Organizational Creativity: Building a Path for Innovation

As companies seek to be more innovative, they must first learn to foster creativity in every aspect of their organization—from their people to their workspaces.
By Jeff Sharpe— frog

Organizations in every industry are scrambling to respond to the rapid technological advancements and changing consumer expectations that are challenging their relevance and ability to deliver innovative solutions. From startups reinventing or creating new markets seemly overnight to increasing expectations to deliver responsible and relevant products and experiences, enterprises are looking both inward and outward for a path forward. It is essential across industries to unlock new ways of working so that organizations can bring innovative products and services to market, and stay relevant with their customers and employees.

In response to this need to be more innovative, companies take various approaches, such as creating positions like Chief Creative Officer or VP of Innovation, as well as adding new teams and in-house creative groups dedicated to the task. One of the most popular methods is the off-site innovation center, which many companies have established in the hopes of bringing ground-breaking ideas to bear. However, most of these solutions fall short. For organizations investing deeply to unlock their path to innovation, a bold shift in perspective is required to create lasting impact.

 

Focus on Creativity, Not Innovation

Multiple studies name “organizational well-being” as an essential ingredient in creating an agile and innovative business. Individual and organizational creativity is at the root of that well-being, and fundamental to creating the purpose-driven culture where innovation thrives. Creativity is a defining human characteristic and foundational to human expression. Creativity and purpose are fused and inherent in our need to find and express our voice, and to drive past obstacles and toward new perspectives, methods and outcomes.

In order to build a foundation that unlocks creativity, we must focus on four fundamental human needs: permission, empowerment, engagement and vulnerability.

  • Permission: Allow your employees and teams to work in the ways they know best.
  • Empowerment: Give your employees the agency to make the decisions necessary for a given task, and allow them to work where and when they need to.
  • Engagement: Value employee purpose and wellbeing to foster greater staff engagement, which results in reduced absenteeism and higher productivity.
  • Vulnerability:  Foster a diverse, inclusive and empathetic culture that encourages and protects people to make mistakes, push into unknown territories, find their own voice and be human.

Concepts like vulnerability and empowerment are not often included when considering the bottom line, but we’ve seen that fostering creativity and creating a healthy and innovative culture can lead to outcomes that directly influence business objectives. To reach the goal of bringing more relevant new products and services to market faster and more efficiently, companies must:

  1. Create a learning organization committed to continuous intellectual and emotional growth.
  2. Put organizational well-being at the center by creating purposeful and relevant experiences for employees.
  3. Foster an agile and nimble mindset that prepares the organization and staff for rapidly changing context and business conditions.
  4. Attract talent—an organization with creativity at its center is able to recruit and retain talent as they are best positioned to exceed new employee expectations and support continuous staff growth.

 

Activating the Organization Around Creativity

A systemic approach is necessary to build and nurture creative organizations. If an enterprise is an organism made up of interconnected and interdependent components, it is critical to consider the system holistically, and not focus on its parts in isolation. For years, organizations and enterprises have approached innovation through narrow lines of sight and disparate silos of design, resulting in efforts that are incongruent, never fully connected and unsustainable—simply “off the beat.”

“In order to create lasting change, we must recognize, design and influence the entire system.”

“Centers of innovation” are intended to be the testbeds for new methods, tools and workspaces. But they should also be designed as the stage for unlocking employees’ sense of purpose, their creative voice, and as a launchpad for organizational creativity. This attitude navigationally adjusts efforts toward being a catalyst of change, thus establishing these initiatives as assets of the organization. But for the initiative to be successful, it requires a redefined structure; a shift in behavior and a focus on people.

 

When it Comes to “Innovation Centers” We Must Redefine the “Center”

Defining the relationship and position of the innovation center to its broader organization is the first stone in the foundation of creating real impact. Fundamental to this question is the very definition of the word “center.” When it comes to innovation, center as “the point around which everything revolves” is not the desired spatial or gravitational relationship with the host. The organization does not revolve around the center metaphysically or literally. It is important that these efforts aren’t positioned in such a way to inadvertently put an emphasis on the “cool kids with the cool new toys.” We also must be careful not to position these initiatives as “the place from which our future comes,” as it ignores the collective creativity that already exists within the organization. This perception can short-circuit the effort before it has a chance to build momentum.

Instead, we must reframe our conception of these places of innovation as “points of concentration” existing just outside the body of the organization. These multiple, dense structures of energy and learning connected across an entire enterprise act as a kind of “organizational acupuncture,” inserting points of innovation to activate and pulsate throughout the rest of the organization.

