How to Tell if Your Company Has a Creative Culture
“Business has only two functions — marketing and innovation,” Peter Drucker once said. Innovation generates new products and business models, and marketing lets the world know about those innovations. Both disciplines are often seen as the fruit of creativity. But when it comes to building the creative culture needed to execute on marketing and innovation properly, many leaders find themselves puzzled at how to build a creative culture.
Indeed, even defining what a creative culture looks like can be challenging. Both “creativity” and “culture” are words with myriad connotations, which makes them hard to fully understand and even harder to implement. Faced with this dilemma, many people approach understanding culture the way Justice Potter Stewart approached understanding pornography – they’ll claim to know it when they see it.
But such an approach is dangerous. It’s easy to look at companies renowned for their creative culture and attempt to emulate what they’re doing, but without understanding the dynamics of culture, we may only mimic its surface-level elements and fail to make lasting cultural change. For example, it’s easy to look at tech companies and notice foosball tables or beer carts and lots of free food. But such objects are only part of the picture.
In the 1980s, psychologist Edgar Schein of the Sloan School of Management developed a model for understanding and analyzing organizational culture. Schein divided an organization’s culture into three distinct levels: artifacts, values, and assumptions.
Artifacts are the overt and obvious elements of an organization. They’re typically the things even an outsider can see, such as furniture and office layout, dress norms, inside jokes, and mantras. Yes, foosball and free food are also artifacts. Artifacts can be easy to observe but sometimes difficult to understand, especially if your analysis of a culture never goes any deeper. The Palo Alto office of IDEO famously has an airplane wing jutting out from one wall, a surprising and puzzling artifact if one doesn’t understand IDEO’s culture of playful experimentation and free expression.
Espoused values are the company’s declared set of values and norms. Values affect how members interact and represent the organization. Most often, values are reinforced in public declarations, like the aptly named list of core values, but also in the common phrases and norms individuals repeat often. Herb Kelleher was famous for responding to a variety of proposals from Southwest colleagues with the phrase “low cost airline,” reaffirming the espoused value of affordability.
Shared basic assumptions are the bedrock of organizational culture. They are the beliefs and behaviors so deeply embedded that they can sometimes go unnoticed. But basic assumptions are the essence of culture, and the plumb line that espoused values and artifacts square themselves against. Zappos call center employees share a strong belief that providing outstanding service will result in loyal customers, so much so that employees send potential customers to other retailers if Zappos doesn’t have the item in stock. Basic assumptions manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Sometimes they’re reflected in the espoused values and in artifacts, sometimes not. But when basic organizational assumptions don’t align with espoused values, trouble arises. Enron produced a 64-page manual outlining the company’s mission and espousing its core values, but judging by their very “creative” accounting practices, it’s questionable if the executives at the top had ever read it.
It’s easy to examine quirky artifacts and mistake them for basic assumptions. There is nothing magical about a free food program, but a free food program in a culture with basic assumptions about the value of collaboration and sharing can enhance the creative output of the entire organization by providing meals over which to share ideas. Similarly, it’s one thing for a company’s leadership to espouse the value of “out of the box thinking,” but if your managers have trouble recognizing unconventional, great ideas because of their basic assumptions about the need for feasibility, for instance, then they won’t give leadership what they’re asking for.
Basic assumptions are the hardest to see, but it’s the basic assumptions of an organization’s culture that produce a real affect on the creativity of its members. Creative organizations have basic assumptions about creativity being a process, rather than a eureka moment, or that not all conflict needs to be resolved because sometimes it can yield more innovative thinking. They share beliefs that creativity thrives under constraints, or that the best work is done using constantly evolving teams. Sharing ideas openly, allowing for limited risk taking, and celebrating failures as learning opportunities are all basic beliefs of creative organizations.
You may recognize a creative culture when you see it, but you won’t truly understand it until you dig below the surface.