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Three Steps to Creating a Culture of Creativity

Posted 07-17-2013

Three Steps to Creating a Culture of Creativity

By Charles Araujo

Have you noticed that all of the excitement seems to have evaporated out of IT organizations recently? I remember when I first started in the industry. It seemed that every day was a new adventure. We were always facing new challenges that led to unexpected solutions. It was fun and it was exciting. I loved being in IT. I loved working with technology and finding new ways to solve business problems.

What happened?

Over the last decade or so, it seems all of that which was once exciting has disappeared. Instead, our halls are more often filled with an institutional mindset and a sense of daily drudgery. In recent times, a rising chorus has said that we need to mature our industry and replace the “cowboy culture” with a culture of professionalism and discipline. I know because I've been one of the leaders of that chorus. But, like kids in a hurry to grow up, I think we have missed a larger point. In our effort to become a mature and professional industry, we have given away one of our most important characteristics: Our creativity.

I feel partially responsible for this mess. I am a huge fan of process improvement disciplines like IT Service Management (ITIL), COBIT and Lean Six Sigma. While I believe that these disciplines are very valuable tools in the arsenal of any progressive IT leader, I think that they have also been misconstrued and twisted into an over-reliance on best practices. In our effort to normalize, standardize and optimize our industry, we have systematically stymied the creative forces in our teams.  

And that has left us vulnerable.

The Future Belongs to the Creative

In a recent study by IDG, more than half of the IT and business executives surveyed said that IT professionals must be business-savvy, collaborative and innovative. These attributes are effectively reflections of a creative approach to the profession of IT. These are not about simply executing consistently and reliably. These attributes all require creative and strategic thought.  In my book, The Quantum Age of IT, I make the case that everything we know about IT has changed and that it will require a new type of IT organization and a new type of IT professional to remain relevant in the future. Central to these new organizational traits and professional skills is the ability to be empathetic, communicative and creative. Without a healthy dose of creativity existing up and down inside our organizations, we will be lost. We will be unable to be the type of IT organization that our customers need us to be.

I was recently talking to Rob Webb, the former CIO of Hilton Worldwide, about the changes in the IT industry, and he said that one of the exciting things he is working on is bringing some of the most progressive IT leaders together with some of the most innovative venture-funded companies. The reason is simple. By creating connections between organizations that are producing breakthrough technologies and progressive CIOs who can apply them, we can create an explosion of technology-driven value. But why is he focused only on this small group of CIOs? Because the "culture of creativity" needed to harness and leverage these kinds of advancements does not exist in most IT organizations today. For far too many IT executives, the focus is simply on incremental improvements, increasing efficiency and maintaining the status quo. That’s a recipe for irrelevance.

But it doesn't need to be this way. Here are three simple steps that you can use to turn your IT organization into a powerhouse of creativity and innovation.

Unleashing Your Organization’s Creative Forces 

If you are prepared to foster a culture of creativity in your organization, it will take faith and perseverance. You must be willing to let go of some of the most entrenched attitudes, beliefs and habits in our profession. But if you are willing to take this leap of faith and stick with it, you can create a powerful culture of creativity in your organization, one that will continually produce exceptional leaders and, in the process, unleash a wave of value creation.

Three Steps to Creating a Culture of Creavity

Step 1: Forget Efficiency

Did I say that this was going to take a little bit of faith and a willingness to break the rules? One of the most entrenched ideas in our industry is the idea that we need to create a highly efficient organization. We have gone to great lengths to measure everything and apply principles from ITIL and Lean Six Sigma to remove errors and inefficiencies from our operating practices. That's all great stuff, but we also have to recognize that while these management approaches are very effective at producing consistent, repeatable results for repetitive tasks, they have the opposite effect when we are dealing with challenging tasks that require high levels of cognitive thought, which, incidentally, is becoming more and more what our work is about.

There are a lot of situations in which you need to keep the pressure on, especially when it comes to increasing efficiency and reducing waste. But you'll also need to get very good at figuring out when that management approach is the exact opposite of what you need. In moments in which creative and innovative thought is required, you need to forget the drive to efficiency and instead focus on creating a "mental space." Google is famous for giving its engineers a percentage of time to work on whatever they want. But this isn't unique to technology companies. A number of progressive CIOs at organizations like Consumers Energy, the University of Pennsylvania and Quicken Loans are employing a similar tactic to unleash the creativity of their teams and drive innovation.

The importance of unstructured time cannot be overstated. According to some recent research, a typical knowledge worker today spends only five hours a week in cognitive thought. While there are many reasons for this (needless meetings, anyone?), one of the greatest culprits is a lack of unstructured time in which to simply think. We have become so hyper-concerned with optimizing productivity that we are actually reducing it.

I recently attended a workshop on neuro-leadership with a friend of mine was the Vice President of Global Operations at a very large entertainment software company, and he told me a story of how he had taken over a conference room and had installed a ping pong table so that teams could “blow off steam," strengthen relationships and foster cross-functional collaboration. When a new CFO came in, he saw this as an inefficient use of both physical resources and employee time and had it removed immediately. My friend, who was carefully measuring productivity across a number of dimensions, watched productivity fall across the board—all in the name of a CFO’s faulty sense of efficiency.

As an IT leader, you will have to find a way to create unstructured time for your team to think, interact and "blow off steam" if you want to create a culture of creativity. It will take faith and courage to watch people be seemingly unproductive and hope that this "free time" bears creative fruit. But if you still have doubts, I have a little test for you. Leave your office right now, turn off your phone, drive to a nearby lake or park and take a walk. Clear your head and let your mind wander and think about anything but work. The moment you successfully remove that intense focus on "getting things done," your brain will start silently working on some of the perplexing issues that have been keeping you up at night. You might be amazed at the creative thoughts that arise during your time away from the office.

