deals, to your customer support team solving customer issues — the best companies recognize that creativity happens every day, and they challenge everyone to make decisions that result in the company being “excellent” in all things.
Create a framework
While constant, pervasive creativity is the objective, it’s still important to have a framework within which your teams can operate. Without it, creativity can result in chaos. The trick is to lay down guidelines so fresh ideas can be gauged against something that makes sense and fits within the whole. Think about it in the same way you would buy furniture for your house. Does it fit? Does it fall within your budget? Does it make your house look good with the rest of the decor? There are a million creative choices that come with decorating your house, but there are some basic decision criteria that we all use to frame those choices.
Do the same thing at work. Think: Does it support our brand? Does it meet a declared strategic imperative? Does it make our customers think we’re superlative? Is it cost effective? If you give everyone some basic guidelines, they have the freedom to make choices that are still defensible and support the bigger picture.
Make it okay to be wrong
There’s nothing like telling team members that you want them to be creative, and then shooting their ideas down with all of the reasons “why not” at every turn. Letting them try something that fails and then making an example out of it is just as bad, too — they’ll never try anything again. Do you want a culture of creativity or fear of failure? Your choice.
Not everything is going to work every time, and you need to be totally okay with that. Most of us really do learn from mistakes and get better.
Challenge the team
I recently met Salim Ismail, author of the book Exponential Organizations. He opened my mind to a challenge I’m putting before the entire team at Axonify that should involve some pretty awesome creativity: How do we build a company that impacts a billion people in a really positive way?
In addition to encouraging creativity in the day-to-day operation, think about an inspirational “What if?” scenario like the one above that really gets the juices flowing.
Get out of the way
When people feel safe — and taking chances within a framework is encouraged — the last thing they need is a lot of bureaucracy to block creative ideas from happening. Do your best to allow people to act on initiatives without needing five levels of approval. Make it as simple and easy as possible, and you’ll find that trusted employees are highly self-regulating and typically exercise good judgment all on their own. In other words, get out of the way.
Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization?
Why creativity is absolutely crucial in the workplace by Barbara Dyer, president and CEO of The Hitachi Foundation.
The one thing that’s blocking your creativity by Kerry Healey, president of Babson College.
How to reward good (and bad) ideas at work by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.
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.