How to Influence Your Creative Culture When You’re Not in Charge

By Anthony Vengrove

Proactive Creative Leadership

I’ve said it many a times, any company that commits to the pursuit of innovation is essentially contracting to become more creative.  The implication of this statement is that the transition, most often than not, involves cultural change — which ultimately requires senior leadership to craft and communicate vision, then lead by example. (Also read: Leading Innovation with your Change Management Hat.)

But, not everyone sits at the top.  Nor is everyone employeed at a company where management feels completely comfortable welcoming creativity with a warm embrace.  The good news is there are ways to proactively foster fresh thinking and innovation in your organization even if you’re not sitting in a position of authority.  Here’s how:

10 Tips to Influence Your Creative Culture When You’re Not in Charge

Ask for a problem to solve:  If your company lacks a vision (or the one in place is not very inspirational) or tends to treat bold ideas very conservatively, try asking a senior leader for a specific challenge to solve.  This does two things:  1) it grounds you both in an objective, and 2) it makes you look proactive and eager to think beyond the normal day-to-day activities.  When the leader engages, he or she is effectively opting-in for a creative exploratory and will feel compelled to listen to your solutions.

Don’t rush ideas up the ladder:  When inspiration strikes, our excitement often urges us to share immediately for instant feedback or approval.  I urge you to take a breath and give your idea a little space to take shape – even if it’s just a day or so.  Plan and schedule a time (either formally or informally) to present your idea once you’ve had a chance think it over, rehearse a pitch and anticipate challenges.  When we’re smitten with an idea, we tend to be blinded with optimism — only seeing what’s great about it.  Your audience, on the other hand, will likely be searching for reasons why it’s not so great.  You need to be prepared.

Walk in their shoes:  Be mindful of the pressure and deliverables of those above you when sharing your concept.  Ask yourself how your idea will either make their job easier or more difficult.  If it’s the latter, explain how your leadership of the project won’t interfere with the broader deliverables they will be focused on.  Also, consider what is the right time to meet with someone.  If you barge into a colleagues’s office during a time they value (eg., morning is their alone time to think and write), you’re essentially taking something away from them — and they won’t be too happy about that.

Start with the objective:  Never pitch an idea without first grounding your audience in the previously agreed upon objective.  I can’t stress this enough.  Your objective is terra firma.  It is the tool you use to keep the conversation on a strategic plane versus a subjective one.  Of course, be sure you conclude your pitch with at least three rationale points that support why your idea fulfills the objective.

Bring ideas to life & choose language wisely:  An idea is just a mental concept.  Your job is to use whatever resources are at your disposal to bring it to life:  sketches, photographs, screen shots of inspiring technologies, videos — whatever it takes to help people see what you see.  The brain is much more adept at understanding information it can visualize.  Also, carefully choose the words and/or claims you include in your presentation.  I’ve seen many a good idea veer off-course as a result of people getting hung up over one ‘controversial’ word.

‘Help me understand why it’s not on strategy?’:  This is a question to keep in your back pocket at all times.  When an idea is struggling to be accepted and your audience seems intent on killing it, ask why it’s not on strategy.  For example, you can say, ‘We feel this idea addresses our agreed upon objective for reasons X, Y and Z – help me understand what you see differently.’ This will compel them to articulate a strategic and rational answer.  Dialogue at this level has multiple benefits:  1) it can actually help save an idea that’s a victim of pre-judgement, 2) it fosters employee engagement as people will feel that they were listened to and that their idea got a fair shot, and 3) it provides constructive feedback that can serve to inspire continued idea shaping.

Anticipate the tension between creativity and logic:  As we describe in our Idea Climate Equation® work, a natural tension exists between creativity and logic.  This friction has existed for centuries (i.e., the debate between rationalism and romanticism) which means it’s likely not going to go away any time soon.  Therefore, you must accept it, plan for it, and adapt to ICEanticipated issues and challenges that will arise because of it.  I believe that the more disruptive or bold a creative idea is — or the more it challenges the status quo — the more a group is subject to using logic to explain it away.  Both logic and creativity are essential during an idea’s journey, of course.  Your job as a Creative Leader is to be mindful of the climate and to encourage people to use the appropriate side of their brain based upon what is required at the present moment.

