The Messy Nature of Creativity

creative ideas

Most professional workers would argue that creativity is an important trait to foster in the workplace, and the creative process is fundamental to innovation and change. But if it’s so important, why do so many companies struggle with instilling a creative culture? What holds them back?

As I coach organizations on developing a creative culture, I see that even the most progressive and forward thinking companies struggle with the same two problems.

First, creative workers do unpredictable and sometimes undesirable things. They think through and around problems, they explore untested methods and solutions, and they question norms and traditional ways of doing things. Many large corporations are built on hierarchy, structure, policy and predictability. But new ideas challenge that embedded and entrenched way of thinking, and the processes that are used to arrive at those new ideas can be equally as disruptive.

While working through a creative problem, people often ignore rules in order to see things from a new perspective. Creative exploration, or thinking “out of the box,” means ignoring that the box exists, and assuming that rules can be broken. This attitude – that rules can be suspended or completely ignored – finds its way into the rules that govern workplace behavior, too.

Creative people don’t go out of their way to cause problems, and they may not even be aware that their actions are considered problematic. But I’ve seen designers sleep under their desks, developers walking around with no shoes, employees dissembling furniture that didn’t meet their needs, designers constructing walls to pin their work on, and so-on. They expect to be able to do these things, because for them, the only thing that matters is their work. They’ll manipulate their physical workplace and their working environment to remove any friction around their ability to create.

When they see that these rules are actually enforced by the organization and are rigid and inflexible, they feel stifled, and their work suffers. And if they are written up for moving furniture to better accommodate their process, the company is sending them a message: do not think creatively about problems. Conform to what already exists.

The second problem that I see companies struggle with time and time again is that the creative process is non-linear, messy, and difficult to predict. While engineers and designers follow a rigorous process, and can often articulate what that process is, it’s not a rote process: it changes, flexes, and evolves based on the work itself. Creative people describe that their work product “talks back” to them, influencing further decisions that they make. They may need to go back and change their mind, revise and reconsider actions they’ve already taken, or scrap everything and start again. Creativity doesn’t happen on demand, and so the path from problem to solution is hard to predict. And the actual solution itself isn’t known until the work is done; at the beginning of a creative project, the end is a mystery.

This introduces large challenges for people in charge of predictability: people who manage budgets, timelines, scope, and resources. Project managers need to know how much time remains for various activities in order to judge if they are on time. Leadership teams need to know how much projects will cost, so they can plan for them during budgeting cycles. Product managers need to know when the code, or wireframes, or market analyses will be completed so they can ship their products on time. And most creative people will answer all of these questions with either “It depends” or “I don’t know” – both unsatisfying answers to those responsible for operational effectiveness.

Overcoming both of these problems isn’t easy for a creative leader, but it’s not impossible, either.

To address the unpredictability of creative employees, give your creative teams runway to do what they need – and own the consequences of these decisions yourself. Encourage them to break rules in order to best support their work product. While a company may have a series of HR rules, or facilities rules, or workplace policies, give your team the leeway to make decisions on their own and, when necessary, ignore these rules and policies. This gives a very overt signal that “It’s ok to think differently, and more importantly, it’s ok to act differently.”

But this has consequences, and as a creative leader, the burden is on you to own those consequences. When facilities complains because your team brings in their own whiteboards, you’ll need to defend their decisions. When they buy non-standard issue software that’s critical for their work and install it on their laptops without permission, it’s on you to support their actions to the IT department. And the consequences for you may be worse: if you are in a leadership role, and you actively ignore corporate rules, you may find yourself out of a job. This is the risk of introducing creativity into a more conservative organization, and it’s a risk that you’ll need to be comfortable taking in order to potentially reap the benefit of a creative culture.

To manage the messy creative process, support and encourage an iterative approach to problem solving. If a project has three months, ask the team to solve it in one; if it has one, ask them to solve it in a week. And then, use the remaining time to iterate on their solution so it becomes more and more refined.

Career Progression

By demanding a due date earlier than the actual deadline, you can impose a level of organizational management and risk mitigation by ensuring you’ll have some solution to a creative problem prior to the deadline. And, the creative process benefits from iteration, because it gives the team the ability to make changes – to consider their work “work in progress.” Make it clear to the team that their first solution is not their only try, and that the pressure to deliver on demand isn’t real or practical.

These are the two problems I see companies struggle with the most as they attempt to embrace a creative culture: creative people are unpredictable, and the creative process is, too. By giving your team permission to break rules, by owning the consequences of their decisions, and by driving an iterative process rather than a linear process, you’ll start to find success in managing the messy, challenging, and fantastic qualities of creativity in your organization.

This guest post was authored by Jon Kolko 

Jon Kolko is the author of Creative Clarity, Partner at Modernist Studio, and the Founder of Austin Center for Design. Previously the Vice President of Design at Blackboard, he has worked extensively with both startups and Fortune 500 companies. He has been a Professor of Interaction and Industrial Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and has taught at the University of Texas at Austin, the Center for Design Studies of Monterrey, Mexico, and Malmö University, Sweden.

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