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


Creativity Shrinks? Like a Frightened Turtle.

By Anthony Vengrove

Frightened Turtle

“The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul.” ~ Elder Uchtdorf

I am a firm believer that creativity is our natural default state.  And, although a bit of cliche, I think it’s also accurate to say it tends to get beaten out of most of us by the time we arrive in the business world.  Even though executives proclaim a desire for more creative and innovative thinking from their employees, it seems that order, logic and analytical thinking still reign supreme.

It’s somewhat ironic that as the pace and complexity of business have increased significantly, many executives are left scratching their heads wondering why it is so difficult to engage the creativity of their staff.  This paradox has led to a myriad of posts and articles on the subject.  Just Google, “How to Foster Creativity in the Workplace” and you’ll see what I mean.

Perhaps we’re all going about this the wrong way.

Creativity is like a turtle — when fear or threats exist, it has a tendency to seek shelter under its shell.  Instead of trying to coax it out into the light, a better approach is to focus on identifying and unlearning the behaviors that ‘threaten’ it in the first place.

What causes it to run for cover?  Lots of things, for creativity can be fickle.  As you reflect upon potential causes in your own organization, here are a few big themes that I have witnessed throughout my career.

Presence of Fear:  It’s hard to increase creative engagement when employees hesitate to share bold, paradigm-shattering ideas for fear of career retribution or even humiliation in front of their peers.  That might sound melodramatic, but it takes guts to take center stage and challenge the status quo or shoot for the moon.  Get used to receiving all types of ideas and make it a practice to give constructive feedback so that idea sharers walk away feeling fulfilled for having interacted.

Poor Listening & Negative Non-Verbals:  Similarly, leaders who sit in idea receivership must be careful of jumping to conclusions, especially when an idea doesn’t jive with their cognitive map.  Quick judgements usually come at the expense of listening.  Ideas are rarely born fully formed and often need the benefit of patience and collaboration to transform into something great.  Those presenting will be hyper-aware of verbal and non-verbal communication.  They’ll know when you’ve stopped listening.  They’lll be crushed if they catch you rolling your eyes.  Remember this:  the nicest thing one can do for someone presenting an idea is to be fully present.

Addiction to Logic:  Companies that value logic and analytics quickly switch from creativity mode to pragmatic mode.  Is it feasible?  Can we manufacture within our cost parameters?  While important questions, there is a time and place for them — and it’s rarely at an idea’s birth.  Radical or disruptive innovation concepts are difficult to judge and quantify early on.  If you bombard such ideas too early with logic, you’re likely to crush them under the weight of uncertainty.  Do this frequently and employees won’t bother bringing anymore ideas to the table.

Lack of Creative Constraints:  It’s hard for employees to focus and channel their creative energy into something when everything is a possibility.  Whether it’s a company vision, innovation strategy or a specific problem to solve, employees are more likely to engage when you’ve provoked them with a specific challenge.

Over-Worked & Under-Staffed:  Do your employees have the time to think creatively and search for inspiration?  Ideas won’t organically appear from staring at computer screens while chipping away at email.  Carving out time for individuals and teams to explore their curiosities is essential to any creative culture.  In addition, the pace at which we work is not always conducive to creativity.  A little break and some mindfulness will do wonders for much more than just fresh thinking.  This is a challenging area for it involves cultural change.  That means senior executives will need to lead the way by demonstrating positive behaviors and encouraging others to follow suit.

Lack of Recognition:  People want to help in general and will be willing to participate in problem solving if they feel they are contributing to a just cause.  What do most want in return for their effort?  A little recognition and praise.  Many organizations overcomplicate recognition in my opinion.  Rather than implementing formal programs, just get out of your chair and go thank someone for a job well done.  You’ll make their month.

The barriers and obstacles to creativity will vary company to company, culture to culture — even person to person.  I encourage you to make a list of the behaviors and cultural norms that interfere with it in your organization.  Start a conversation with colleagues; get aligned and commit to making changes.  Feel free to share your thoughts below!

Remember, creativity is our natural default state.  It is regenerative and infinitely abundant.  Once impediments are removed, it has an extraordinary ability to magically reappear — you’ll see.

Related Posts:
The Seven C’s of Creative Leadership
Leading Innovation with your Change Management Hat
The Components of an Idea Climate
Why Big Companies Can’t Innovate