Growing Creativity in the Workplace

Many organizations, especially those in the financial area, treat creativity with much disdain.  Many would be happy with just continuing to crank in the deposits and churn out loans much like an assembly line factory.  But we live in a world where creativity is honored and can command a higher premium than the mundane. 

Creativity is not just what comes from those with the wild hair and weird clothes.  Creativity is the process by which we solve problems.  So it is imperative that to succeed, we must find ways to be creative, because if we can’t be creative, we can’t solve the problems staring at us. 

I recently heard Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation.  Pixar produced 14 consecutive #1 box office hits, which have amassed over $7 billion in combined ticket sales.  Their films have won 30 Academy Awards.  It is interesting to see the wild success of Pixar in its early days with movies like Toy Story, compared to the struggles at Disney Animation before Ed took over.  A lot of this history is shared in his book Creativity, Inc.

So since Pixar is well known as a creative powerhouse, what are some of the things that were done to allow creativity to grow in that company?  One of the themes throughout Ed’s talk was that creativity is fragile and need to be protected.  It can easily be killed and it can be stopped from silent forces and attitudes that are often unseen.  Thus, to unleash creativity requires effort. 

Pixar is famous for developing its “brain trust”.  This is a key group of individuals from various sides of the animation world who gather together as a new film is being made.  Some members of the trust are leaders in Pixar and some are just the average worker.  The key take-a-way I see here is to nourish creativity in your organization, a CEO should not discount the views of those on the front lines and only listen to the small group of VPs around him or her. 

This does pose challenges, as growing creativity requires the fertile soil where new ideas can spring up.  That is sometimes difficult whenever you have people of different pay grades in the room.  Even the actual room set-up could help set the stage.  When Aja Brown, the Mayor of Compton, California, wanted to meet with various gangs to work together ending violence in her city, she had a meeting and sat everyone in a large circle.  Her message was that everyone had a place, and no one was more important than the other.

So to nourish this creativity, the power structure had to be removed from the room and the meeting members were peers talking to peers.  Pixar then had the film director who made the final decisions, and not those in the creative brain trust.  The members also had a shared ownership in each other’s successes.  The environment also allowed people to express opinions.  Honest “no’s” were given and listened to.  When this environment was promoted, eventually magic occurred.  Ed referred to the magic as the place where the egos left the room and everyone focused on the problem to solve it.

This attitude that permeated the company, made Pixar rethink the very basis of the concepts of failure and errors.  This attitude was that it is better to fix problems than to avoid them.  We often think of failure in terms of an academic short-falling.  There, failure is from being dumb or too lazy.  Because of this, new ideas are stifled because we don’t want to appear to be either of them.  It is better to have tried, than to sit on the sidelines and not try at all.

To encourage creativity, we must make it safe for people to express themselves, no matter how crazy the idea may actually seem at the time.  I love when someone on my team pops in my office and begins with, “I have this crazy idea…”  I always try to stop what I am doing because it is some of those moments that the real keys for growth are born.  

We must also try some of the ideas that may not have every angle well thought out or contingency planned for.  That is not to say we do something sloppy.  But we have to not be afraid to plunge forward when we may not necessarily have the answer for each problem that may come up along the way.  We often refer to over-analyzing a situation as “paralysis analysis”.  In our world, anyone can always eventually talk themselves out of approving a loan. 

Sometimes the creativity just requires you point in the right direction and go when you don’t know all the details.   Nathan Whitegard saw stray dogs and cats being captured and euthanized by local shelters.  It broke his heart and he wanted stop it.  He expressed his passion to others and told them, “I’m not sure how to actually do this, but follow me and we will.”  Now scores of no-kill animal shelters exist around the world because of a crazy idea fueled by passion.

Creativity is difficult to get in an organization and is often very fragile.  But when the proper environment of openness to new ideas, not being afraid to try, a new attitude toward failure, the death of egos in favor of a team success, and a common passion are present, great things can be accomplished that the world will beat your door down to get to.