Creativity for the Connected Age

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The Building Blocks of Creative Culture

How R/GA, Netflix, and Pixar built a culture of creativity by promoting openness and dismissing bureaucratic rules.

Contributed by:
Jennifer Remling, SVP Talent, Recruitment, R/GA
Chris Stutzman, VP, Managing Director, Business Consulting, R/GA

Ideas are the lifeblood of a thriving company. They are what lead to breakthrough new products, reinvigorated brand campaigns, and innovative business models. And great companies recognize that great ideas come from anyone, anywhere, and that creativity lives in a company’s culture, not a single department. That’s why, no matter if you work at an agency, a startup, or a Fortune 500 company, the more creative your culture, the better your ideas will be.

What is a Creative Culture?
Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, believes that the signature of a creative culture is one in which ideas are valued and people feel free to share their ideas, opinions, and criticisms with each other.

Openness, then, is a core component of a creative culture. But in many companies, people keep ideas, opinions, and criticisms to themselves. Why? Some reasons may be personal, as in they don’t want to share the glory of their idea. Others might not feel comfortable sharing their opinions or responding to criticism. But most reasons are institutional, embedded into a corporate culture where people don’t have an outlet or explicit permission to freely share their ideas. Or even worse, don’t think their ideas will be valued and fear possible retribution.

How Do You Establish a Creative Culture?
Employees must be able to work together and push each other’s ideas for a creative culture to thrive. How can companies embrace openness and idea sharing to create a creative culture? Below, three insights from companies who are flourishing because of their creatively led cultures:

01/ Jumpstart a Creative Culture from Day One
New recruits should be initiated into a company’s cultural norms of sharing ideas, opinions, and criticisms on day one. The R/GA Talent Accelerator was created to help entry-level and junior talent successfully integrate into the agency and start making an impact quickly. The program accelerates cultural norms and expectations for how things are done, and gives young talent the confidence they need to take the mantle. The curriculum within the R/GA Talent Accelerator centers on a few critical components: 1) it establishes R/GA standards within specific disciplines 2) it imparts best practices on how to address obstacles that get in the way of doing great work 3) it develops fluency on how to communicate and collaborate across the many disciplines at R/GA.

Because everyone is initiated in R/GA culture from day one, the agency has been able to create consistently high quality work from 1,400+ people across 13 offices.

02/ Purge Bureaucratic Hierarchies that Build Up Over Time
As companies grow larger, they tend to implement rules and processes that become barriers to creativity, often driving out the innovative, intellectually curious people who thrive on in more flexible environments. When this happens, companies quickly lose their edge.

Netflix decided to take the opposite approach. They increased, rather than limited, employee freedom as they grew, so they could continue to attract and engage innovative people. They’ve set a standard of hiring high performing, responsible people who are selfmotivated, self-aware, and self-starters. The Netflix leadership team also doesn’t tolerate what they call “brilliant jerks,” people who, while more than capable of performing, inhibit the sharing of ideas, opinions, and criticism that are critical to a culture of creativity and innovation.

As such, Netflix has been able to maintain a creative culture by hiring (and retaining) employees who perpetuate a culture of self-discipline, freedom, and responsibility rather than a culture run by the process police.

The underpinning of Netflix’s model is that responsible, innovative people are worthy of creative freedom. When companies remove friction and give talented employees the freedom to focus on what’s really important— rather than learning to play by the rules—creativity and innovation thrive.

03/ Sharpen Creative Culture with Seasoned Talent
A company’s creative culture should harness the collective expertise of its constituents and be shaped by seasoned talent. In the new book Creativity, Inc, Ed Catmull explains the Braintrust, an established feedback mechanism that helps cultivate an open, candid culture. To quote Catmull, “the premise [of the Braintrust] is simple: put smart, seasoned people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid.”

The benefit of the Braintrust is that it helps clear the way for better creative thinking. During the filmmaking process, directors will typically get “lost” in the project at some point. That’s where the Braintrust comes in. The Braintrust meets roughly every three months to review projects with directors. What’s different about the Braintrust feedback mechanism? Catmull lists two major reasons: “[It’s] made up of people with a deep understanding of storytelling, who usually have been through the process themselves. The second difference is that the Braintrust has no authority… it’s up to [the director] to figure out how to address the feedback.”

In order for the Braintrust to work, the director has to be willing to receive candid feedback. Any potential discomfort of receiving frank feedback is minimized by the structure of the session; the object under scrutiny is the film, not the director. By keeping creative egos in check and subjecting everyone to a jury of proven peers, Pixar has propelled its creative culture on an incredible run of fourteen number one box office hits, beginning with Toy Story in 1995.

Clearing the Air for Free Flowing Creativity
Is there a formula, blueprint or playbook for building a creative culture? We don’t think it’s as simple or straightforward as that. But we do know that it isn’t as mystical and mysterious as you might think. The culture of your company is like the air we breathe. You take it for granted every day, but it dictates the quality of everyday life and work. At a company with a smoggy creative culture, the flow of innovative energy is stifled and unclear. At a company with a thriving culture of innovation and creativity, ideas flow freely as they are candidly shared and critiqued across the organization.