Managers need to be ‘braver for just a little bit longer’ if they are to capitalise on the creativity of employees as a source of competitive advantage, Gruen panelist Todd Sampson told the AHRI HRIZON National Convention yesterday in a keynote address.
The problem is that creativity is knocked out of employees by a combination of fear, conservative organisation politics and outsourcing.
Todd Sampson is CEO of advertising agency Leo Burnett and well known as a panelist on the ABC’s Gruen Transfer and Gruen Nation programs. He is also the co-creator of the Earth Hour initiative that now involves around 130 countries.
How creativity is stifled
Sampson described creativity as ‘the last remaining competitive advantage for business’. However, there are many influences that discourage it in business and he claimed that corporate IQs are actually decreasing overall. Even before they enter the workforce, many people are discouraged from pursuing creative ‘arts’ studies because it is drummed into them that they should seek ‘a career’ instead.
As soon as they are in the workforce, other factors operate to stifle creativity. Creativity is stronger among employees at lower levels of most organisations, but their managements pay insufficient attention to them and their talents. At higher levels of the organisation, fear and conservatism tend to dominate, and employees believe that they have to act conservatively in order to advance their careers.
‘Fear’ can be defined as the inability to move forwards. It can be fear of failure, fear of the unknown or fear of looking bad. Moving beyond that requires courage, but it is continually discouraged by comments such as ‘don’t do that’ and ‘what’s wrong with you’. Much of people’s education and training focuses on memorising facts and ‘proven’ practices, less so on thinking. Sampson said that successful managers are those who ‘can be braver for just a little bit longer’, because that is the time when creative freedom and decision making does occur, and when their counterparts in rival organisations will continue to act conservatively.
Another consequence of conservatism is that creative functions are frequently outsourced, removing the potential competitive advantage. As CEO of an advertising agency, Sampson defined advertising as ‘the price companies pay for being unoriginal and not looking internally’ and said that outside organisations actively exploited this conservatism in order to build up their own businesses.
Techniques to encourage creativity
Sampson said that action is the antidote for fear, and leaders need to balance creativity and fear in their organisations. This means finding ways to encourage and celebrate diversity of thought and to replace a fear-based culture with one that supports bravery and risk taking. Creativity is something that can be learned, but exercising it requires a lot of practice.
He showed an Apple ad, from the 1980s, which ran the message that ‘crazy people are the ones that change the world’, with images of several famous people.
He then discussed several techniques that may help to encourage creativity.
- ‘Rent a head’, which involves borrowing the perspective of a famous person. An issue or problem is brainstormed for about 20 minutes, then the group is asked to discuss ‘how would [the famous person] solve this problem?’.
- ‘Convention killers’, where a conventional approach is described, then employees are invited to list and brainstorm opposite approaches, and may be further prompted by ‘what if’ questions. Sampson listed some advertising and marketing campaigns that used this approach (eg discouraging smoking by teenagers by telling them it made them look ugly and placing toys inside soap bars to encourage use of soap by children).
- State a problem in the form of a single question, and carefully separate the actual problem from the symptoms of it. Then assemble an eclectic cross-section of employees to brainstorm solutions for half an hour or so. This focus group approach was the source of the Earth Hour initiative, a symbolic event that has become a worldwide movement.
- Hire employees on the basis of their enthusiasm, once they have demonstrated they meet a baseline of competency and ability.
- Steps for building a culture that supports bravery and risk include:
- telling employees they can take risks and allow them to do it
- rewarding risks that are taken in the right spirit, even if they failed
- separating risk taking from profit/loss making
- openly celebrating risk taking that is successful.
The advertising industry is notorious for high employee turnover, so Sampson said it was particularly important to handle dismissals sensitively.
Mike Toten is a freelance writer and editor who specialises in research and writing about HR best practices, industrial relations, equal employment opportunity and related areas. He is a regular contributor to WorkplaceInfo, where this article was first published.