Don’t just sell the idea, sell the first step:  For many who sit in idea receivership it’s hard not to jump ahead and calculate an idea’s complexity or cost.  Many ideas won’t have the benefit of existing manufacturing capability or a strong confidence level for feasibility and cost projections.  Rather than allow leaders to conclude your idea is too costly or complicated, be prepared to sell the first step you’d like to take to test and learn. The cost to obtain a prototype piece of equipment that will allow your R&D team to begin experimenting and testing will be significantly less than the cost to build the final line for commercial production.  I’ve seen amazing things happen when companies simply take a first step and start learning.

Invite leadership to participate:  It is in your best interest to engage the key players involved in your company’s innovation coalition.  This means encouraging them to play outside of the formal new product presentations.  You can invite them to a brainstorm, research event or simply ask to have lunch every other week so that you can bounce ideas and thoughts off them.  The more they participate, the more vested they’ll become — which will help shift your creative culture in the right direction.  For when employees see and hear senior leaders engaging with innovation, they’ll believe there is commitment to change at the top.

Start small & create a success story:  Most academic definitions of innovation essentially describe it as capturing value from an idea.  This means most anything can be innovated.  Don’t get trapped into thinking innovation has to be some huge, game-changing concept.  If you’re sitting in a junior role, don’t be afraid to a find small but relevant opportunity that you can influence and make better.  Quite often these proactive success stories are celebrated at employee meetings and can serve to inspire others to join the relentless pursuit of better ways.

When you proactively implement these tips into your daily routine, you can help your organization shape new behaviors and values associated with creative leadership and with the evaluation of new ideas.  The world of innovation and change requires much input and involvement from senior management, but that doesn’t mean you should sit and wait for instructions.  Remember, most CEOs claim they recognize the need to cultivate creativity in their organization (source: IBM Global CEO Survey).  You just need to package it up in a way that doesn’t scare them away from the table.

Miles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation.  We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges.  We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership.  Email us or call us at 203-788-2665 to learn how we can help you unlock the creative potential of your employees.

Related Posts:
Leading Innovation with your Change Management Hat
The Seven C’s of Creative Leadership
The Toyota Jump & Power of Objective Based Leadership


The Best of Lead with Giants: June 2013

By Anthony Vengrove


This month’s Best of Lead With Giants is being hosted by Dan Forbes on his blog  Jump on over there now to see a great curation of the best leadership blog posts published this month from the Lead With Giants Community.

Thank you to Dan for selecting our recent “Seven C’s of Creative Leadership” post.  We’re happy to be included in such great company!

Here’s the link:  The Best of Lead With Giants June 2013

The Seven C’s of Creative Leadership

By Anthony Vengrove


You’ve built the innovation function, put a team in place, created the supporting processes and necessary governance to guide it all, and now you’re wondering, “Where are all the game-changing ideas?” For many companies, this is a common predicament after their first serious venture into innovation.

The problem?  Most companies jump into innovation by doing what they do best: creating process and business systems that provide order and control. While these are essential capabilities, we cannot forget that innovation is a creative endeavor.  Most companies simply do not spend enough time considering the cultural impact unleashed creativity will have on their analytical organization. Most company cultures favor and reward logic and analytical thinking, and in such cultures it is extremely difficult for a truly novel idea to survive the weight of scrutiny.

If we want a new product development process to churn out big successes, we need to feed the system with a bunch of bold and seemingly impossible ideas. In order for such ideas to have a shot at survival, companies must build the Creative Leadership skills of executives to: 1) better nurture organizational creativity, 2) inspire employees to solve big problems, and 3) better position leaders to effectively receive ideas and provide feedback in a way that does not diminish employee engagement.

As I continue to work with organizations on improving their innovation effectiveness, I find there are several key Creative Leadership attributes that are either present, with effective innovation leaders, or absent among the less capable.  I summarize these below as the 7 C’s of Creative Leadership.  They are:

1.  Communication: An effective Creative Leader must be a strong communicator. If you think about it, the innovation journey should begin with visionary communication that focuses employees on deliverables and inspires them to think proactively about new solutions. There are three important components of communication Creative Leaders should address:

  • Vision: Vision allows everyone to understand what the company wants to become in the future. The best vision statements inform the innovation agenda directly. A strong Creative Leader utilizes vision to inspire followers and to create organizational belief that the hard work required to create a new future is far better than feeling comfortable in the status quo.
  • Feedback: Creative Leaders provide candid and clear feedback. They judge ideas against objectives — are they on-strategy or not? If not, they give constructive feedback that allows for continued idea shaping.
  • Informal Engagement: Creative Leaders “check-in” with teams and individuals working on innovation. They don’t sit back and wait for the ideas to come to them.  They interact informally and encourage conversations about ideas, trends, and interesting new technologies. In short, they get people talking.

