Building Sustainable Creative Culture

creative cultureEvery company has unique corporate culture which is a powerful factor that influences the style in which employees work and company functions. As a result, culture affects the success and failure of employees and the company itself. We all have experience in working in different companies and cultures. In my professional life, I have worked in different cultures, and I had the chance to observe how leaders and employees create the culture, and how this culture later influences their behaviors and decisions. I also had the chance to study and research the culture in Learning Organizations (LOs). In Learning Organizations, culture is a very important Organizational System that fosters learning.

Learning Culture

Culture in LOs is one that is based on learning, so it is defined as learning culture. It always creates opportunities for learning and supports learning. Learning culture or culture in LOs has many features. The first one is that learning is embedded in the vision and mission statement, so employees in LOs internalize the idea of learning and develop commitment to learning. Consequently, learning is encoded in the beliefs and values of all employees, which is the second feature. Publicly talking about learning or language that utters learning and learning related expressions in everyday life of a company is another feature. Dedication to learning is the next characteristic of learning culture, and employees in LOs are responsible for their own learning and development, so they are involved in their own personal mastery. As a result, in their daily activities while doing their jobs employees try to engage in learning. The other feature is that they learn from the external environment that is to say customers, competitors, shareholders or every source which can be useful for learning, improvement and business success. In LOs, there are three levels of learning that are individual, team and organizational learning. Their presence is a crucial feature of learning culture. Employees learn individually from their past experiences. They learn through their successes and failures. The second one is more important since learning from mistakes is very natural and useful. Stated differently, culture that allows and tolerates mistakes and failures is learning culture. Employees also learn among themselves, so mutual learning and team learning are another feature of learning culture. Learning criterion is included in the performance appraisal of employees, and consequently in the culture of LOs. As a result, symbols of learning are created. These are acknowledging and rewarding employees and teams that learn. Investment in learning is also another characteristic of learning culture. It means investment in learning in forms of incentives and bonuses. Besides, investment in learning is done by allocating money in technology and human resources training and development. Another feature is systems thinking. Employees in LOs have to possess the perception that the company is a whole. It is a system where everything is related, dependent and influenced. Open communication, communication in many directions, namely horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and cross-functional types of communication are needed in learning culture. Free transfer of data, information and especially knowledge is essential for learning. Successful companies are managed through values. Intuition, empathy, caring and support are very basic features of learning culture. Risk taking is the next one. Employees in LOs should be encouraged to take risks. Without taking risks and trying to function and do their jobs in a new and better way employees cannot learn and make improvements. Being proactive, or the ability of employees to foresee and solve problems even before they occur is also characteristic of learning culture. The last feature is the belief and action of constructing reality. Employees in LOs know that they can change their current reality, and they can create their own future. Shortly, culture that requires learning, creates opportunity for learning, values learning and rewards learning is actually learning culture.

In the 21st Century, being a LO is not enough because learning should be transformed in solving complex problems, finding creative solutions and engaging in innovation. However, being a LO is the starting point and the solid base for being a Creative Organization (CO). How many organizations are creative? What about yours? Is it a CO? Unfortunately, not many organizations are COs. Why? Simply because being a CO or building creative culture is not an easy task. One well known leader whose name is Ed Catmull has succeeded in building sustainable creative culture. He is a computer scientist and the current president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. How has Ed Catmull built this sustainable creative culture present in Pixar and Walt Disney? He has been consciously asking this question to himself, and he has devoted himself to build such culture. Based on his experience, he has written the book titled CREATIVITY, INC. OVERCOMING THE UNSEEN FORCES THAT STAND IN THE WAY OF TRUE INSPIRATION. It is a great guide full of leadership lessons that every leader willing to build sustainable creative culture should learn and apply.

Building Sustainable Creative Culture

I am not going to write book review, but I would like to discuss only the lessons that have made the greatest impact on me and the lessons that I have learned. I am going to remember these lessons because Ed Catmull wrote the book for anyone who wants to work in an environment that fosters creativity and problem solving.

1. Continuous Learning

The first lesson is about continuous learning. I have found an important analogy between the characteristics of learning culture and sustainable creative culture. That is why, I have started writing this article by discussing the features of learning culture. Ed Catmull is a leader with the highest degree of learning agility. He has been learning and building the sustainable creative culture at Pixar and later at Walt Disney Studios. Only a leader dedicated to learning and development can build a company that is dedicated to learning and development. At Pixar, failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. As Ed Catmull states: “To be truly creative company, you must start things that might fail.” Pixar University is serious investment that supports continuous learning. Its unexpected benefit is the social interactions during the classes. Finally, it is useful for pushing people to learn and try things that they have not tried before.

