Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 6

Written by: Sandy Greene

In this series, I’ve been using an organic garden analogy to describe how we’ve grown Intuitive Company sevenfold over the past five years. In previous installments I gave advice on how to prepare your organization for growth, and what it means to plant the right people into the mix, water and add fertilizer to encourage success, and then till and experiment to continue pushing yourselves.

Now comes time for observing and protecting. We’ve been thrilled to watch Intuitive Company grow and thrive, but we keep on the lookout for issues. Sometimes we need to provide cover for employees, be it by managing schedule conflicts or addressing tension with clients so that nothing escalates to a boiling point.

Protect and observe

One reason we’re able to do this goes back to our open environment. We’re aware of what’s going on with each project, as well as what may be going on personally with some staff members. This awareness allows us to act preemptively rather than defensively when we sense a deliverable or client or employee relationship might be on the verge of taking a wrong turn.

Problems will still arise every once in a while, but they aren’t showstoppers because of our vigilant observing. For example, if any employees are not performing as well as we know they could, we’ll revise their roles to better fit their likes and skill sets. This results in both happier employees and happier co-workers.

The staff often rallies together to tackle issues as well. We empower everyone to solve their own problems; being design-minded, solving complex issues is already their forte. Resourcing is a good example of this. When someone has free time, they proactively let their peers know in case another project could use a hand. Conversely, when someone needs help, they’re not afraid to ask. It bears repeating that none of this would be possible without the open culture we’d established upfront.

When your team or company has been succeeding, it’s time to take a step back, see what you notice, and make any necessary tweaks.

Ask yourself these questions during the observing and protecting phase:

  • Do you have a good sense of how each project team is doing?
  • Could someone use a break? Is there a better way to distribute the workload?
  • How often do issues arise, and could they have been avoided?
  • How are problems solved, and could more responsibility be given to employees to work things out on their own?

Stay tuned for Step 7: Picking!

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

The Creative Impact of Improvisation

Written by: Amy Marquez

Improvisation is a very old and time-tested form of theater. The earliest use of improvisation is found in records of a Roman farce performed in 391 BC. Given its long history, it’s surprising to me that in our modern world, comedy–and comedic improvisation–is considered a low-brow form of entertainment. It is generally eschewed by the erudite. But it shouldn’t be.

My own experience with improvisation spans 20+ years. And in the middle of that I took a hiatus from performing when my husband and I started a family. For four years, I did no improv. And my brain seemed to stutter to a screeching halt. I felt dull and less energetic. Creativity started taking more effort than it had previously. I felt like I was on autopilot. But I chalked that up to being a new, perpetually sleep-deprived parent. I’m sure that sleep deprivation didn’t help, but at the time I didn’t even realize what the real problem was.

Ramping up my brain

When I first came back to improv from that break, I felt like my brain was having to wade through mud to get ideas out. I looked at my fellow troupe members and marveled at how quickly they could craft a scene or throw out ideas. But after a couple of months with the troupe, my thoughts moved much more quickly. I could keep up with the rest of my team, and I suddenly felt so much more alive than I had in years.

I noticed something else. My creative process at work started to go into overdrive. I was able to generate, dismiss, or accept design ideas very quickly. It was much easier to do collaborative creative brainstorming and get dozens of ideas out because my thought processes had become accustomed to it. I felt like my mental Rolodex (here’s a link for the young whippersnappers who have no idea what a Rolodex is) was stuffed with ideas and was spinning impossibly fast; ideas were flying.

It was a wonderful feeling–like moving out of the fog into the sunlight.

The science behind creativity

I decided to do some research on this, and as it turns out, this isn’t just a fluke, it’s a proven scientific method of improving brain function.

Dr. Charles Limb, a Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist, has dedicated his research to the art of improvisation and how it increases creativity. He has a fascinating TED Talk on the topic. His studies focus on jazz piano improvisation, and he demonstrates that the same increase in creativity is seen when the subject is improvising while rapping.

A post by self-proclaimed “biohacker” Dave Asprey about Limb’s studies summed up what was found to occur in the brain while improvising:

“During improvisation, the self-monitoring part of the brain (lateral prefrontal for you brain hardware hackers out there) deactivated, while the self-expression part of the brain got activated (medial prefrontal). Literally, that means that to be creative, you have to stop picking on yourself while boosting your self-expression abilities.”

Turn off your filters

If there is one thing you get practice doing in improv, it’s in turning off your brain’s filters. In improv, there are no bad ideas, you don’t hesitate on an impulse–you must charge forward with the scene and be fearless about making mistakes.

Applying the same principles in creative work comes more naturally once your brain is trained to do it in an improvisational setting.

So how can you bring this into your own work when you don’t perform improv on a regular basis? Bring the improvisation to your team. There are simple exercises you can do in a team setting that will help break down the voice of doubt and hesitation.

