Yevgenia Nayberg

We live in a creative age. Today’s companies compete for novel ways to tap into their employees’ collective creativity—hence the proliferation of office foosball tables and freewheeling brainstorming sessions.

As CEO of The Martin Agency—the advertising firm that introduced the world to the GEICO Gecko and asked, on behalf of UPS, “What can brown do for you?”—Matt Williams has developed a creative organizational culture focused on collaboration, agility, and courage.

“Culture is the new competitive advantage,” Williams says, “and organizational culture is a force multiplier for creativity—it magnifies the creativity of the individual by the power of collaboration and results in more competitively advantageous ideas. Those ideas will be the driving force of growth and progress.”

Williams has learned to keep nine rules in mind to foster a creative company culture.

To instill—and perpetuate—creative organizational cultures, Williams recommends first that companies create a safe environment, which may not be as easy as it sounds. “Creative people wake up terrified every day,” Williams says, “that today’s the day they won’t have any good ideas, that nobody will like their work, that someone will come up with a more elegant solution.” Acknowledging how hard creative people already are on themselves, managers should be aware that heaping on the pressure is a great way to stress out staff, but a bad way to unleash creativity.

At the same time, leaders should avoid trying to achieve consensus. If a camel is a horse built by committee, then incorporating everyone’s input into, say, a product idea, can lead to fewer thoroughbreds coming out of your stable. Williams suggests companies manage their creative process with collaboration in mind, but with a manager responsible for gatekeeping ideas. “Collaboration is like fire,” Williams says. “Used correctly, it is incredibly powerful, but if you misuse it, it’ll burn your house down.”

Once a staff feels supported and safe, Williams recommends the company celebrate the work, not just the wins. Rewarding your people when they do good work, even if that work does not land the next big project or contract, “sends a powerful message to your people that you’re on their side no matter the outcome.”

“Organizational culture is a force multiplier for creativity.”

Next, a company should define behaviors it sees as central to its mission. “Those behaviors are a helpful filter for you and your people to use in evaluating your day-to-day work,” Williams says. Defining and sticking to behaviors is where it is important to be good to your employees and tough on their work. Challenging the merits of ideas, rather than the motives of the people who bring those ideas, creates room for debate and a rigorous focus on one common goal: the best possible idea.

Once a company has fostered a creative business culture, there are steps it can take to make sure the day-to-day pull of profits and projects does not cause the company to drift away from its goals. “The best way to ensure the company stays idea-focused is to hire idea-focused people,” Williams says, “because creative cultures aren’t dictated by management. They’re a product of everyday behavior by everyone in the company. Hire people who love ideas, reward them and be fair but fast in rooting out misfits, and the creative culture will flourish.”

Hiring the right people will go a long way toward keeping the company creative. But avoid hiring a lot of people who are “similarly creative.” The peril this “creative redundancy,” as Williams calls it, is a uniform culture where challenging points of view are simply not present in the room. “The uniformity of the culture can be so strong that everyone you hire sees the world and solves problems the same way,” Williams says. “But friction is grist for the creative mill. Creative people need an environment that encourages debate and surrounds them with others who challenge assumptions and can add to their ideas.”

Once you have your dream team in place, encouraging those creative souls to speak out will empower them and help steer the company. “There’s nothing more frustrating to a creative person than working in an environment where they’re not able to bring great ideas to life,” Williams says. “If they’re not reaching their creative potential, you’ll hear it from them. It’s your job as a leader to listen for it.”

In this creative environment, the best leaders will cede control and allow their people room to maneuver. Creative people need trial and error in order to learn. But for many leaders, getting comfortable with not knowing—changing one’s mindset from perfection to experimentation—is a challenge. “The world moves faster than our corporate ability to plan,” Williams says. “So by the time we’ve perfected our plan, it’s already out of date. The only way to know if something will work is to try it. Think fast, learn quickly, adapt, and repeat.”

The final task for leaders, then, is to convey the company’s priorities across the organization. For Williams, this means defining the core and the periphery of the organization.

“The core contains the one or two things that define your company, regardless of the changing environment,” Williams says. At The Martin Agency the only two things in our core are the quality of our ideas and the way we treat each other.”

Everything else, from products to processes to structures to communications models, is peripheral. These should be constantly in flux and open to negotiation. “When your people can distinguish the core from the periphery, they’ll protect your core with all their hearts and be open to changing everything in the periphery,” Williams says. “That’s a great place for a company to be.”