Three things that help creative people thrive at work

creativity graphic designer

For creative people, today’s business world is in many ways a gold rush. Creative thinking is the must-have attribute for workers in the 21st century, we’re told, and businesses are jumping on the bandwagon.

Whether it’s blog posts, videos, websites or events, organisations are scrambling to grow their creative output for a competitive advantage. One report interviewed 1,500 chief executives from more than 33 industries in 2010, and discovered that the chief executives believe that creativity is the most important work skill they need.

But there’s a problem. Workplaces can recognise the importance of creativity but have no idea how to foster a creative culture. In fact, sometimes workplaces are the antithesis of the kind of culture creative professionals need to spread their wings.

Forbes reported a survey that indicated the challenge of thinking creatively within work cultures. Among the workers and decision-makers who were surveyed, they found:

  • 77% said that new ideas were rewarded only when they are implemented and proved to work
  • 27% have avoided pursuing an idea within their company because they think there may be negative consequences
  • While 49% believe that management support for new ideas is important, only 20 percent say that such support exists
  • 42% believed that tolerance for failure is important to support innovation, but only 12% believe their company is does a good job of providing this

So, what do creatives need from their workplace to thrive? Here are three key areas.

1) Process

Process can sound like a boring, corporate word. It does have a bad reputation, conjuring up images of pointless meetings, convoluted briefs and committee approval on every step of the work cycle.

For creatives, process can also be an enemy when it imposes unnecessary obstacles to their ability to deliver work.

But creatives really crave process. When it’s done well, clear briefs and regular catch-ups about work allow creative workers to understand the scope of their work and to play in the right playing field.

It also allows them to funnel their creative energy on a set target, instead of straying into irrelevant spaces. Creativity is equal parts of deep thinking and distracted thinking, and needs a space to focus the energy to.

Having a set process also involves understanding who is signing off on work, who is responsible for what parts, and where your work starts and ends. When the work is done, process can also help call attention to parts of the work plan that aren’t working and allocate time to debrief.

Process shouldn’t exist for its own sake – but should be there to support the work better. It’s no wonder that many creative people I’ve worked with have a policy that they won’t begin work on a client’s project before they have a clear written brief. Without process, lots of inefficiencies and problems occur.

2) Autonomy

The second area that creativity needs to thrive sits in tension to process. This area is autonomy.

Creativity, by nature, is about innovation and originality – it’s novel, by nature. In our content-saturated world, creativity is important because it’s different. It’s the challenge of finding a new way of doing a task that adds value.

So, for creativity to thrive, creative people need a long leash to explore and ruminate on new ideas. They also need to feel protected by their leaders, that their leader will advocate for them where needed. Once they have a clear idea of expectations and timelines (the process), they need space to put their expertise to work (autonomy).

Of course, autonomy and process are in constant tension. New, creative ways of doing things can be very successful, or they can fail. For businesses, this means there’s a real risk – one that can pay off exponentially, or one that can end in loss of revenue.

This is where tensions tend to arise between creatives and managers. Businesses want guarantees (so they clamp down on process) and creatives want a quality product (so they clamp down on autonomy). Between the two of them, they can’t seem to compromise.

3) Trust

This brings me to the final area that needs to be held in balance. Choosing your creative team involves handing some trust to them.

Steve Jobs said once,

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

To truly be creative, workplaces need to build a culture and leadership that are willing to take risks and trust the creative people who work for them. These risks may be small (giving greater autonomy on smaller projects). But creative people can’t truly prove themselves without some risk. To avoid risk is to stifle autonomy and creativity.

You can research data trends and surveys and give a great business case for why you designed the logo in a certain way, and you explain your thinking behind the blog post you wrote for the company blog. But to stand out, you need to take risks.

“You can be consistently right, or you can be consistently creative. You can’t be both,” is a perfect summary.

True creativity at work comes when creative people can merge business objectives (process) and their specialisation into a final product (autonomy).

For workplaces hoping to inspire creativity, thinking through the balance of these three areas is crucial. Creative thinking plays such a key role in today’s world, and getting a good balance of process, autonomy and trust will help your team flourish at what they do.