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10 critical keys for designing a creative culture

It’s no secret that culture is more important than vision. I’ve worked in creative, vibrant cultures where original thinking is valued, people listen to each other, and wonderful things happen. On the other hand, I’ve worked at organizations where you could literally feel the oppression when you walked into the building. Those destructive cultures often have leaders with great vision and potential, but because the culture is so negative, that vision will never be realized.

And right now, during this time of turmoil around the world, creativity will be vital in providing a roadmap out. So right now, as we emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown, this is the time to develop a creative culture inside your organization.

So how do you build a creative culture? In my book, “Ideas on a Deadline: How to Be Creative When the Clock is Ticking,” I describe 10 principles I’ve used to turn around numerous organizations:

1. Create stability
Creative people need stability. If they’re worried about losing their job, financial problems or excessive turnover, they’ll never release their best ideas. I’ve seen terrible leaders think they’re motivating the team by threatening them with being fired – which is the worst thing you could ever do. Even when you’re going through difficult times, create an atmosphere of stability for the team. You’ll be rewarded down the road.

2. Make it safe from excessive criticism
Critics are a dime a dozen, but leaders who can help their team move from bad ideas to legendary ideas are rare. There’s a time to look at what doesn’t work, but that should be done in an atmosphere of trust. Criticism always goes down better when it comes from a trusted and respected source.

3. Make sure your leaders are on the same page
All it takes is one of your leaders to contradict what you’re trying to do to wreck a creative culture. At the beginning of building your culture, make absolutely sure your leadership team is unified and moving with you. One critical or disconnected leader or manager can sow seeds of doubt that will topple the entire project.

4. Be flexible
Creative people don’t all operate on the same schedule or work the same way. Give your team some flexibility and it will revolutionize their attitude. At one major nonprofit, I talked the CEO into allowing the creative team to rip up carpet, repaint, dump the cubicles and design their own workspaces. There was fear and trembling on the CEO’s part, but within a matter of months, the creative team transformed that organization.

5. Get them the tools they need
Nothing drags a creative team down as much as broken, old or out-of-date tools. Sure we all have budget challenges, but do whatever you can to get them the right computers, design tools, video equipment—and whatever else they need. Think about it: The less time and energy they spend overcoming technical and equipment problems, the more time and energy they can spend on developing amazing ideas.

6. Push them outside their comfort zone
Leaders often think that creative people want to be left alone and operate on their own schedule. Sure they like to create their own timetable, but they also relish a challenge. In fact, while they probably won’t admit it, creative people love deadlines because it gives them perspective on the project. I don’t even like to start working until I can see the deadline approaching. There is just something about a challenge that gets my blood flowing and the ideas coming.

7. Get out of their way
One of the most important aspects of creative culture, once it’s in process, is to get out of the way of your creative team. We all know micro-managing is a disaster for anyone—especially creatives. So give them space and let them solve problems on their own.

8. Understand the difference between organizational structure and communication structure
This is a huge issue for me. Every organization needs an organizational structure. Who reports to who matters, and hierarchy is important. But when it comes to communication, I recommend you throw the organizational structure out the window. Your creative team should be able to call anyone to ask questions and discuss ideas. Don’t force them to communicate through supervisors, managers or anyone else. Create a free-flowing communications system, and the ideas will grow.

9. Walk the factory floor
Leadership expert John Maxwell recommends that leaders “walk the factory floor” and meet every employee. Develop a personal relationship with employees at all levels—especially when it comes to your creative team. Pixar and Disney Animation President Ed Catmull takes that seriously, even when it comes to giving bonuses. When they produce a box-office success, they share the profits with the team that produced it, which often includes more than 100 people. But Ed doesn’t just mail or direct deposit the check and send a nice note. Ed takes the time to either go to each team member personally or invite them to his office individually and hand them the check—and tell them how much their work is appreciated.

10. Give them credit
Finally, a great creative culture allows everyone to be noticed for their accomplishments. Never take credit for your team’s work, and always give them the honor they’re due. You’ll find that when you protect your creative team and allow them to get the glory for their work, they’ll follow you into a fire.

These are my 10 keys to developing a great creative culture. Now is the time to get my new book and start building.

Taken from “Ideas on a Deadline: How to Be Creative When the Clock is Ticking” (Inspire Collective, 2022) by Phil Cooke. Used with permission.

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Phil Cooke

Phil Cooke, Ph.D. is co-founder and CEO of Cooke Media Group in Los Angeles and the nonprofit Influence Lab. He has produced media programming in nearly 70 countries, and created many of the most influential inspirational TV programs in history with a client list that includes Hollywood studios, major nonprofits and many of the most respected faith-based organizations in the world.