You can begin very simply so that your team becomes accustomed to the idea of improvising. If the idea of finding extra time to do this is daunting, take advantage of weekly meetings (like staff meetings). Set aside one of those meetings a month to do improvisational exercises.

The pep talk

Make it clear to your team that this is an activity where mistakes are expected and even welcome. This is a safe environment for them to be silly…because when everyone looks silly, no one looks silly.

Tell them not to overthink reactions and to act spontaneously. That means listen to what the other players are saying without trying to formulate a response before they’re finished. This forces the players to practice some of the key elements of active listening.

You’ll also want to review some of the basic rules of improv with the team.

Warm up exercises

Keep in mind that in all of these games, there needs to be a coach. Someone directing the team members in what to do. The coach can participate in the warm up exercises, but there are some structures that require a “director” and the coach should fulfill that role.

  1. To get your team engaged, start with an alphabet challenge. There are many names this particular structure goes by, so I’ll leave it up to you to call it what you’d like.

    Instructions
    Have the team stand in a circle.
    Decide who goes first.
    The first person starts by saying a word that starts with the letter “A”, and points at another player.
    The second player must quickly say a word that starts with the letter “B”, and point at another player.
    Repeat this until the team has gone through the entire alphabet.

    This is a simple game, but it primes the brain and gets everyone on the same footing.

  2. A more complex warm up exercise is called “What are you doing?”

    Instructions
    Have the team stand in a line.
    The first player steps forward and begins miming a simple action. (Example: buttering bread.)
    The second player steps forward and observes the first, then asks “What are you doing?”
    The first player responds with something completely different than the action they are miming. (Example: “I’m climbing a mountain.”)
    The second player begins to mime the action the first player said–climbing a mountain in this case.
    The first player steps back to where they were in the line.
    The third player steps forward, looks at what the second player is miming and asks “What are you doing?”
    Repeat the steps above until all of the team members have had a chance to participate.

Intermediate structures/scenes

Once everyone is comfortable with the warm-up exercises, you can move on to some more complex interactions. These involve a handful of participants and the rest of the team act as the audience.

  1. This first scene is called Oracle. It requires three players to act as one entity. It also requires a “handler.” The handler should introduce the all-knowing and powerful Oracle, who can answer any question.

    Instructions
    Have the three players sit one in front of the other at different levels–one on the floor, one on a chair, and one either standing or on a bar-height stool.
    The handler introduces the Oracle and asks if anyone has a question for the all-knowing Oracle. If there is hesitation to ask a question, the handler can suggest a topic.
    (Example: “Today the Oracle will answer all of your questions about bacon. What would you like to know about bacon?”)
    The players answer in order with only one word each. Each player has to build on the word that the player before them said.
    Once that question is answered, the handle asks the audience for another question.

    Example:
    Audience Member: Oracle, why is bacon so good?
    Player 1: Bacon
    Player 2: is
    Player 3: good
    Player 1: because
    Player 2: it
    Player 3: is
    Player 1: bad.

    The players may want to prearrange a signal that their answer is over. Something physical like waving their arms or snapping would work well.

  2. Freeze tag is a structure that requires players to create a scene based on a physical pose. It takes a little more setup than the other scenes and works best when you have no more than six players at a time. Make sure the coach has a whistle for this one.

    Instructions
    The players stand in a line.
    The first two players step forward.
    If there is an “audience,” ask someone to volunteer to position the two players for the initial scene.
    (Positioning rules: The position should be socially acceptable, the position should obey the laws of gravity, and the two players need to be touching. It can be a little touch–like a finger to a finger–or it can be a lot of touch.)
    If there is no audience, the coach should tell the first two players to assume a position they would if they were playing a sport. The coach should pick a specific sport, and the same positioning rules apply.
    When the players are in position, the coach blows the whistle to start the scene.
    The players must build their scene based on the initial position, but should start moving out of that position as soon as possible.
    After about a minute, the coach should blow the whistle when the players are in an interesting position.
    When the whistle is blown, the players freeze.
    The next player in line approaches the frozen players, taps one of them on the back letting them know they can get back in line, and assumes that player’s position.
    The two players then start a completely different and unrelated scene based on the new position.
    Repeat until all of the players have rotated in and out at least twice.

For more improvisational warm-ups, games, and exercises, you can look through the Improv Encyclopedia.

Remember “Yes, and…”

This handful of exercises will get your team started and help break down mental barriers to creativity. The more you do this, the less they will second guess themselves. And remember to emphasize the king of all improv rules, “Yes, and….”

There is no faster way to kill the energy in a scene than when one player says “no” to another. Forward progress is the objective. If a player tells you that you’re making a documentary on unicorns, don’t say “No, we’re not, because unicorns don’t exist.” The response should be an affirmation and a continuation.

