How does your culture enable growth and creativity?

Have you ever had someone come into your house without taking their shoes off? This is one of those things in our house that really ruffles my wife’s feathers. We have two small children. That means we have lots of small children who come round to destroy the house (aka play). Light carpets and muddy shoes is not a good mix. Children learn from their surroundings. They do what they’ve been trained to do. I was trained to take my shoes off at the door. So was Helen. In our house, the culture dictates that we take our shoes off and William and Lottie do a pretty good job at remembering. Don’t get me wrong, we are not the shoe police, but eyebrows will be raised if you do not comply.

Recently, I have come across a number of things connected to creativity, culture and change including a Model Thinking Coursera course to try out MOOCs (I’ve found it to be very good if you’re interested in online learning). The shoes on or off example was one that came up as a way of describing differences between groups. It interested me because it is something so simple and I hadn’t considered it as something ‘cultural’. It made me think about the things that define culture, and how might examine creative, innovative and agile business cultures.

To start off with, it is worth trying to give a definition of culture.  Here are a few definitions that I’ve come across:

Trilling (1955):  When we look at a people in the degree of abstraction which the idea of culture implies, we cannot but be touched and impressed by what we see, we cannot help but be awed by something mysterious at work, some creative power which seems to transcend any particular act or habit or quality that may be observed. To make a coherent life, to confront the terrors of the outer and the inner world, to establish the ritual and art, the pieties and duties which make possible the life of the group and the individual – these are culture, and to contemplate these various enterprises which constitute a culture is inevitably moving.

Boaz (1911): [Culture is a] totality of mental and physical reactions and activities that characterize behavioral responses to environment, others, and to himself.

Tylor (1871): [Culture is a] complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs.

LiveScience states that culture is the characteristics of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts.

Basically, it seems to boil down to what we believe, what we do, how we do them and all the other manifestations the describe what and why we are who we are.  It is also useful for me to use the differences between groups, the similarities between people and the things that are interesting or unique within a group to help describe a culture.

When you consider that simple things like taking your shoes off at the door might be something that describes a culture in terms of how values are lived then you can quickly see how many cultural variants might exist.  If you just consider 20 questions similar to shoes on or off you get over a million different permutations. Unfortunately, life isn’t as simple as 20 questions with yes/no answers and tend to contain many shades of grey and conditions. It is much more complex.

As I was writing this blog I saw this tweet by Bob Marshall (@flowchainsensei): “Folks who believe they can slot Agile right in to their existing worldview will see nothing but pain and dashed hopes.” This fits with my experience well. People who really practice Agile have a very different view of the world than the cultures you find in most traditional and large companies. They value different things and have completely different perspectives as to how an organisation should be run. Beware! Here be dragons and those waters need to be navigated with a clear goal in mind.

The good news is that culture can change. Just look at what’s happening around you since the web came of age. Looks at how open and transparent things have become and how the speed of innovation and communication have changed.

I was reading this and this and this whilst I was thinking about this post because I am interested in what thoughts are out there about the conditions required for creativity and innovation to thrive. Many of the companies I work with tell me they are seeking to be more creative and innovative, and yet it really isn’t clear as to how that will work. They don’t seem to change any of the conditions that are really required to encourage and enable it happen. Instead, they try to change process and management control. This just reinforces the culture that probably already exists.

The words that come up when I talk to people about the conditions that creative cultures have include curiosity, challenge, openness, trusting, safe, diverse and freedom. What comes across is that people are free to try things out, explore what they want to explore, challenge orthodoxy and collaborate. This doesn’t mean that everyone should be hugging and agree on everything. It also doesn’t mean that people are always actively dissenting and disrupting the goal of the organisation. In fact, they value and require debate, challenge and feedback because it strengthens ideas and creative output. The only other thing that comes out is that this is best done in a high trust environment where people are respectful. A key element of the most creative cultures is a clear vision and purpose that people can work out how they best contribute to. Interestingly, there are real similarities between the values described here and those that are promoted throughout communities on the web. Culture is changing outside your organisation, but is it being allowed inside?

This all sounds very obvious, but there are many places that don’t live these values. Instead, there is higher emphasis on things like productivity, efficiency and deadlines (which all happen to quash creativity).

Why is any of this important?

Well, there are two reasons. The first is that your culture is directly linked to your success (or potential demise).  For instance, trust has been correlated to increase in value creation in many studies, Dincer and Uslaner (2009).  A 10% increase in trust improves GDP by 0.5%.  Wow.  That’s worth figuring out and investing in.

“Virtually every commercial transaction has within itself an element of trust, certainly any transaction conducted over a period of time. It can be plausibly argued that much of the economic backward- ness in the world can be explained by the lack of mutual confidence.”  Arrow, Kenneth, “Gifts and Exchanges,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, I (1972), 343–362. 

