Don't hire and then kill creativity in the workplace

According to Todd Fluhr, some companies intentionally stifle internal creativity, but they don't realize it. Find out what changes he made to a department to help promote and nurture creativity, which in turn increased productivity.

Many tech companies proudly extol their innovative and creative atmospheres with the same over-zealousness of a neon-framed Motivational poster. "Innovation" and "out-of-the-box thinking" are industry buzzwords shouted from business plans and roof-tops alike by management with little to no concept of how to nurture such things.

Worse yet, management often implements policies that seemed designed to kill all vestiges of these traits in the very employees hired to provide them.

Why does this happen? Many businesses honestly pursue corporate policies in an attempt to nurture internal creativity only to produce a company culture as bleak and soulless as another Twilight sequel.

Is a professional atmosphere incompatible with "creatives?"

There's a cliché about left brain vs. right brain thinkers, but the truth is actually a bit more baroque in practice. A good example of this would be programming vs. graphic design. The two extremes of "hard coding" and "design aesthetics" illustrate the left vs. right paradigm. "Left brain" thinking is organizational, mathematical, and analytical. "Right brain" thinking is said to be more artistic, metaphorical, and intuitive.

It's a fatal fallacy to assume that creativity only resides in one side or the other. Exceptional programming itself demands elegant ingenuity and resourcefulness. Truly creative art also requires an extraordinary amount of skill and reasoning to execute brilliant work. Thus, creativity does not reside in one side of the brain alone. It is the delicate combination of inspiration, intuition, and discipline.

Both "left brain" and "right brain" individuals can be creative. The trick is that both types of people require different environments and strategies to nurture innovation. Place your average brilliant CPA in a room with toys, music, and random laser-tag ambushes, and you'll probably get below-par number crunching. Conversely, if you put your most creative graphic designer in a distraction-free cubicle, you'll probably get results as sterile as a bare wall.

One good indicator to determine if a company is sincere in promoting internal creativity is in its policies towards individual work environments. A wise company encourages individualizing work areas. A company committed to image and lip service will be heavy on motivational posters and uniformly identical cubicles.

Are such companies intentionally trying to stifle the very thing they pretend to embrace? In a word, yes, but they don't realize it. There are hundreds of factors at play in such companies, not the least of which is a fundamental lack of understanding of the creative process by upper management. Inflexible corporate attitudes and professional insecurities are the other main culprits.

Inflexible internal policies are often the result of a disconnect between upper management and the staff. It is born of a mistrust of employees to self-manage or produce on their own. It can also be the result of "traditional" attitudes of what makes an office "professional." Solemn suits and ties are the required dress. We attire ourselves professionally, therefore we are.

Of course, certain standards of attire are required when dealing with clients, partners, or the public. That's just good business sense. But the inner sanctum of your most creative departments shouldn't be subject to daily zoo-like parades. Theoretically, they were hired for their brains and abilities, not as actors to impress investors.

Individual creativity and innovation are also victim to management insecurity. Show me a Creative Director who isn't secretly afraid of being replaced by a talented upstart, and I'll show you an amazing exception to the rule. The root of this is in upper management itself.

Individual credit for ideas is often seen as job security. Therefore, full and total credit is seized by upper managers until it rests solely on the desk of someone who may, in fact, have had nothing whatsoever to do with it in the first place. In the meantime, the individuals actually responsible for either producing the idea or for properly managing an atmosphere that produced it are given short shrift and little or no credit.

The short lesson here is to never blame corporate policy when a problem can be explained by individual managers' insecurity.

So how can a company promote and nurture creativity?

Consider this example. I once had the great opportunity to work several years with an interactive kiosk company as Creative Director. By the end of my tenure with the company, I'd built a multimedia department of exceptional individuals who constantly produced amazing work ahead of deadlines and under budget. But that wasn't the department I found when I first started there.

Within the first week, I identified an almost insurmountable disconnect between upper management and the top creatives in both programming and multimedia design. Bear in mind, this was a company that prided itself of being on the bleeding edge of technology and innovation. It was a company of 40+ employees. Missed deadlines and weekend-long "death marches" were so standard that most employees kept sleeping bags under their desks.

Their existing policy explicitly encouraged the lead programmers and creatives to perform janitorial duties and move inventory when otherwise not engaged on a specific project. This is roughly akin to hiring a brain surgeon and requiring the doctor to mop floors whenever a patient is not on the operating table.

