The positive response to one of my recent blog posts ("A Look In The Mirror: Are You Creative?") made me suddenly aware that there are quite a few folks out there who feel challenged in bridging the gap between their personal creativity and the normal corporate ethos.
If this is you, I know it can be unpleasant at times. You feel frustrated. You doubt yourself. You wonder if it's you, or them.
We invest heavily in our jobs and careers, and we would like more from the investment than our paycheck. We want very much to make meaningful contributions, and hopefully be recognized for those contributions. I meet these people across many professions: technical, legal, healthcare, teachers, etc. I've learned to recognize them quickly.
But how to go about bridging that gap between creativity and consistency?
I've been thinking about it, and I've come up with some guidelines that might help if you're so afflicted.
They've worked for me -- they might work for you as well.
It can be a strange dichotomy in the corporate world.
On one hand, so much depends on great execution and rampant standardization. Certain processes simply have to function well -- and repeatedly -- otherwise the business suffers. Products have to be shipped, clients need to be taken care of, and so on.
A sub-optimal process that works reliably is often better than a creative, potentially optimized process that has no track record and unknown risks.
That's why we call it "work".
On the other hand, we live in interesting times. The world around us is being quickly re-shaped into a digital/social/analytical one, and how we think about "business" and "process" needs to change with it as well -- perhaps even the definition of "work".
Put differently, the demand for creative, out-of-the-box thinking should be at an all-time high -- at least, at a macro level.
Enter The Corporate Creative
A successful corporate creative, then, is someone who can bridge the two worlds, by introducing creative thinking (and encouraging others to do the same) in a way that can help effect meaningful change in the right direction.
I have not found much written specifically on this topic, but I think it's an important one -- not only for those of you who see yourself as creative, but for the managers and leaders out there that want to foster more creativity and innovation in their teams.
I'm going to venture my personal suggestions here -- in the hope that others can contribute their perspectives.
#1 -- It Ain't About You
We all have healthy egos (or should!), but we need to make sure we disentangle our egos from the opportunities at hand.
Check yourself -- are you sending the right message? Plenty of "we" and "the team" and "our opportunities"?
Make sure that everyone knows you are clearly motivated by first making customers successful, and then the company, and then the teams you work with.
Mentally put yourself at the bottom of that pile, and keep yourself firmly there. Give credit to others, even if it was really your idea. Always solicit feedback, for example.
Otherwise, it's easy for people to perceive your passion for creativity and innovation as some sort of self-serving ego trip.
#2 -- There's A Time And A Place
This one took me a while to figure out.
In the first scenario, your creative input may be welcome. In the second scenario, not so much.
And asking the motivations of the speaker won't help -- you'll get the perfunctory "yes, we're always looking for ways to improve!" which not might not be the case.
If I'm so motivated, I'll seek out the presenter 1x1 afterwards, and offer up some suggestions if they're in the mood. But I keep in mind -- it's their burden to bear, and not mine. I'm sympathetic, as I've been in plenty of situations where I just want something to be done, and don't want any input.
Learn to respect that.
#3 -- Get Very Good At Communicating
Ideas can't take root unless they're effectively communicated. If it's a new idea (or a big one), the communication challenge can be enormous, especially if it flies in the face of established conventional wisdom.
Even though I started my career as a decent communicator, I continually invest in my communication skills, and always strive to be better. Am I getting my point across? Am I making this relevant to my audience? Do I have a broad enough perspective?
Whether it's small format meetings, large keynotes, a blog, etc. -- I continue to believe that striving to be an exceptional communicator goes hand-in-hand with being a successful corporate creative.
Ideas are the seeds, communication is what makes them grow.
#4 -- Collect Perspectives, The More The Better
You have your way of looking at the world, other people have theirs. Your ideas won't go forward unless they pass muster through the filters of others. If you aren't aware of their perspectives, concerns, biases, priorities, etc. you can't communicate your ideas effectively.
They just won't resonate.
And it's not enough to say "this is what the boss wants" or "this is what our customers want". There's much more to the world than that.
How you present your ideas should reflect as many of these perspectives as possible.
#5 -- Be Persistently Patient
Everyone can occasionally get frustrated with the seemingly slow pace of change within an organization. I can remember dozens of times where someone ended up in my office to blow off some steam. What could be so hard?
Well, in reality -- a lot of things. And, let's remember, good organizations require a certain level of stability and process that inherently discourages doing new things quickly -- especially in larger organizations.
I think the other important dimension is being extra-patient with the people you're working with. Maybe you have it all figured out -- it's likely that they haven't put as much thought into the topic, and need some time to percolate and marinate. Give them the time they need.
I tell people to learn the art of persistent patience -- give people time, but don't give up either.
#5 -- Seek Out The Like-Minded
I have a nice network of people inside and outside the company I consider like-minded. They like taking on new ideas, evaluating them, crossing traditional boundaries, building on them, etc.
When I engage with them, my ideas are either improved (or discarded!) as a result. Maybe they've been thinking about things in an adjacent domain, and you both end up with a better perspective.
Sharing your ideas with someone who's engaged can be very therapeutic -- regardless of the outcome. A great conversation can make your day.
#6 -- Let Everyone Know You Love To Brainstorm
I've done this for a while, and -- as a result -- I get invited into all sorts of interesting discussions.
Of course, to be a valuable participant, you've got to drop your context and adopt theirs (for a while), and certainly not bring your own agenda. You hope to bring perspective, context and ideas that have worked elsewhere.
Even helping teams to frame the right questions can be a huge help to all involved. You can't evaluate an answer unless you understand the question :)
I love brainstorming sessions because the stated objective is to be creative. At least you know what the ground rules are.
#7 -- Find Other Outlets For Your Creativity
This can be a big one.
For some of us, our brains churn along at a too-frenetic pace, and we need more than just one outlet (i.e. our job) to bleed off some of that energy.
Otherwise, we bring just a little too much passion and enthusiasm to the discussion, and it turns people off.
For me, it's this blog and my music. My blog is mostly about a universe of topics that are work related. I get to pour a lot of passion and creativity into it, and I generally get good feedback. And when I'm seriously engaged in playing music, I'm in an entirely different dimension. Both are very satisfying, and enable me to somewhat moderate the level of energy I tend to bring to discussions.
Although I know people who would tell me "it's not working!". Sorry about that ...
#8 -- Don't Back Down From Who You Are
Social feedback in organizational settings can be brutal. I know. I do my best to process all feedback, and modify my approach as best I can. After all, my goal is for the team to win, and not myself.
But, at some point, I will draw the line, and say "that's not who I am". There can be an obvious mismatch between what people think they want, and what I think they might need.
I never take this situation personally, and neither should you.
If my creativity / passion / input isn't appreciated in the current context, it's entirely on me to go find another situation where it's more highly valued.
I never forget that life is full of opportunities, and I've learned let go of a situation when needed, and quickly find another -- without leaving my employer!
So, that's my quick take.
For those of you who see yourselves as inherently creative people successfully working in a corporate context, what's your advice?
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