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Enabling a Culture of Creativity

Culture, Inside Creativity

In HR circles, second to the phrase ‘people are our greatest asset’; perhaps one of the most over-used work clichés is that organisations – whether they employ fruit-pickers or silicon-valley computer geeks – all claim to want to foster a ‘culture of creativity.’ What does it mean and how can you do it?

Of course, as an outcome to strive for, there is nothing wrong with this. At computer-chip company ARM (which hold patents for technology in 90% of all smart phones) innovation is the only tangible product it sells, and let’s face it, even if staff are on a production line, there’s always ways of doing things better.

But gallant though this endeavour is, how do companies actually build a culture of creativity? Is it even possible? It may surprise many people to know that Ministry of Silly Walks creator, John Cleese – often labeled a creative genius for his role in Monty Python’s Flying Circus – is a renowned scholar on this very subject.

Cleese has spoken many times about how and where creativity comes at a number of prestigious World Creative Forums. It’s his belief, for example, that creativity is certainly NOT about hiring the best people and then putting them all together. As he explained at the 2009 forum, creativity is neither a skill or an aptitude, but a ‘mood’ – a state that workers need to feel they can get into:

“If you’re racing around all day, ticking things off, looking at your watch, making phone calls and generally keeping the balls in the air, you are not going to have any creative ideas,” he said, possibly explaining why workplaces (such as Google) find in increasingly important to incorporate ‘play’ areas.

But isn’t ‘culture’ more deep-rooted than a room with a basketball ring and table football? Mark Batey, creativity specialist at Manchester Business School thinks it is, and argues culture is a complex interplay between individuals, teams and organisations. He says: “Too often there is a tendency to adopt a top-down approach to a creative culture – the belief that if the mission, vision and values ‘talk-the-talk’ then the rest will follow.”

HR folk are amongst the worst for designing corporate mission statements, those that seek to define a ‘culture’. But Batey says these don’t work because a culture is something that needs to be lived, and ‘felt’ to be real. “Top-down approaches need to be met halfway with bottom-up skills development of individuals and teams.” He adds: “If organisations want to ensure their culture is creative, they need to ensure that ‘the way we do things round here’ stems from having confident and competent individuals, as well as energetic and efficient teams.”

In a sense he’s saying staff have to ‘believe’ they have the ability or permission to be creative. This isn’t something that is easily, or quickly built; rather it’s a feeling, a confidence that it simply exists of its own accord. Creativity is not a process, but an outcome.

Perhaps ‘creating a culture’ should give way to ‘enabling a culture’. This brings in leadership, and more machinations galore, but if one thing is constant, it’s that developing a culture of creativity seems to be an individual thing, to suit different company styles. “Ours is very much a culture of inclusion,” says John Stewart, HRD of energy provider SSE. “We run what we call ‘License to Innovate’, looked after by innovation groups, where we encourage people to come up with ideas. For really exceptional ones, staff are granted a license to spend more time developing it, but at the same time we also foster a ‘just-do-it’ culture – where, with no business case necessary, staff can instantly do something if they feel it’s right.”

At the heart of this, he argues, is having line managers listen and support staff, to create the conditions for further ideas generation – which then becomes a virtuous effect. TalkTalk’s head of resourcing and talent Jo Ward echoes this. She says: “Our culture centres around three words – collaboration, capability and managing change. We call it our Talk Thought – all talking the same language. We believe it drives innovation and creativity because people all do things together.”

By having a strong background culture staff can identify with, Taylor argues HR simply acts as enablers, rather than implementers, and through this the organisation fosters creative thinking.

ARM, perhaps unsurprisingly has a technological solution – it is using Yammer, one of a new breed of ‘collaboration software services’ to enable people to share conversations. Dubbed an enterprise social network, Yammer is akin to an ‘internal Facebook’ and it lets staff all around the world share best practice, and bounce ideas off each other.

But perhaps the greatest proponent of this is global IT services company HCL. In 2005, the company’s then president, Vineet Nayar (now CEO) launched the ‘Employee First, Customers Second’ philosophy, which prioritises employees as the strategic elements of the organisation. The result is a genuine leadership-inspired culture of creativity. An internal company blog – called “U&I” – is written by Nayar himself that informs all 80,520 employees about how they can raise any issue. He regularly asks employees for ideas about what they can do to make things better.

HCL’s HRD Prithvi Shergill says: “Our employee-led culture is the backbone of our business. It’s based on continuous dialogue, not one-off programmes. It’s about transparency from leaders that creates the conditions for people to flourish.”

Get the culture right, and it seems creativity is the gift that keeps on giving. You may not produce an organisation of Monty Pythons, but embed the right culture and you and your organisation could well continue to look on the bright side of life.


In a special episode of our podcast Inside Creativity, Peter Crush further explores this topic in conversation with Simon Smith.

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