Does Your Workplace Have “Creative Confidence?”

I was brainstorming what to write about this week, and came across an intriguing piece in the San Francisco Chronicle from a year ago: “Ideo Executives Tout ‘Creative Confidence’ in the Workplace” by Esha Chhabra.

I’m a sucker for any article related to creativity because it’s one of my favorite things in the world (second only to house cats and great cats such as lions and tigers), but this piece offered some advice about creativity that I hadn’t heard before. For example, Tom and David Kelley, the brothers and owners of the firm, Ideo, who were interviewed for the piece, noted the importance of immersion in the planning stage of projects. David Kelley cautions against planners who are removed from the immediacy of the project, stuck in a back room with calculations and other specs: “We believe in planning, but only after you’ve jumped in and learned a lot more about what’s really going on. You have to jump into the mess and go watch people, talk to people. Then you can go back to planning or calculating. So, bringing in more empathy, bringing back data from the front lines, jumping into action—that can lead to more creative confidence.”

His brother, Tom, cautions against critiques too early in the process: “…if you’re too heavy with critique in the moment, then people will get that ‘Oh, you’re not really supposed to take risks, you’re not supposed to show your work-in-progress to this boss,’ which means fewer creative solutions and new ideas have a chance to thrive in the organization.”

These two suggestions ring true to me. I’ve too often seen new projects fall flat and never take off because the planners charged with fueling the process are too hung up on minutia to drive the project’s big picture goals. To avoid this, consider training department heads to give planning responsibility lower down the ranks, closer to where the work and interaction with customers or clients will take place. Not only will you find more projects coming to fruition, but you’ll offer middle-level employees greater chances for showing off competencies and talents—and earning promotions.

As for being too fast with critiques, that’s a classic problem of the negative, naysayer boss. A good remedy (one I actually suggested to my own boss in one of my past annual reviews) is to practice what the famous Second City theater company in Chicago calls a culture of “yes, and” rather than “no, but.” That means that instead of immediately counting off the reasons a new idea won’t work, managers should be trained to instead find ways to make it happen—even if the idea will require a little tinkering and reorganization to work. The difference between a “yes, and” and a “no, but” company is the “yes, and” company has managers who are looking for ways to collaborate and make ideas and plans work, while a “no, but” company has managers who have been taught to reflexively set up roadblocks and unnecessary process before eventually (if ever) offering a tentative, timid “yes.”

A great training exercise a manager can do on her own without a trainer or another professional facilitator is to have employees sit in a circle and for each one to have to build on what the person sitting next to them just said. Whatever the person next to them says, the next person will have to start off by saying “yes, and.” For instance, if one person says, “We can improve customer service by offering live online video chat,” the next person can’t say “No, but what about the costs involved.” Instead, the next person would have to say something like: “Yes, and we can keep costs down by repurposing another online video platform that we already have in use.”

An exercise like this not only encourages collaboration; it also teaches improvisation—how to improvise based on the ideas and concerns of others.

The issue of roadblocks and unnecessary process that leads to “no, but” organizations is recurrent at many companies for some reason. As it’s not in my mentality to savor process (I actually loathe it), it’s hard for me to understand, but apparently, some (especially higher-level executives) really love it. Since overbearing process, also known as bureaucracy, isn’t going anywhere, employees have to learn ways around it. Tom Kelley offers a good idea: “…complete the project exactly the way the boss suggested, and then use a more creative approach to complete it again. Present both directions to the boss. By definition you’re going to have different solutions, because you’ll have different data feeding into your solutions. Yes, this is extra work. Yes, this will be worthwhile if you have passion about it. Any boss who appreciates innovation is going to notice that you’re coming up with different—and often better—ideas than the conventional ones.”

Challenging employees to offer a few different options when developing proposals or coming up with business plans or product designs is a creative exercise in itself, but it also is a way around bureaucracy. That way, the manager ends up with a conventional idea to present to executives—the safe option—but also has a couple other, more innovative ideas to present. If executives are skittish, you can marry these different options, maybe using the conventional version as the framework and then cherry-picking the best of the innovative points from the other versions to weave in.

Being a creative person in a corporate organization can be depressing—unimaginative “no’s” abound and process can be so thick it can feel like it’s strangling you. However, it’s possible to use the roadblocks as stimulation to be even more creative. Every “no” just means the need to think of yet another new idea.

How strong, or “confident,” is your company’s creative spirit? Why is (or isn’t) creativity important to your organization, and how do you encourage a culture that strives to say “yes”?