Creativity is essential for businesses of all sizes and across all functions. At their heart, startups are all about bringing the top game to solve real problems and answer real questions. It's a revolution, which involves building new products, services and also designing operations and logistics around the said product. It’s no child’s play! Add to that the limited resources that startups have at their disposal and creativity and resourcefulness become the most crucial skills within the startup workforce.
That being said, creativity can be hard to come by in the rigid structures and hierarchies our work culture is prone to. Sometimes, these structures are important too. They help maintain work-life balance and avoid burn out. More importantly, they help startups gain the reputation of a credible, sustainable corporate citizen, not a footloose fly-by-night scheme.
The balance is hard to maintain. How can startups nurture their employees’ creativity and still stay true to the discipline and structure they need in order to be sustainable? Allow us to provide some insight on the subject.
Diversity is by far one of the most essential components of creativity. Whether it is cultural and social conditioning or education, religion, gender or sexual orientation, people’s ideas are rooted deeply in their life experiences. As a founder, don’t be tempted to bring in people who are exact replicas of you, as it might be easier to trust individuals whom you understand well. But you don’t want to be surrounded by yes-people. You want a workforce and partners that can challenge and question ideas confidently and add varied perspectives to business decisions that will eventually impact your equally diverse customers.
I realized a few years back, that when it came to consumer communication and social media, our agency’s interns often had the most creative, interesting ideas. Often, organizations believe in closed-door decision making with no room for ideas and perspectives from mid to junior level employees. Nothing stops creativity and great ideas in their tracks like a hierarchical set up, where leaders ideate and everyone else executes. Instead, engage a larger section of your workforce in decision-making. Democratize vision and ideation. Nothing opens doors to creative ideas than just open doors and the liberty to express and speak freely.
While larger organizations can gain from investing in an entire team dedicated solely to product or service innovation, startups are better off inculcating innovation DNA across teams irrespective of business function. Encourage it, talk about it, and reward when it happens. More importantly, don’t just wait for life-changing creativity. It comes only once in a decade or so. While it is good to set your standards high, remember that true innovation is also in the small things – a small tweak to your app interface, a new addition to your customer service process, a Tweet that was relatable and memorable. Appreciate creativity when you see it, even when it appears to be small.
According to HBR, there is no doubt that bureaucracy stifles creativity. It quotes Clay Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, who draws similarity between organizational ideas and presenting bills in the government. “The idea is reshaped at various points along the way to suit the agendas of the people whose support is required in order for it to be funded. You’re not into it two weeks before you hear from sales or finance or engineering that they will block it unless you change it to fit their needs. These powerful constituencies inside the company collectively beat things into a shape that more closely conforms to the existing business model rather than to the opportunity in the market.” Christensen advocates a close study to what the approval process does to ideas. If it kills creativity just to suit functional agendas instead of larger organizational goals, it must be contained.
Creativity does not come naturally to most people. Keeping in mind the outcome of our education system – that rewards rote over creativity, it is no surprise that many of your employees are perhaps just not conditioned to fearless innovation. But the good news is that it is not as complex or expensive to foster creativity within the structures of organizational behaviour. All it needs is small changes. Try it, it is very rewarding.