Designing For Creative Organizational Cultures

Creativity is something highly valued in individuals, yet is rarely supported in organizations. That requires designing a creative culture.

If you don’t create a lot, you won’t be able to ship (what you create) because everything will be too precious to give away

Seth Godin

Creative work requires an exercise in ways of thinking and producing that is often hard to replicate and scale without help. Expressing creativity can be a challenge for many adults at the best of time, never mind when they are put together with others who believe they aren’t creative.

The legendary TED Talk by the late Sir Ken Robinson points out why we lose our perception of creative abilities as we age (contributed by an education system that suppresses this ability). I’ve spent a career teaching innovation, design thinking and creativity and undertaken the experiment he speaks about in this inspiring talk. I’ve asked small children, middle and secondary schoolers, undergrads and graduate students, and experienced professionals about their abilities to draw. The results replicate perfectly.

Young children all say they can draw and that number goes down from there. I once asked the students in a graduate course I was teaching this question and had two students sheepishly put up their hands. I asked a room of hundreds of professionals the same thing and saw maybe five hands go up. But as I said earlier: this is a perception of creative skills, not an actual assessment of creative ability.

That’s where we get things wrong.

Not only do we get this wrong, but we scale it into our organizations. We all can draw even if our skills are varied. Yet, if you think you can’t do something or identify as someone who doesn’t draw or can’t draw, you won’t do it when given the chance. We export this thinking into other creative ventures. When you have people throughout your organization who don’t see themselves as creative they are unlikely to undertake ‘creative’ work unless forced.

A Cultural Mindset and A Creative Toolset

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.

Sir Ken Robinson

We’re at a time when innovation is (ironically) no longer novel. The rapidly changing contexts for business, public services, and community life demand new ways of working whether we want change or not. If your organization isn’t ready for change, you will be swept aside by AI, climate change, economic upheavals or any other polycrises we face. If your organization is not set up to perceive threats, develop creative solutions, and put them into practice you won’t do well with what’s coming.

But as Bruce Mau said about massive change “(People are) not excited by massive change, they want massive stay-the-same.” At the same time, people love creative expression when the opportunity is created for them to engage in it safely and with support.

We don’t help people navigate the conditions needed for change-making.

We can create massive change throughout our organizations by designing in space to be creative and the architecture to support that in practice. People have abilities — they simply have to get them unlocked and connected with the right tools to do together.

Three things are required to encourage organization-wide creativity and innovation: 1) a design mindset, 2) the tools to create, and 3) a cultural recognition of the value of both in the way work is organized, supported, and focused. That means designing for design.

It means being comfortable with not knowing the answers (none of us do), but being confident in our ability to find and create some that might work.

Designing for Design

Design is an expression of creativity for a purpose. Creativity is about producing things from imagination while design is about focusing that toward a situation or problem.

If you wish to create an organizational culture that supports creativity and design consider the following:

  1. Provide safe spaces to exercise creative imagination. Start here. Rather than try to work in creativity to every activity, aim to create a specific space — a project, a workshop, or an event — where creative production can take place, safely. This is a no-judgement zone. The aim is to generate more — ideas or prototypes – not better. Aiming for production is key. Why? This tests our ability to create with a chance to gain some practice.
  2. Replicate and Repeat. A one-off workshop or retreat can help familiarize people with creative processes and tools and maybe inspire people to see things differently, but these are temporary outcomes. Design cultures come from repeated practice. Regularize the safe-space approach. Allow people to create more, more often. This continues the thread of making more, not necessarily better things. This is how we start. As the opening quote suggests, low production translates to over-valuing our work. We won’t make the changes necessary or stretch our thinking to find better solutions and will be less inclined to ship our products into the world.
  3. Refine and Reflect. As people gain experience with creative production, they develop a body of work that they can study and reflect upon. begin to identify the factors that contribute to success (meant as creations that have promise and value). This will allow people to see progress, assess uniqueness, and calibrate and expand their skills. This is where a policy decision (creating space) starts to influence a mindset. Doing it over and again, reflecting and learning, and integrating those lessons into practice shows us the progress we make and improves the quality of the output.
  4. Share and Scale. As people become accustomed to doing this, expand the opportunities for more people to get involved in more areas of the operation. Develop more spaces for people to create. As this happens, the language that people develop around creation and the perception of risks and benefits of doing design work change. As people begin speaking in terms of idea generation, risk taking, failure, experimentation, learning, and adaptation with practical examples supporting it, we shift cultural practice. As it becomes easier to create, people will create more and that production will become better. It also breaks down the barriers to creating new things.
  5. Lead by Example. Creativity is not something for one group, but all. Leaders who create are leaders that value creativity. Leaders that learn value learning. Those leaders that explore, tinker, experiment, and sometimes fail at things with others and openly appreciate what comes from that, shape cultures. The more leaders learn to create and feel comfortable with it, the more they will feel comfortable with the creations of their teams. This also leads to increased design literacy.

Doing new things without judgement can open up a space for people to scale their ideas, creative practice, and shift the culture of the organization without having to substantially shift operations. It all begins with a small shift.

To bring back Seth Godin, consider his words:

All we can do is start where we are. All we can do is start now.

Seth Godin

Start now.

Need help? Let’s talk and get you on the road to design.

If you’re interested in an audio version, click below:

Image Credits: Olena Sergienko on Unsplash and Ferenc Horvath on Unsplash

1 thought on “Designing For Creative Organizational Cultures”

  1. Pingback: Innovation Is Like Everyday Life: Mostly Dull and Occasionally Dramatic - Censemaking

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