Whether you run a hundred-year-old cardboard box factory or a disruptive digital branding agency, there's a host of reasons you'll benefit from a more creative company culture.

Improved staff wellbeing, product development, and financial performance are some of the results in organisations more open-minded to experimenting with new ideas.

Changing a culture within a company isn't as complicated as you might think - it only takes one person to be brave and suggest a new way of doing something. But the results can be hugely beneficial.

"Creativity” can be a pretty vague idea, so we’ll start with some simple definitions. We'll then look at what a creative company is, and what you can do to make one.

What is creativity?

Creativity is the ability to come up with new and valuable ideas. It also refers to the process of coming up with them.

In business, we often refer to it as innovation. But you’ll find creative thinking in any profession or pursuit:

  • Engineers solving problems
  • Speakers creating metaphors to persuade others of their ideas.
  • Designers using new materials
  • Activists coming up with new ways to enact change and justice.

(There’s a great list of mental models for thinking creatively at Wikipedia's Creativity Techniques page.)

But creativity is also about rebellion from the norm; doing things differently not just for the sake of it, but to bring about real positive change. So we can innovate not just in the products and services we make, but the way we run our companies themselves.

What is a creative company?

There are three main areas of creativity in modern companies.

The first is innovation - a classic process that any business worth its salt does regularly. It’s nicely defined by Fresh Consulting as “something fresh (new, original or improved) that creates value."

A McKinsey report from 2017 called Creativity’s Bottom Line investigated corporate creativity. They found that companies that ranked high in a creativity index had higher revenue growth, EBITDA and shareholder returns.

The study found that the most creative companies do well at four things:

  1. Build innovation into business practices (discussing it at board level and committing resources to it.
  2. ‘Customer fanaticism’ - basically a high customer focus that uses lots of research methods to get to know customer needs in detail.
  3. Speedy implementation - translating insights into action quicker than others, and making decisions without dithering.
  4. ‘Adapt or die’ - quickly obtaining market feedback, and adapting to changes accordingly on an ongoing basis (not just after a product launch).

So organisational creativity isn't just a fluffy concept talked about in inspirational TED talks - it’s a disciplined set of management practices.

The second is a bit more fluffy and vague, but refers to the use of creative ideas in branding and marketing. It’s why there are ‘creative agencies’ who don’t do any product development, but do come up with fancy websites and witty slogans.

It’s also why, if you go to the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, you won’t see any paintings or hear from expert novelists, but you will meet a lot of Chief Marketing Officers claiming to have invented the Next Big Idea. (It’s an advertising festival, but people in advertising rarely like to admit that’s what they do).

The third is creative culture. This about doing things differently within your company, not just for the sake of being different, but to better achieve company goals.

Some examples might be:

  • Building a team where people feel free to express themselves - whether they’re introverts or extroverts.
  • Committing to fair annual leave  and sickness absence policies.
  • Encouraging intrapreneurs - employees who find opportunities for innovation and make them happen within their role.
  • Experimenting with unusual leave policies like sabbaticals. See the example of Stefan Sagmeister closing his studio for a year out of every seven.
  • Using different management structures - decentralised management systems like holacracies can shake up traditional thinking about hierarchy, sharing and decision-making.

And, of course, doing things differently internally helps you communicate with the outside world. Consider how Buffer publicise their remote-first ethos and salary transparency; it helps employees understand their culture, but also acts as a great form of advertising.

How do you build a creative company culture?

The first thing you need to know about culture is that it’s always moving.

Culture naturally changes over time. But that means implementing change also takes time to achieve.

In Creative Confidence by Tom & David Kelley (of renowned design firm IDEO), it’s suggested as a gradual process:

“Build on existing processes. Sometimes a more gradual change has a higher chance of success than a radical, revolutionary approach.”

So rather than attempt to influence the way people think, you could influence single processes first - like design, prototyping, manufacturing, coding, research, or marketing.

These could involve things like moving to agile development (if you’re making software) or taking on design thinking methods throughout your collaborative efforts.

Photo by Zainul Yasni / Unsplash

David Burkus, writing in Harvard Business Review, suggests trying not to mimic other companies you see as creative:

"It’s easy to look at companies renowned for their creative culture and attempt to emulate what they’re doing, but without understanding the dynamics of culture, we may only mimic its surface-level elements and fail to make lasting cultural change.”

So we might see the nap pods and craft beer taps and think it’s culture, but these office gimmicks are just surface-level distractions, and don’t show you the whole picture.

Really, cultural change comes down to leadership. Encouraging reasonable risk-taking is one way to do it. Embracing failures and understanding how to learn from them, too. Taking the lead on brave experimentation and constantly learning will serve you well.

Whether you’re a FTSE-listed behemoth or a 2-person startup, you can implement creativity as a process throughout your business, be that through appointing a Chief Creativity Officer or by encouraging more subtle cultural changes.

The end result? Better products and services, a healthier workforce, and a better bottom line.