Step 2: Don't Solve the Problem

We live in a results-oriented world. We are expected to solve problems. That's what we get paid to do. We have programmed ourselves to identify a problem, zero in on the source of the problem and eliminate it—and then move on to the next problem. The better and faster you are at problem solving, the faster your star will rise. It's a proven fast track to professional success. In most organizations, those individuals that have risen to the top are those that have proven that they can get things done. We live in a results-based business world, and solutions are the currency of success.

Three Steps to Creating a Culture of Creativity

Solving problems is important. And there are plenty of them. But in many cases, the fastest way to solve a problem doesn't solve it, it just remediates the problem. And that is why we end up solving the same problems over and over again in IT organizations. But even if we are actually solving problems, most of the time what we are doing is fixing leaks in the ship. This is important, of course, but it does not produce the type of game-changing innovation that our customers need from their IT organization. This is why so many "highly effective" IT executives are finding themselves being challenged today for not being innovative. What is needed is creativity—and that sometimes requires a different kind of discipline: A willingness to NOT solve the problem.

I know, I have just written heresy number two. Don't solve the problem? Then do what? Just talk about it? That's a waste of time.

One problem with solving problems is that it doesn't allow us to cognitively explore the situation long enough for our creative forces to kick-in and assess the entire situation. Instead, we too often attempt to rapidly identify the best solution and get to work. Creativity, on the other hand, is not linear. It's iterative. It requires experimentation and evolution.

We were once brought in to help a large organization solve some problems with how its employees responded to critical incidents. We began the workshop by saying, "We are not here today to solve the problem. Today, we are simply here to understand the problem." The silence and the baffled looks were priceless. Everyone had entered the room expecting that we were going to develop an action plan to solve this urgent problem. Instead, we spent the day exploring the problem. Why were these critical incidents occurring in the first place? How were employees responding to them? By slowing down and taking the focus off the need for an immediate solution, we uncovered the challenges that lead to the disruptions. We discovered that they were mostly driven by a lack of understanding and clear communication. At the end of the meeting, the employees didn't agree on an action plan, but they did agree on some initial steps that might improve things. They also agreed to a set of regular meetings to review, evaluate and modify the approach. It took them about three months, but by going through this process they developed a cohesive approach to solving the problem in a meaningful and lasting way.

As mangers, we want results. But if you are willing to give your team the freedom to explore, experiment and evolve, you may find that the solutions they ultimately come up with are much more powerful and impactful. And that leads us to our third step.

Step 3: Stop Giving Direction

Are you ready to throw something at me yet? First, it's “let’s forget efficiency.” Then it’s “don't solve problems.” Now I want you to stop giving your team direction? I must be crazy, right? There are two reasons for this suggestion. The first is a concept called intrinsic motivation. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink writes about the need to move past the industrial age concept of extrinsic motivation, such as carrots and sticks, to a more modern approach of intrinsic motivation. Pink says each of us has a powerful internal motivational source that is based on three things: autonomy, purpose and mastery. We are all driven by these three things. We want to be in control of our own destiny and to create some kind of an impact. However, when we "give someone direction," we sap these three intrinsic motivational levers. On the other hand, by approaching the situation differently, we can produce the exact opposite impact. The key: Don’t give someone direction, give them a challenge.

Three Steps to Creating a Culture of Creativity

When we challenge a person or a team, we trigger all three of these intrinsic motivators. We are giving them control by telling them only about the desired result, but not how to achieve it. The idea of a challenge implies something bigger than a simple task, which creates a sense of purpose and meaning. Finally, a challenge is, almost by definition, something that we believe they can accomplish, but that doing so will not be easy. It will require that they stretch and reach beyond their present capabilities, which will help trigger the desire for mastery. And as powerful as these three triggers are in each of us, they are multiplied in a team setting. Give a team a true challenge—and your reward might be watching them rise to the occasion.

I remember in the early 90's I was part of this exact situation. My CIO brought together our small team and explained that we had a very large, probably unreasonable task in front of us. She acknowledged that she was asking more of us than she had a right to ask, but that she needed our help. She told us that she believed in us and knew that we could accomplish the task, as impossible as the task seemed. She challenged us, and told us that she believed in us. She said that she would do whatever we needed of her in order to accomplish the task. It was powerful. We even gave ourselves a name: The Dream Team. And we got it done. We rose to the challenge, breaking almost every rule in the process. We created new approaches and new solutions on the fly. We worked with our partners to develop unique solutions to meet the challenge. We were creative fools! And it was a blast.

Creating Your Culture of Creativity

Creating a culture of creativity is not for the faint of heart. It will seemingly go against the grain of what has become the accepted operational ethos of the modern IT organization. As an IT leader, having a culture of creativity also requires your discernment. You must understand when you should apply rigorous levels of discipline and demand high levels of efficiency—and when you need to relax the reins and let the creativity flow. There is no one-size-fits-all. It will require constant finesse, adjustments and tuning to find the right balance. But, when appropriate, if you are willing to let go about efficiency, relax the relentless focus on finding a solution to every problem, and pose challenges to your employees rather than give them directions, you will unleash a powerful culture of creativity in your IT organization.  

About the Author

Charles Araujo is the founder and CEO of The IT Transformation Institute, which is dedicated to helping IT leaders transform their teams into customer-focused, value-driven learning organizations. He is the author of the book The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change, is presently at work on two new books. Araujo is also the creator of DeepRoots, an organizational change methodology designed for IT teams. He frequently speaks and writes on a wide range of subjects related to his vision of the future of IT. You can follow him on Twitter as @charlesaraujo.