Are You The Organization’s Creativity Blocker?

by | Apr 22, 2024

“The CEO is the number one blocker,” said a brand manager from a US financial service company.

If you’re nodding because this rings a bell, trust me, you’re not the only one. Every time I bring this up during my keynote speeches, it resonates with a lot of people. And it’s not just based on those talks—the “Annual State of Creativity 2024” study by LIONS Advisory confirms it. We’re seeing a trend: it’s often the people at the top who are putting the brakes on creativity. I hear this, especially from the junior and mid-level pros, who feel there’s a lack of creative thinkers in the boardroom. What we have instead are leaders who stick too closely to the tried-and-true, making it hard for creative ideas to flourish. So, even though you’re asking your team to think outside the box and they’re ready to leap, it feels like there’s a hidden “don’t get too crazy” warning, all thanks to that cautious approach from leadership.

If you think it is the juniors in the organizations who complain — whom some might dismiss as Gen Zers not yet fully versed in business practices— you might be surprised, but it comes from those at the director’s level, highlighting that the challenge is far more widespread than we might initially think.

The whole situation leads to a kind of frustrating cycle. Leaders are playing it too safe, not willing to take a chance on the more out-there ideas unless they’re 100% sure it’ll work out. But here’s the thing: you can’t know if something’s really going to succeed without trying it out first. This not only creates tension between senior management and their teams but also shifts focus from pursuing high-quality creativity to settling for quick fixes that are easier to quantify but fall short of making a lasting impact. Yes, the conclusion is that short-term thinking kills creativity.

 

Outselecting Creativity at the Bottom

So, if you are like me, you might be wondering, why does this happen? 

We want creativity, but as management, we kill it.

Down at the bottom of the organization, it’s all about finding executors. We’re on the lookout for employees who can pick up the “ways of doing” around here—folks who stick to the playbook, no questions asked. We value people who don’t just take orders but really make things happen. In that space, stepping outside the norm isn’t exactly encouraged.

Now, as people start moving up the ladder, suddenly, management is on the lookout for folks who can shake things up – think outside the box, be innovative – to borrow some of the clichés. People who have that creative spark or can spot the next big thing. The problem? We’ve kind of left those creative minds behind at the starting line because we were too focused on finding the perfect executors. So, by the time you get to the top, it’s mostly the super executors who’ve made it, not because they’re not talented, but because they’re really good at sticking to the playbook. And naturally, they tend to stick with what’s already proven, which means, yep, more of the same.

 

Creativity in the Boardroom: The Missing Element

Sometimes, I feel like I’m more of a dreamer. Championing arts and humanities in the business workspace, especially when these fields face increasing scrutiny, is not an easy task. But then, I run into founders like Brian Chesky, the co-founder and CEO of Airbnb. In a conversation with Jay Shetty, he spoke about creativity in the boardroom. Being part of the Fortune 500 club, he’s pointed out something that really sticks: very few CEOs in those top companies come from a creative background. This highlights a real gap in creative leadership at the upper levels.

Moreover, when you look at the thousands of board members across Fortune 500 companies, only a few come from creative disciplines. This really highlights the inclination towards traditional paths in leadership circles. So, the next time you’re pondering diversity, here’s an angle worth considering.

Like Chesky, I’m convinced that the scientific method has its rightful place in business strategy, but mixing in varied perspectives from both arts and sciences is key to navigating the complex problems of our era. This blend not only tackles big issues but also leads to the creation of outstanding products and services that truly connect with people. Just look at the success stories like Pixar movies, Beats headphones, or the immersive experience of Apple’s retail stores.

 

So What Should You Do?

Three ideas (out of many others).

Hire for the Future: Don’t just think about what someone can do for you in the next quarter. Look further down the road. Ask yourself, what unique perspectives and ideas could they bring to the table long-term?

Value Attitude Over Skills: Sometimes, you’ll come across a candidate who has a creative background but might not tick all the job requirements skill boxes just yet. Remember, skills can be taught, but the right attitude and a creative spark? That’s hard to find. Consider what they could achieve with a little training and their fresh, innovative approach.

Boost Creative Leadership: Now’s the time to really champion creative thinking at every level of our organizations, not just in the departments you’d typically associate with creativity. Investing in programs designed to develop this kind of mindset is crucial. Look at GAP, one of our beloved clients. We’ve partnered with them to launch a program inspired by the innovative cultures of companies like Apple, Beats, Polaroid, and Pixar. This initiative is all about nurturing a new generation of leaders equipped to think beyond traditional boundaries and spark meaningful change.

 

So, let’s circle back to where we started. Ask yourself, “Am I the creative blocker in my team or organization?” It’s a question that requires honesty and a bit of courage to confront. Reflect on the ways you lead, the people you recruit, the space you create for innovative thinking, and how you respond to unconventional ideas.

Commitment to creativity begins with a single step – and often, it’s about taking a hard look in the mirror and deciding to make a change.

 

 

We help companies bring value to life by promoting creative leadership, highlight what is human in their work, and create diverse inspirations for innovation. Are you interested in transforming your workplace culture with these principles? Reach out to us to explore how we can work together.

 

 

What can we create together?