2.  Curiosity: Curiosity has the ability to trickle down the organization — meaning, if senior leaders demonstrate inquisitiveness and ask “Why?” often enough, employees will start to dig deeper themselves in anticipation of questioning. Creative Leaders are naturally curious and willing to search for deeper understanding before making a judgement call. In addition, curiosity and “Why?” questioning are effective antidotes to the roadblocks put up by those who favor the status quo.

3.  Creativity: While Creative Leaders may enjoy the act of being creative, they understand it is not their job to come up with all the ideas. According to Warren Bennis, “There are two ways of being creative. One can sing and dance. Or one can create an environment in which singers and dancers can flourish.” The Creative Leader understands their job is to create the conditions for their innovation teams to flourish. They’ll spend much effort to create a culture of creativity by demonstrating the good habits they want to see in others. A big component of the latter is respecting the creative process which, unlike most corporate processes, isn’t so predictable.

4.  Connecting: The odds of developing novel ideas increase when creative minds are connected together. This is a core task of the Creative Leader and is critical to helping build and shape ideas. It also gets diverse groups collaborating and breaks down organizational silos. The concept of connecting is applied both internally (connecting organizational resources or skills) and externally (connecting teams to thought-leaders or experts in other industries). Many stories of the inventive lone genius are myths — most breakthrough innovations happen as a result of collaboration and borrowing existing technologies from outside industries.

5.  Culture: Creative Leaders have their finger on the pulse of their organization’s culture. They realize that innovation and new ideas can pose a threat to their culture. Cultural changes are never easy and virtually impossible to achieve as a lone individual. Influencing culture, therefore, requires a level of pragmatism and emotional intelligence to navigate successfully.

Edgar Schein describes organizational culture as being shaped by the prior behaviors and decisions of leaders. If we hold that to be true, then Creative Leaders can best influence culture by demonstrating the ideal behaviors they want to see when it comes to creativity and innovation. For example, when leaders start receiving ideas in a more considerate manner, their culture will evolve because employees will begin to abide by and pass along the new behaviors to others.  Be forewarned, discipline and consistency are key as employees will interpret any regression to old behaviors as, “See, nothing’s changed!”

6.  Change Management: All innovation involves change of some degree. Whether it’s a radical innovation that renders an existing line of business irrelevant or an incremental product innovation that alters a manufacturing process, Creative Leaders are conscious of the impact their ideas will have on the broader organization. This awareness helps to sell ideas as they can address potential resistance before skeptics convince key decision makers that “it can’t be done.” In addition, their deeper understanding allows them to offer solutions and pathways to feasibility that can allay potential concerns.

Academic literature on change management offers an abundance of interesting models to consider when addressing the change associated with innovation. For example, John Kotter’s 8-Steps for change management provides a relevant framework as many of the steps require shared creative leadership abilities such as communication, visioning and persistence.

7.  Courage: Courage may be the attribute that separates the good from the great. Creativity and innovation always involve some level of risk because novel ideas are unique and difficult to quantify in their infancy. While this perspective of creative courage is well-known, there is another aspect that is particularly important for successful Creative Leaders: they have the courage to protect ideas over themselves.

An idea has no voice. It is simply a mental concept manifested by the imagination of an individual or team. Most ideas are not born fully-formed and thus can look brilliant to some and absurd to others. Seasoned Creative Leaders seem to develop a sixth sense that helps them discern which ideas have potential so that they can incubate them long enough to determine their value. Sometimes, this means sticking their neck out and fighting for extra time, or pushing back and refusing to move up milestones.

The Creative Leader knows that if they don’t demonstrate their passion for an idea, or worse, they cave too quickly in front of senior management, they’ll lose their credibility. Yes, it takes courage to stand up for what you believe, especially when you feel like a salmon swimming against the current. But, it’s much easier to defend your position when you’re standing on solid strategic ground. So when picking your battles, defend the ideas that have a strong strategic case with direct linkage to key corporate objectives. Avoid those that feel like you’re only making an emotional plea.

