In any work that involves creating something new, especially in the early stages, we all have moments where we feel as though we are charting through the fog. To do this work, teams must feel safe enough to lock arms and forge into the unknown together every day, knowing that we will fail in our creations as often as we succeed. I believe the first step in creating innovative outcomes is building trust by allowing for vulnerability, especially as a leader, beginning by allowing individual team members’ passions to show through, even if they don’t seem initially “work-related.”
According to the World Economic Forum, creativity, critical thinking, and complex problem solving will be the top three skills needed in the workforce in 2020. However, creative cultures don’t come from bean bags and foosball, fancy lobbies or free coffee, but from seeing each other as human. Often, this begins with a few thoughtfully designed moments.
How can companies create and sustain a culture that allows these skills to flourish? Here are three ways to tune your culture for creativity, all beginning with a bit of humanity.
Allow people to show up as their “weekend” selves
The first phase of IDEO’s design process often requires travel to far-flung locations to spend time with the people we’re designing for in their own environments. These research trips are a critical part of the design process, but they also provide the added benefit of bonding time early in a team’s collaboration. The shared experiences—off-hours meals, long car rides, and unexpected travel adventures—help the team get to know each other in a new way, then everyone returns to the office ready to design together.
On a recent trip to Canada, I learned the story of how a colleague came to America as a child from Bolivia, and how the harrowing experience is the foundation for the gratitude, joy, and optimism we see every day in his work. Knowing this about him gives us a shortcut to understand why he makes the decisions he does, and helps us collaborate more effectively. Had we not had that late-night “weekend self” conversation in the hotel lobby, free from any expectation to talk about work, I never would have learned this about him.
There are plenty of ways to simulate this without taking week-long trips together. In one government office where a colleague worked, the staff decided to begin their regular meeting with a new ritual called “Inside Scoop,” where each week, one person took five minutes to present a story from their personal lives, using images from their phone. They learned surprising things about colleagues they usually saw in uniform—one loved motorcycling, another baking. It quickly became the most anticipated part of the meeting, allowing them to begin their week not just as colleagues, but as humans.
When designing meetings or off-sites, therefore make sure that the opening moment communicates that it’s okay to reveal some of yourself. In one learning experience we designed for a financial services firm, we asked the participants to come wearing their “weekend shoes,” and to be prepared to talk about what their shoes say about how they spend their free time. We got some funny looks about opening the session this way, but it started us off on a personal note, which made it that much easier to give critical feedback later.
Build in time for inspiration
We all know how hard it can be to get people to lift their heads up from their work when they are focused on a deadline. Yet new ideas need new inputs to form, and creativity literature shows that intuitive leaps happen in the moments when we let go of the task at hand.
To get teams connected and fueled to keep going in my own workplace, we developed Tea Time, where we congregate to share something delicious and hear an outside speaker who brings something unexpected to the group. Instead of updates on company-wide initiatives or projects, we invite friends to speak who may have no immediate link to our work, but who can teach us something. Recently we’ve had entrepreneurs from India, meditation experts, and educators from a local school. Anyone can host a guest for Tea Time, which creates an opportunity for team members to introduce someone to the studio who they find inspiring.
The customers your company serves can be a source of collective inspiration as well. Airbnb is a great example of this. Paramount to their success is having an intimate understanding of their hosts, so every day at their company lunch, they showcase a listing on the site, and serve food reflecting its geography. The day I visited featured a hut in Bora Bora, and we all sat down together for Polynesian food. This delightful example shows how you can bring the humanity of your customer into your work, while also creating an environment that allows employees to connect.
Mind the culture you’re in
Bringing more humanity to work will only work if it’s customized to the habits and culture of your industry. For example, I live and work in Cambridge, Massachusetts, right in between the campuses of Harvard and MIT. It’s a world where authenticity is paramount and ideas are king, so there’s no bigger turn off than a glad-handling business “networking” event. But scientists and researchers still crave opportunities to collaborate with colleagues in other academic departments. In this idea-led environment, coming together over content is key.
We’ve worked with several clients in scientific and academic fields to figure out new formats for collaboration. In the Provocations series we codesigned with The Engine, spun out of MIT, participants across all sectors tackled a highly complex challenge like fusion energy, coming together to plot barriers and enablers in getting the technology to market and forge new partnerships. At the insistence of one of the scientists, it included time for those working in the field to share candid journeys of their successes and failures, rather than the typical company pitch. With this mindset, the convening became grounded in the difficult human reality and perseverance that scientific work requires.
Without the foundation of trusting relationships, innovative culture can quickly turn to innovation theater; all the foosball and free coffee in the world won’t lead to new ideas if people don’t feel safe enough to let down their professional guard. Sometimes the wildest ideas are the ones you need most, and creating space for that vulnerability can be an act of design, like anything else.