Many of the words I mentioned above are related to how trust manifests itself in society. Higher trusting cultures have lower transaction costs. They can do business “on a handshake”. Entrepreneurs and artists are free to invest their energies into creating value rather than wasting their time and effort in protecting resources and ideas. They are open to collaborate and improve upon each other’s work. In low trust cultures the time is spent on defending, not growing. But, this isn’t just about the wider culture of a country. It is also applied to a companies and their ecosystems.

The second reason why this is important is in considering how culture takes hold and might be changed.  People tend to have two strategies when considering their own behaviours and actions within different environments. They either look for coordination with people around them or consistency within themselves. Ideally, they look for both for greatest impact and it isn’t always clear when and how people decide. People tend to coordinate when it leads to a better outcome for themselves. Where people have deeply held values and beliefs they need to exist in groups that value and believe the same things otherwise they will become restless. However, there are other values and beliefs that people won’t hold on to quite so much and will be happy to coordinate with people around them and in doing so may violate their own values to some small way. If there are too many of these things though, it will lead to the same result as the important values and people will leave. The interesting thing here is that differences also create innovation to occur as it generates different perspectives and heuristics within a group. So, you want some core shared values, but not ALL shared. Time needs to be invested in examining and exploring how the behaviours of different groups and teams in your organisation represent the values.

Your culture needs deliberate work. And a set of values that people can buy in to.

The world is changing. The web is helping shape a new set of values that fit better with those that foster openness and creativity. We need our education policies and workplaces to encourage the same things. This will enable growth.

I’d love to get your perspectives on how you see the need for change. Culture is certainly not something that is easy to change or easy to define what you really want. I’d welcome a chance to discuss these ideas further with you and I’d be happy for you to come round to the house. Don’t forget: take your shoes off at the door. You have been warned.


Have you ever seen a program or show by Derren Brown? If so, you might believe magic does exist in some real sense. What he does during a show is nothing short of breathtaking and has people scratching heads and whispering loudly as to how his wizardry is achieved. Recently I went to see his latest stage show, Infamous. Without giving away any of the details of the show (which was excellent), it made me think about creativity, talent and the path people travel to develop their skills. He weaves a story throughout the show about the trials of his childhood. It seems much of what happened shaped him and helped him hone his skills and passion, and, in some way, developed his desire to be infamous.

Sir Ken Robinson spoke in his 2006 TED talk about creativity and how the whole of our education system (indeed all education systems on earth) systematically remove creativity throughout school by focusing more on numeracy, literacy, logic and critical thinking rather than allowing people to explore their creative potential. His talk is funny and compelling, and makes you think about how you were educated and how your children are going to be educated. You should watch it if you haven’t. I agree with the thesis and I see the output of our education system every day – generally, folks shy away from innovation and creativity for fear of failure and non-conformity. Ever heard the term ‘I don’t want to stick my head above the parapet’? Our education system and the modern large company workplace seem to value similar things: conformity, standardisation and management-by-objective target setting. For the orthodoxy these words are all reasonable and positive things. Yet, they are the very things that remove creative thinking, make people compliant and turn people into sheepwalkers, and ultimately remove creativity and innovation from the workplace. In his book, The Element, Ken Robinson talks about many people who found their passion. Their life’s work. All of their stories are about trials and tribulations. It touches on the failure in the school system to captivate and motivate that person and how they developed a tenacity to find their talents elsewhere. Through these trials each person developed the character, found their passion and developed their skills to a point that they are in their element. He asserts that some of the most successful people you will ever meet didn’t do well in school.

In a previous post about the power of environment  I touch upon the influences that shape us to develop skills. Every one of us goes through a formal education system and that environment has a different effect on every person. I believe we need to reduce the idea of conformity and standardisation, and improve the chances for people to develop their own passions. Everyone needs trials. And they need opportunity to compete, react, rebel, create, fail, create again, fail again and again and again. Much of this has been removed from schools in favour of teaching specific things to pass tests. It doesn’t help us invent and create new things. People (children and adults alike) need the support to build the capability to keep dusting themselves off and trying again.

Workplaces are becoming extensions of the education system as technology moves faster now than ever before and things we are need now to compete in the modern business world now were only invented in the last 10 – 5 years. Most of us couldn’t have learned those things within our education system. They are alien. The problem is that neither the workplace nor the education system has the approach to deal with this reality and it comes down to capacity of the individual rather than a deliberate approach to help build the capability.

This is what sets the stories like Derren’s apart from all of the people who were discouraged to really develop their passion and stopped. This is the bit where the system doesn’t work. We need an environment that works the whole brain and body, and spirit to keep trying regardless if you conform to the norms or not. It cannot be just about focusing on words and numbers. Failure and creativity are not the same thing. But you cannot be creative without being able to fail. I bet Derren did many times.