 

To achieve this, organizations must build a micro-culture in these innovation centers that foster a mindset and belief system of experimentation and rapid iteration. This mindset is crucial to melding staff and context together into one organism, and in turn, creating a fusion of intent that will push out ideas, results and impact throughout the organization. As staff and the supporting environment continue working together, they begin setting their own choreography of how they work. If the relational position of these initiatives is the foundation, the mindset is the current that runs through it. Together they form the stage to ignite individual creativity and spark the often-dormant potential residing within the larger system.

To be most effective, these innovation teams must be free to develop a new way forward, outside of the rules of the mothership. Because even pirates have their own rules, just as the Navy has theirs. This commitment and structure to the concentration of creativity binds both the team and its executive sponsors outside the group, allowing the team to explore, learn, change direction—to truly be creative and innovative.

But separate cannot mean isolated. To ensure lasting impact across the organization and delivery of relevant products and services to your customers, it is essential to create a dedicated and strategic location for these teams. The location of this group is paramount to its effectiveness and future success. Whether you build an innovation hub on the front porch for all to see and experience or go off-site, it cannot be in isolation. These places have the power to build excitement and curiosity around the energy and work being produced, and in turn, that excitement will effect change within the organization. These places of innovation can shift the mindset of the broader organization and allow for learnings and ideas to push back into the whole of the enterprise, fueling transformation. Tied directly to the charge and goals of these initiatives is a parallel effort of organizational activation. This effort brings the methodologies, processes and systemic learnings from the initiative into the organization to guarantee a creative and innovative culture takes hold, grows and drives continuous impact. It takes the right team and the right leadership to protect and champion the efforts, and an intentionally orchestrated activation plan to bring the learnings deep into the organization.

 

Designing Learning Labs

An intentional and holistic design brings together every component to create an interconnected system that works together in service of the organization’s vision and commitment to innovation. This system must include the space, methodologies, curriculum, social rituals, tools (both digital and physical), and must bring the communication and engagement back into the broader organization to enable lasting impact and eventual transformation. This approach doesn’t mean you have to invest in every component upfront, but rather focus on intended outcomes and vision, then define a framework in which tools can be added or changed as requirements evolve and learnings dictate. This framework allows for constant adaptability and change as ideas, methodologies and tools are tested. To achieve this, we at frog bring an agile software development approach to an architectural and system scale for design, testing and improvement. This means every component we design and build—even the space itself—is adaptable in order to minimize risk and maximize learnings.

To amplify engagement and to empower staff, it is paramount to provide a broad range of options that allow people to work as they need. Creating a tapestry of tools and spaces to support different types of work and personal needs is essential. Within frog’s architectural practice, Places, we design systems that are inherently agile and adaptable for reconfiguration to meet the needs and learnings of the space. Measurement is critical to the on-going learning in any workplace; with instrumented technologies, we can determine the effectiveness of tools, furniture and spatial configurations and very quickly adjust for maximum impact. This demands a different expression of architecture and design, one that is not final, but always in a constant state of discovery, a ‘State of Becoming’ (to paraphrase Walt Disney).

Having a mindset that thrives in a constant state of change is more important than ever. People need permission and the feeling of safety in a place to move freely throughout this continuous evolution. This vulnerability is the fuel of re-discovering our creative force. We are creating these points of concentration, these places that are part laboratory, part playground, part classroom and theater. They are vehicles of continuous development and invention, fostering curiosity and creativity that fuel transformational change throughout their host organization. Our work with Equnior, the Norwegian energy company, is just one example of how an organization is taking the first steps toward realizing the future of work. They have achieved levels of improvement including a 40 percent increase in employee engagement and with accelerated results, implementation, and adoption of tools and methods into the greater community. Together, we designed the system to set the course for their organizational future—one with human creativity at the core.

The most effective initiatives become the physical and spiritual manifestation and a demonstration of the enterprise’s commitment to its future and its belief in its people. It’s hard work and it takes a framework to support and provoke the behaviors and rituals necessary for collective creativity to blossom. If we are to solve the global challenges ahead of us and elevate the human experience, unlocking our creativity is the only way forward.

Author
Jeff Sharpe
Principal Director, frog

As Principal Director of frog’s Architecture & Places practice, Jeff Sharpe leads a team of multidisciplinary designers in transformational strategic design for clients, including many Fortune 500 companies. His work blurs architectural and digital space, leveraging the fundamentals of theater, film, technology and media to set the choreography of experience in motion. Jeff has received numerous awards for his work in architecture and design, and has been a speaker and contributor for many conferences and publications in the field.

Illustrations by Lindsey Chizever Lindsey Chizever