2. Asking Questions

Ed Catmull is a leader who has been constantly asking questions to himself. He had the mental model provided by his teachers. The model was “how to lead and inspire other creative thinkers”. Ed Catmull’s life goal was to make the first computer animated film. He accomplished this by asking questions, and the first one was how to build an environment that is similar to the model provided by his teachers. For forty years he has been asking himself another question that is: “What does it mean to manage well?”. As a result, he has become a great leader. Ed Catmull asked questions not only to himself but also to Pixar’s employees. He went to people’s offices and asked their opinion on how Pixar was working and was not working. Actually, Ed Catmull writes: “We realized that our purpose was not merely to build a studio that made hit films but to foster a creative culture that would continually ask questions.”

3. Solving Problems

The third lesson is related to problem solving. Ed Catmull is a proactive leader who also makes his followers to be proactive in dealing with problems. He writes: “…we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all our energies to solve it.” The important expectation at Pixar is that people can take steps to solve problems without asking permission, and indeed they solve problems while doing their jobs. If a leader does not try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, or in other words deal with hiden problems, this leader will be not be able to lead successfully. Leaders can solve problems better if they are self-aware or aware of their blind spots.

4. Talent Centered

In order to succeed, Ed Catmull needed to attract the sharpest minds. He actually made a policy of trying to hire people who are smarter than he is. Why? The answer is simple because “the payoffs of exceptional people are that they innovate, excel and generally make the company, and also make you look good”. Employees who work for Pixar are free to decorate their work spaces as they wish because self-expression is valued. Ed Catmull has been asking the question: “How could we enable the talents of these people, keep them happy, and not let the inevitable complexities that come with any collaborative environment undo us along the way?” At Pixar, the most important is that ideas come from people, so people are more important than ideas. Shortly, finding, developing and supporting good people is crucial because they in turn will find, develop and own good ideas.

5. Communication

Similarly to learning culture, free communication is very important for creative culture. Every employee no matter their job title is free to speak, and as a result there is free flow of ideas. Unhindered communication is fundamental Pixar belief. At Pixar, there is healthy feedback system in which the focus is on the problem not the person. This feedback system is additive not competitive. In other words, each participant contributes something. Besides, frank talks and spirited debates are part of Pixar’s communication style.

6. Community and Collaboration

Pixar’s building is about community because Steve Jobs wanted this building to support the work by fostering collaboration. Ed Catmull sates: “We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute”. He spent nearly forty years thinking about how to help smart, ambitious people work effectively with one another, so he writes: “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.” The important thing is to concentrate on team performance not on the individual talents that form this team because successful team is made up of team members who complement each other. Like the systems thinking in learning culture, in a healthy creative culture all constituents recognize the importance of balancing competitive desires. Achieving balance is the central goal of the company, so every creative company is like an ecosystem.

7. Quality and Excellence

Ed Catmull’s aim has always been to enable people to do their best work. He learned that Japanese had found a way of making production a creative endeavor that engaged its workers. Ed Catmull writes that the essence of just-in-time management and total quality control was: “The responsibility for finding and fixing problems should be assigned to every employee, from the most senior manager to the lowest person on the production line.” Pixar’s identity was finally cemented when Pixar employees only wanted to make films of the highest quality, and when they committed to that ideal. The communication style and the candid feedback system at Pixar lead to supporting and helping each other in the process of making better movies, or stated differently they ensure high quality. Constructive criticism is an art form which inspires the recipient. “Telling the truth is difficult, but inside a creative company it is the only way to ensure excellence.”

8. Constructing the reality

Ed Catmull’s belief is that the future is unmade and people at Pixar must create it. Besides, he believes that “the goal of creative people is to build their own mountain from scratch”. Many people think that driving the train is the way to shape company’s future. However, according to Ed Catmull “the real job is laying the track”. Moreover, Pixar’s leaders instead of doing this real job by themselves, they actually engaged all employees and spend the effort to keep Pixar on the right track. Actually, employees tell the leaders how to make Pixar better.

9. Human Values

I think this is the last and the most important lesson, so this is the reason I want to discuss it at the end. The ground for building sustainable creative culture is human values. According to me, sustainable creative culture can only be build on solid human values. For Ed Catmull, the most basic human value is the value of human talent. He writes: “I believe, to my core, that everybody has the potential to be creative – whatever form that creativity takes – and that to encourage such development is a noble thing”. Equality and respect are the other two values. Everyone at Pixar has a voice and every job and every employee is treated with respect. The other two values are candor and trust. Without candor, there can be no trust. Consequently, without trust creative collaboration is not possible. Integrity of the leader is a human value that is critical for the success of the company. Ed Catmull has been a leader with very high degree of integrity. He has always tried to do his best to walk the talk. In short, Catmull thinks that they should trust in people not in processes.

I hope Ed Catmull’s leadership lessons for building sustainable creative culture will be implemented in many companies so that employees will be more creative, more productive and happier. As a result, innovation will thrive. It will be even better if not only companies but societies as well apply these lessons and become societies that are based on human values and give great importance to creativity and innovation. I have been deeply impressed by Ed Catmull’s personality, his book and his leadership lessons. Also, I very much liked his lessons about creativity, so in one of my next posts, I am planning to write about them.

(Posted also on LinkedIn Pulse)

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