The Benefits of Play

I’m grateful that I took a break from improv while I was a new mom. Putting the focus on my family was the right thing for me to do. And the mental impact of quitting improv taught me valuable lesson. Coming back to it has fundamentally changed the importance I place on collaboration, creative play, pretending, and imagination, both at home and at work.
The National Institute for Play cites multiple research efforts which found that pretend play “remains key to innovation and creativity.” They state that play mixed with science begets transformation.
Whether at work, at home, or on the stage, because of my continued experiences with improvisation, I bring that sense of play with me. Not only does it make life more fun, it has also helped foster an early, more mature sense of humor in my children (now elementary school age) where wordplay, puns, and imagination are a part of everyday conversation. It has also put me on a first-name basis with the principal…but in a good way.

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 5

Written by: Sandy Greene

In this ongoing discussion about growing creative teams organically, I’ve shared how to prepare your organization for successful expansion, how to plant the right elements into the mix, how to “water” for sustainable growth, and then how adding fertilizer can take your group’s motivation to the next level.

Tilling and experimenting follow once everything’s been humming along smoothly for a while. Changing things up can breathe fresh air into a culture, as well as offer lessons about what works and what doesn’t.

Experimenting

An example of this is how we’re currently pursuing a significant new product development company based on some particularly clever ideas that members of our team have come up with. Intuitive Company employees will have a chance to participate and take ownership in this opportunity, and everyone’s pumped about the chance to get involved in something a bit different than what we’ve been doing so far. It’s a concrete way to show how much we value our employees’ creativity. They know they’re not submitting “ideas for improvement” into the ether or failing to even voice their opinions because they figure nothing will come of their efforts. We’ve shown them that we’re listening—and acting upon their best ideas.

 

 

Our staff is constantly influenced by outside knowledge and that influence benefits both their career growth and our company’s offering. When more and more of the staff were requesting to attend industry and technology conferences, we looked to combine their drive for learning with our drive for knowledge sharing. As a response, we introduced the Intuitive Company Conference Program. In the program, the staff earns points towards conference attendance when they publish content to the outside world or bring knowledge back from the outside world into the office. This popular program helps build writing and presentation skills while at the same time injecting new inspiration and experience back into the office environment.

We also turned compensation over a bit this past year when we moved from the expected yearly hire-date-anniversary salary raises to performance-based bonuses. We still provide yearly cost-of-living salary increases, but we made a shift from the basic, “get-your-job-done” raises to more dynamic, “be-proud-of-your-performance” bonuses. Bonuses and profit sharing are now performance-based and the staff is clear on their and our expectations. This experiment has helped to enforce the idea that we’re in a competitive business, and the best performers make the most difference!

Lastly, while we still prefer to remain as flat and un-hierarchical as possible, even as we approach 40 employees, we realized that some adjustment was required. We introduced a mentoring system where the more experienced and senior staff are directly responsible for helping bring younger, newer staff on-board and up-to-speed with our methods and procedures. This is really just a small twist on some of our hiring practices discussed earlier in this series–incentives for the staff that finds us new employees.

The biggest piece of advice I have for this step is to simply introduce something new into your environment or work process and see how it goes. It may stick, it may not, but the goal is to learn something about your team and the company’s collective strengths.

I’ll be back soon with Step 6: Observing and Protecting.

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 4

Written by: Sandy Greene

So far in this series I’ve discussed how to prepare your team or organization for successful expansion, how to plant the right elements into the mix, and then how to ensure sustainable growth by “watering.”

Adding fertilizer comes next. Think of this step as finding ways to spark excitement, provide motivational guidance, or even remedy a malady.

 

Fertilizer

An example of fertilizing would be how we publicized annual company goals for the first time ever in 2013. When we had fewer employees, everyone instinctively knew where the company was trying to head and what we were striving to achieve. But with more than 25 people, the future vision of the company isn’t a given. We needed to clarify what we were working toward so that everyone felt ownership of the company’s goals. This year, Greg, Tim, and I came up with the goals and we’ve been holding quarterly company-wide assessments of how we’re performing against them. Next year we intend for everyone to be involved in the goal-creating process.

Another example of fertilizing is how we’ve begun asking certain employees to present their successful project work, brown-bag-style, to the rest of the staff. It might be the end product itself, or the way the work was prepared that we deem thought leading and beneficial for the rest of the company to hear about and learn from. It’s also a way to recognize particularly impressive efforts—to remind hard workers that we’re paying attention.

And finally, a garden sometimes needs fertilizer in order to head off a malady. In our case, we try to come up with ways to avoid roadblocks in our work. One example is how leaders in our design group took it upon themselves to set up biweekly design-review meetings. These sessions are only to solve issues—people stop in if they’re stumped by something or simply want to run ideas by their peers to ensure their work is the best it can be. We all respect and appreciate each other’s opinions and experience, so these meetings give everyone a chance to improve client deliverables by harnessing the power of the whole creative group.

