6 Qualities That Build an Environment of Creativity

“It’s really hard to do any kind of innovation or drive any change without purpose. Because you need that sort of direction to set people off and get the gears turning and pull them into a direction.”
—David Aycan, IDEO Products Managing Director

In our latest Creative Confidence Series chat, David Aycan, IDEO Products Managing Director, and IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard sat down to discuss how to effectively design for and implement change and ways to measure the impact of creativity in an organization.

The great myth of creativity is that it’s a fuzzy quality that can’t be defined. But as IDEO Products Managing Director David Aycan and his team discovered through research, interviews, and testing with hundreds of organizations, you can indeed measure the qualities that set the conditions for creative outcomes. They came up with a data-driven tool that helps leaders to build innovative and adaptive organizations that they call Creative Difference. It breaks down the six qualities that build an environment for creativity, and how to implement and measure their impact on an organization.

“In terms of relative impact of these qualities, and their ability to increase the likelihood of a project having its goals and hitting its metrics, it really is pretty amazing how universal they are,” Aycan says. “These are just the fundamental things people need to be creative problem solvers.”

Here’s how he broke it down, and examples of why it works.

Essential Qualities of Innovation

Six Elements that Set the Conditions for Creativity

1. Purpose

The first and most important element is purpose. Every company needs a clear, inspiring reason that it exists, beyond making money. According to data compiled by Creative Difference from those 500+ organizations, teams that use their purpose to guide their decision-making have 61% more successful launches than teams that don’t. “It’s really hard to do any kind of innovation or drive any change without purpose,” Aycan says. “Because you need that sort of direction to set people off and get the gears turning and pull them into a direction.”

2. Looking out

Companies put a lot of focus on what’s happening within their own walls, but teams can’t go after innovative leaps unless they understand what customers want, what technologies are on the horizon, and how the market—and culture—is evolving.

3. Experimentation

Once teams make a habit of looking out, they generate a ton of ideas. And that can become an intimidating moment, Aycan says. “We see experimentation as linking up and creating a healthy pipeline of innovation where organizations can explore many different ideas in quick and dirty ways and invest in more rigorous exploration until they’re able to launch to market.” According to Creative Difference data, teams that experiment with 5 or more ideas in parallel are 50% more likely to be successful.

4. Collaboration

It’s incredibly important to work together across business functions to approach opportunities from all angles. By breaking silos apart and creating multidimensional teams, you can address more issues early on, and see what could be a problem downstream.

5. Empowerment

Creative companies provide a clear path to create change in all corners of the company—everyone from the finance team to the operations team needs to be encouraged to take on big problems and find innovative solutions. “They’re giving people the tools and the mindset to think in new ways and creative problem solve.”

6. Refinement

The final piece is the ability to elegantly bridge from vision to execution. It’s all about iterating, and moving your best ideas from rough prototypes to elegant solutions. This is particularly important for companies with long product life cycles. Aycan says—four times more important.

The order of these qualities also matters. Many companies get stuck in the refinement stage—trying to polish the same idea—when the problem is they don't have a defined purpose, or haven't brought enough ideas to the table in the first place.

How to Bring in Purpose Every Day

Every organization’s purpose needs to have three factors, Aycan says. Clarity—Do people understand it, and do they have a consistent view of it? Usefulness—Is it specific, and can employees act on it? And last, passion—Does it resonate? “When you can line up those three together, that helps people want to bring their best selves to the job and want to do everything they can to achieve that,” he says.

Once you’ve refined your purpose, remember that it can’t just be a mantra on the wall. “Purpose is a really fragile thing, in a sense, and if you see that people aren’t acting on it, or it’s not baked into how things are being done, it quickly loses power,” he says. A great example of this is Southwest Airlines. Their purpose: Connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel. It’s a message that is baked into their systems, for example, by defining the success metrics for their customer service team. Reps are incentivized to really help customers because they are measured on how many people leave interactions feeling happy.

Purpose can also help fuel empowerment. Once people are clear on the direction and mission of a company, it becomes easier to enable autonomy. At Airbnb, they have a ritual where employees launch new features on their first day of work. The company still A/B tests in the launch process to measure results, but it’s a ritual that makes teams feel invested from day one and more deeply connected to the company’s purpose.

Measuring Impact

So how exactly can you measure your creative capacity? Aycan recommends that you start with employee surveys, and ask them to report on change in processes and actions. Look to behavior metrics, and tally how many prototypes a team runs in a year, for example.

To evaluate the results of experimentation or refinement on your bottom line, consider measuring the time required for ideas to get to market or the percent of revenue that came from ideas that emerged in the last five years.

Even companies with long development life cycles can see the financial benefits of more creativity—Creative Difference research shows that prototyping improves the chance of a successful product launch by 4X for these companies. When the tire manufacturer Michelin came to IDEO for help, their time to market for new products was about two years. It’s a company that relies heavily on R&D, and innovation takes a lot of investment. In one experiment, they switched up their product development process to bring potential new products to customers and resellers before going through all the R&D necessary to bring in a fully-fledged product. By implementing this small change, the company cut time to market from two years to nine months.

To help your company to start embracing a more creative process, start small. Have a conversation with your team or colleagues you trust about which of these qualities are already strengths at your company, and which you’d like to build on. When you’re ready to take the next step, an assessment tool like Creative Difference can provide a more detailed guide to areas of improvement.

Read more about the six qualities of innovation:

Looking to learn more about purpose or dive deeper on bringing creativity to your team or company? Join our upcoming Designing for Change course or Power of Purpose on-demand class.

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