Cultivating a Creative Organizational Culture with Creative Leadership

Creativity sparks innovation, and innovation is essential for organizations to remain competitive. Creative leadership is a necessity for sustaining a culture of innovation. By Dave Desouza

Creativity and innovation are not the same. Creativity tends to be viewed as a trait belonging to artistic people, but it is an essential leadership skill for developing and sustaining an organizational culture of innovation. Innovation is a product of creativity due to creative employees finding solutions through non-traditional perspectives. It is outside-the-box thinking.

However, employees will only feel free to express creativity when their leaders encourage the expression of new ideas, new approaches to work, and adaptability to an ever-changing business environment. Creative leaders develop a high level of employee engagement that enables employees to expand beyond their comfort zones. Creativity is not usually thought of as a skill, but for organizational leaders, that is precisely what it is. As such, it needs development both as a mindset and as a set of behaviors that give employees both a voice and opportunities to demonstrate their creativity.

Creativity as a Leadership Skill

Building a creative workforce is critical to the ability to thrive in a business environment in which technologies enable all sizes of businesses to create innovations, and also help customers to rapidly change buying preferences with ease. At the same time, younger generations of workers have different expectations about their work roles. They expect they will have the ability to share insights about things such as what customers need in products and product designs, and how work gets done. All of this goes back to creative thinking. For creative thinking to flourish and have expression in any organization, you need leadership that understands what creativity means and how to encourage its expression.

To make way for development of leadership skills development, some myths must first be dispelled. A glaring myth that persists is that some people are born with creativity as a personal trait, so not everyone has the ability to be creative. Another myth is that technical skills are more important than soft skills, such as creative problem solving. Yet another myth is that people at lower levels of the organization are in positions where creativity is not needed, and only people at or near the top need creativity. These kind of myths lock organizations into "business as usual", which means the status quo in everything is maintained.

For example, if the organization does not have a creative culture, then only R&D is expected to come up with the ideas that lead to innovation. Organizations miss out on workforce insights and new opportunities for growth, which eventually catches up with them at some point. A McKinsey study of the financial results of companies that rated high in a McKinsey-developed creativity measure found they had, compared to peers, 67% above-average organic revenue growth. 74% had above-average net enterprise value. This puts creative leadership squarely on the side of quality leadership for organizational success.

Every Employee Has Creative Ability

Developing a culture of creativity needs creative leaders at all organizational levels. First and foremost is developing the creative mindset. For executives and managers, that equates to developing a personal mindset that believes every employee can be creative, from the CEO to the frontline worker. Leaders engage employees in idea generation. When leaders are skilled in unleashing employee creativity, exciting things happen.

In the 1980s, the Frito-Lay company was having financial difficulties. CEO Roger Enrico began an employee initiative that asked all employees to act as if they were an owner. At the time, Richard Montañez worked there as a janitor, and he had noticed there were no company products that catered to Latinos. He bought some Cheetos, took them home, and rolled them in a home-made spice mix. When the employee initiative was announced, he requested a meeting with the CEO and took 100 baggies of his spicy Cheetos. The result was the development of a new product that is extremely popular to this today – Flamin' Hot Cheetos. Montañez went on to become the VP of MultiCultural Sales and Community Promotions at PepsiCo.

Putting the Right Factors in Place

Announcing an employee initiative is one strategy to begin creating an organizational culture of creativity. A Gallup study involving 16,500 employees found there are three factors needed to foster workplace creativity. They are: expectations to be creative at work, time to be creative, and freedom to take necessary risks to be creative. Every employee job should include an expectation of creativity, and it begins with removing barriers to creativity. Leadership should make it easy for employees to present insights about anything, such as customer needs, new markets in underserved areas, product redesigns, work model changes, and utilization of technologies.

Some of the approaches companies have taken include giving employees plenty of opportunities to express their ideas - including meetings, problem–solving employee town halls, software programs enabling input and feedback, dedicated brainstorming sessions, and specified periods during which employees are allowed to pursue a project of their choice. Many employees lose a lot of time throughout the workday on things such as interruptions and required organizational tasks. Structuring time on particular days each month for experimenting and working on problem solutions will increase productivity, not reduce it. Skilled leaders in creativity know there are no bad ideas, and that giving feedback is critical, being transparent as to why creative ideas were successful, needed adapting, or could not be used. Some level of risk has to be allowed. Risk means allowing employees the freedom to learn from mistakes. However, when employees experience the creative process, they become believers and will not stop sharing ideas.

Creative leaders should always be working on the creative mindset. One of the best ways to do that is to network with people of different experiences and perspectives, and ensure all diverse employees feel comfortable sharing. Leaders also need a willingness to pursue their own creative ideas, becoming role models for their staff. Developing a creative culture in an organization may take some time if the concept is new to the business, because people do not change their mindsets or behaviors in a week. Consistency in role modeling and providing opportunities become the convincing factors.