Here are some ways you can “add fertilizer” to give your team an extra boost:

  • Take stock of the ways you could inject something motivational into employees’ weekly, monthly or yearly routines.
  • If you’re already discussing future goals, make sure those goals are tangible and realistic (even though they may be a stretch).
  • Ask yourself this: do employees honestly feel that they can contribute to the overall company’s success? If not, make sure they do.
  • Provide outlets for creative exchange and feedback to make sure no one’s working in a vacuum.

Next up: Tilling and experimenting!

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.

Evolving a Creative Workplace: Step 3

Written by: Sandy Greene

In my last two installments, I shared how Greg, Tim, and I prepared Intuitive Company for success by creating an open work environment and then “planting” the right people into our culture.

Watering is next—and it’s critical. After a team of senior professionals were in place and had formed a strong foundation for Intuitive Company, we had to set them up for success to ensure things kept running smoothly so that our culture and growth wouldn’t wither. One of the most obvious ways we “watered” this team was to give them support in the form of new hires. We brought on younger employees slowly and in lockstep with well-thought-out decisions to take on additional client work.

03_watering_small

When someone officially joins Intuitive Company, they usually don’t feel like a new hire. That’s because we typically engage people on a project basis for at least a few months before bringing them on full-time. What’s more, many of these candidates have been referred by someone within the firm.

We won’t extend an offer to anyone who isn’t a good fit. We look for people who are driven—driven to innovate, learn, deliver and succeed. Being a good listener and communicator is a must as well. I’ll never understand companies that leave all of their hiring decisions to HR, or to a few people who aren’t going to be the ones working day-in and day-out with the applicant in question. That’s just asking for it. I don’t know if there could be a higher return on investment than what can result from investing time in growing your team with the right people.

Another example of watering is how we do everything we can to retain our employees once they’re here. We compensate at the upper end of the industry range, provide performance bonuses, contribute to profit sharing, offer full healthcare for the employee or their family (at the time of hire), frequently host lunches and pick up the tab, and encourage employees to travel comfortably when they have to head out of town to see clients.

But most importantly, we just let people do their work. We’re trusting and flexible. We don’t monitor hours or vacation days. I remember how demeaning it was to have to log two hours of personal time for a child’s doctor’s appointment, or how demoralized I felt when a family vacation should’ve lasted one more vacation day than I had to spare.

Now that we’ve helped build an atmosphere of trust at Intuitive Company, I can assure you that when employees don’t feel like The Man is watching their every move, they really, truly appreciate it, and it shows in their work and in their attitude. And no one has ever abused our system.

We also recognize that some people are social and others prefer to keep to themselves. Some people are natural leaders, while others are doers. So we don’t try to force anyone to be something they’re not, especially because we started with a core of senior people who could do everything: deliver, motivate, innovate, communicate, lead, and produce. We let those qualities influence the people we’ve added (and continue to add) to the staff.

One of the other mistakes we’d seen in our previous jobs was micro-management, so we knew when we started Intuitive Company that we must treat employees like the professionals they are. We vowed not to create organizational hierarchies just for the sake of doing so. We’ve found that if you simply trust people to get their jobs done and are confident that they’ll come to you if they have an issue, they’ll usually go above and beyond. People naturally group together by skill set and function, and leaders and doers will emerge on their own without having to be formally organized as such.

It was actually one of my experiences that led us to our anti-hierarchy stance. I was taking over a team of 60 people at a large corporation, and on my first day I was given this team’s organizational chart and instructed to “revise it so it works.” Management was confident that if they could just get the organizational structure right, all of their problems would be solved. I wasn’t told to observe what was working and what wasn’t or even allowed time get to know everyone. I was just supposed to rearrange boxes and rows and voila! The team’s processes and output would surely be flawless after that. Um . . . nope!

I’ve got a lot of advice for this step since it’s one of the most important parts of the process. Here are my suggestions:

  • Review your company’s hiring practices and see what can be improved.
  • Don’t wait too long before filling positions due to workload demands, and ensure that a candidate will be a good fit, both professionally and culturally. If other team members are already overloaded by the time relief arrives, you’re hiring too late. It’s a balance though, so hire carefully.
  • Observe how new employees assimilate into your culture and their roles and determine if anything can be improved with this process.
  • What’s morale like around the office? How intensely are people managed? You may discover that the two answers are related.
  • How many “layers” on the organization chart are there, and do they really have to be there? Make changes as necessary.
  • Does your team gel together, enjoy each other’s company, and know how to both work and play hard? If not, why not?
  • And most importantly, when people leave, do you know why? If you don’t, start asking the tough questions.

Stay tuned for Step 4: Adding fertilizer!

Illustration by Ruslan Khaydarov.