In conclusion: if ideas are the raw material of innovation, Creative Leaders must protect their “supply chain” at all costs. The 7 C’s of Creative Leadership provide a framework for leaders to consider when evaluating their innovation organizations and staffs. In my experience, when ideas are not being generated effectively, it’s usually because of a company’s culture and the poor stewardship of leaders — not because of a lack of processes (although process is important).

Remember, a process doesn’t create an idea, only a curiously engaged human brain can do that. The job of a Creative Leader is to inspire with vision and model the creative behaviors they wish to see in others. This will awaken the curiosity and creativity of your employees, and with time, will create an army of self-motivated idea creators and problem solvers looking to change the world.


Why Big Companies Can’t Innovate: Insight from a Former Fortune 200 Innovation Director

By Anthony Vengrove

Square Peg, Round Hole

I’ve noticed a lot of conversation lately centered on why big companies struggle to innovate.  Scott AnthonyBeth ComstockRon Ashkenas and others have written on the topic each with different takes.  I must confess, I don’t completely agree with all the diagnoses nor do I think they’ve addressed all of the critical reasons.

My diverse career experiences have afforded me a general management perspective of innovation.  I’ve worked on new products in ad agencies, corporate brand marketing, business development, and R&D.  Having served as a Director of Innovation at a Fortune 200 company for nearly ten years before moving on to consulting, I can say that I’ve experienced many challenges first hand.

First of all, let’s acknowledge that there’s a flaw in the premise of this argument.  Big companies CAN innovate.  They innovate all the time.  They are very good at driving incremental innovation that builds their brands.  They regularly create process and product innovations that generate cost savings which contribute increased profit for shareholders.

What big companies are not so good at is radical or disruptive innovation.  Here’s my take on what they are doing wrong.

They Lack a Vision or the One They Have is Uninspiring. A key responsibility of the transformational leader or any leader embarking on a major change initiative is to create and champion a vision.  A compelling vision statement describes what the company wants to become in the future.  It not only needs to inspire but ideally it should inform the innovation agenda.  When it operates on this level, employees charged with innovation will have a better sense of what they need to deliver.  Without vision, innovation becomes highly subjective; leading to ideas that do not align with corporate objectives or brand strategies.

They Smother Innovation with too much Infrastructure and Process.   Big companies love to create processes and business systems that promote predictability and mitigate risk.  Unfortunately, following a process perpetuates sameness — and sameness is the enemy of original thought.  Remember, creativity is the fuel for innovation.  Make it easy for your employees to share and build ideas.  Use process as a tool to make business decisions and shepard initiatives toward commercialization.  Process doesn’t create ideas — only curiously engaged human brains can do that.

They Staff Innovation Teams with Managers Instead of Leaders.  Academic writers such as John Kotter suggest a difference between managers and leaders.  Briefly summarized, managers cope with complexity and rationality while leaders plan for change and direct others toward a common goal.  As companies chase the holy grail of innovation there is much perceived uncertainty, risk, and complexity.  It’s no wonder they staff up with competent managers who can ‘control’ it all.  Unfortunately, the manager mindset is wrong for innovation as it favors order over challenging the status quo.

Instead, companies need to put their best leaders in charge of innovation.   Each project should have a transformational-like leader who can rally the team with effective visioning and championing of goals.  Just like a traditional change management effort, these project leaders are trying to move teammates toward a new future.  They will be faced with roadblocks, rejection, changing objectives and the like.  A strong leader can motivate his or her team to maintain belief and create solutions to the toughest challenges they face.

The C-Suite is only Moderately Engaged.   All innovation involves change of some degree.  Usually any change management initiative has the C-Suite all over it.   But with innovation, the same level of engagement isn’t always apparent.  Quite often, CEOs communicate innovation as a key strategy then sit back and wait for the ideas to come — only to quickly judge and challenge them.  For all the reasons noted in the previous section, the CEO must lead innovation in a transformational and authentic way.  Executive management needs to demonstrate their commitment to fresh thinking and creativity — including constant communication of the vision and strategies for the innovation agenda.  If employees don’t hear the management team talk about innovation they’ll assume there’s a lack of commitment at the top.