Not only did this give the effect of making them feel under-valued, but within a very short time, the very same people hired for their up-to-the-minute mastery of software and current trends had lost touch with progress made in their industry and by competitors.

This policy of "busy work" had been put in place by one of the owners. He'd constantly arrange impromptu tours of the company for partners and investors and was deathly afraid of not looking professional. Of course, my first solutions were to bar "impromptu" tours without at least a 60-minute warning and to implement a flexible schedule for my department.

The hardest part for me then came in weeding out employees who had been hired based on resumes as opposed to actual performance and ability. One of the most important factors in a Creative department is to hire individuals dedicated to professionalism in their chosen field. If dressing in sandals and tie-die t-shirts are what they need, then by all means, that's what they shall have - just so long as a suit is kept handy in a closet for a quick change before any scheduled "tours" by the corporate managers.

I instigated a simple set of policies and philosophies that turned the department around within three months to become a leading, shining example of productivity in the company.

Of course, these philosophies apply only if you're working with individuals able to comport themselves professionally. There are many graphic artists who want to walk the walk without ever actually putting in the time or understanding proper project management. I fired three such artists within my first two months. These types of individuals need to be weeded out or they will undermine an entire department.

Here are the things I implemented to build the department:

  • Encouraged individualization of work areas, up to and including toys, posters, and personal supplies
  • Allowed a flexible schedule based on 8 hours in-office and achievement of set productivity goals
  • Scheduled two group tech meetings per week to address project timelines, productivity, and new ideas
  • Set "after hours" time slots for inter-department LAN gaming. This may seem frivolous, but one of our main product lines included arcade kiosks and PC game conversions. The staff couldn't work on such things if they didn't have personal experience playing them.
  • Allowed all staff designated free time to use their work stations for paying bills, industry research, or simply recharging their brains. You'd be surprised how much productivity increases when people aren't worried about getting to their bank before closing.
  • Provided weekly "treats" - whether it was a group excursion to a movie or bringing in pizzas and sodas for the department
  • Made a focused effort to treat each individual as if they were a brain surgeon. If they wanted to stand in the alley and smoke or play basketball, that was fine by me, as long as they were present when a patient was on the table and could provide a 100% success rate.
  • Created a "family" attitude among the department. Individuals seldom do the extra mile for a simple paycheck or for a faceless corporate entity. What drives many to outstanding performance is the approval and admiration of their peer group.
  • Last but not least, instigated proper project management. A good project manager NEVER looks busy or stressed. If they do, then they've done something very, very wrong.

The worst kind of project management comes from "crisis managers" and micro-managers that move from one emergency to another, appearing stressed and over-worked, always "fixing" problems created by lower staff. These are not good managers. Whether consciously or subconsciously, they often create these problems themselves with poor planning or worse, self-sabotage. This sort of cyclic behavior almost always stems from a fear of appearing unproductive and hence nonessential to upper management: they need to "fix" emergencies to prove their worth to the company.

Such a flurry of furious action on the part of the manager may look impressive to the casual corporate eye, but it's poison to the people working with that person. Blame-games result. Morale decreases. People start watching the clock and polishing their resumes.

Getting upper management to understand this is a huge hurdle. The best way to do it is through the numbers. If a manager doesn't appear busy but their department is producing exceptional work, there's something special about that manager. Conversely, if the department is producing shoddy results and their manager isn't busy fixing the situation, you have a deeper problem.

Some of the best Creative Directors and Project Managers I've had the honor to work with have understood this. To the untrained eye, they almost always appear laid-back, at ease, and knowledgeable of exactly where their departments stand on a deadline. They plan in advance, make assignments to individuals hired for their abilities, and step back to let their fellow professionals shine.

Of course, this is just my perspective. Different companies have different needs, but the one thing they all have in common is the people working for them. Right brain or left brain, what can be done to reach the goal of nurturing both towards their highest and best achievements?

How can a company concerned with creating a universal "corporate culture" solve this dilemma? Is it merely a management issue or an individual problem? Or can a company nurture innovation without becoming a self-parody on an obsolete motivational poster?

What are some of your personal experiences with companies promoting creativity from the inside? What are your success or horror stories? What works and what doesn't? Solve the riddle of corporate lip service vs. actual implementation, and you just may hold the key to the greatest business mystery ever.

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