Management Lacks Experience Building & Fostering Creative Cultures.  Most senior leaders lack direct experience building and fostering idea-friendly cultures — or managing creative employees, for that matter.  Most executives say they want innovation, but behave in ways that diminish employee inventiveness.  Developing creative leadership abilities should be a priority of all leaders.  Managing creative employees and fostering an idea-friendly climate requires different skills and approaches.  For example, consider how you might respond (both verbally and nonverbally) to someone pitching an absurd idea.  A simple roll-of-the-eyes can send the wrong signal and prevent someone from feeling comfortable to share ideas in the future.  Remember, ‘safety and security’ are basic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy.  When employees realize they can share any idea without being shamed, they’ll feel safe and motivated to do so again.

Early Ideas Get Crushed by Too Much Logic.  Most companies train and reward employees to value logic and analytical thinking.  Firms with a successful track record of incremental innovation are often lured into using familiar research and modeling techniques to evaluate game-changing innovation.  Unfortunately, truly novel ideas are usually so ‘new’ that traditional methods of evaluation don’t always work and can lead to a false negative.  Even your consumers might not even be able to wrap their heads around your first concept or prototype.

Game changing innovation takes patience and faith.  You have to accept that you can’t always get the answers to questions you are normally accustomed to with incremental innovation.  If you bombard ideas too early in the process with heavy doses of logic, you run the risk of killing ideas that have potential but just need more time to incubate.  The trick is to manage your constraints effectively.  Loosen your financial, technology, and market research constraints earlier in the development process so ideas have a chance to breath and develop.  Tighten the constraints as the concept edges closer to commercialization.  Learn more about managing constraints in this great paper by James Euchner.

They Don’t have Enough Creative Thinkers in R&D.  In my opinion, the true heroes of innovation are the product developers, engineers, and scientists working in R&D and manufacturing for they’re the ones that convert ideas into commercial reality.  Success won’t happen if you have too many rational and pragmatic managers who are quick to say ‘that’s impossible.’  Make sure you have creative and curious R&D talent that’ll jump at the chance to solve your toughest challenges (especially when a solution is nowhere in sight).

There are Few Strategic Thinkers in the Strategic Planning Department.  Similar to the difference between managers and leaders, creativity is an important differentiator between strategic thinking and strategic planning.  Most strategic planning departments are too focused on the execution of planning processes which has led some like C.K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel to conclude the practice is nothing more than ‘form filling.’  Innovation needs strategic thinkers who constantly look forward into the future and can turn data and trends into insight.  Just because your planners appear to be busy doesn’t mean they’re thinking about the right things.  To learn more about the difference between strategic thinking and strategic planning read this paper by Jeanne Liedtka.

There’s a Presence of Narcissistic and Ego-Driven Individuals in Key Positions.  My biggest innovation successes came on teams where trust and collaboration were high and in environments where open communication occurred between all levels.  As soon as a big ego joins the group, it seems politics, arguments, and a silo-mentality soon follow.  As big companies venture into innovation they have to root out the command and control personalities sitting in critical positions.  Not only is this style is out-dated (it’s only really useful for crisis situations in my opinion) it completely shuts down creative engagement.  This type of leader tends to bully and shame those who disagree with them into following their ideas.  When they’re in ‘gate-keeper’ positions, I can guarantee you that your promising ideas run the risk of devolving into mediocrity and you’ll struggle to keep your pipeline filled.

In summary, it may seem there are many forces working against the big company when it comes to game-changing innovation. Many of the issues are cultural in nature and ultimately fall on the desks of the senior leadership team.  In my opinion, most can be addressed as long as the executive team is committed to change and willing to change their attitudes and behaviors.

ICEAt Miles Finch Innovation, we developed a teaching tool called the Idea Climate Equation®.  If you look at each variable in the equation and reflect on the significance of their position you’ll begin to see how this simple equation relates to many of the challenges noted above.

Our belief is that creativity is our natural default state and is usually smothered by the analytical thinking we’re taught to value in corporate jobs.   Consider that before you buy into another consultant’s sure-fire innovation process or bring in another speaker to teach you how to become more creative.  Instead, take a good look into the mirror and ask yourselves, “What are we doing that interferes with creative and innovative thinking?”  If you’re honest enough to have that conversation, you’ll take a big step toward creating the innovative culture your employees are probably craving.  The good news is that most companies simply need to get out of their own way.

Miles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation.  We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges.  We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership.  Email us or call us at 860-799-7505 to learn how we can help you help you unlock the creative potential of your employees.