A long time ago, in the bowels of a corporate finance department far, far away, I worked as an analyst for a large wholesale telecom business called Level 3 Communications. In the fledgling years of this ambitious multi-billion-dollar startup, very little held constant for long. Financial processes, systems, even personnel were constantly shifting as we worked to create infrastructure for our little corner of this vast, new state-of-the-art communications network.
This was no time to be thinking inside the box, young Jedi.
Yet there was one stubborn coworker on our team who constantly did just that. Once a process was established and he could plan on it working a certain way, on a certain schedule, time after time, that was it for him. Go on to the next thing because this function is staying put. Don’t move his cheese.
I strove to do the opposite. I was always trying to find ways to create efficiencies; do more with less; make the software do the work. There is usually a better way, after all. Upon suggesting any options for improvement to my open-minded colleague, he would simply look at me and say, "It can’t be done."
This is an example of an un-creative-minded person, and you’ll do best to avoid hiring them in your company, regardless of their skill set. Peter Schutz, former CEO of Porsche, said it all in his iconic mantra: "Hire character. Train skill." I maintain that the open-mindedness of a creative personality is a character trait you should seek out for every position you hire.
Creative personalities are imaginative. They can "see" how a solution might "look" in their mind's eye before it has even been put to paper. Creative people are also innovators. Breaking with norms or conventions whenever possible, they are open to explore and try what hasn’t been tried before. If these are not requirements for the people in your company, you might want to take another look at who’s working for you, or with you.
I’m not just talking about the people on your graphics team or the video producer you hired. Creative-minded individuals can be found in all disciplines, from the accounts payable analyst to the IT administrator. It’s equally important that these traditionally "non-creative" positions are considered areas for creativity. These people, after all, are in charge of building and maintaining the system infrastructure of the business.
Proclaimed über-guru Tom Peters wrote about the idea of beautiful systems in a book titled Design from his Essentials Series. In it, he wondered why an invoice or a sick-leave policy can’t be created as a work of art. "Shouldn’t all company documents really, be simple, clear, graceful and beautiful?" Those documents are, in a larger sense, a means of communication both inside and outside the company. Certainly you want them to be elegant and engaging.
My telecom coworker was a highly skilled financial analyst and a generally nice guy. On paper, he was the perfect fit for the job. But his proclivity towards pedestrian thinking was a drag on the need to keep up with the constantly changing environment. In today’s technologically advancing world, it’s critical to have open, creatively minded people at all levels.
Here are three rules to keep in mind when trying to attract and retain creative-minded workers.
- Have an organizational chart that is as flat as possible. Make sure everyone is aware they have access to the open door of the boss. They need to understand their good ideas can be heard without getting lost in translation.
- Allow for everyone’s input into the processes that rule their job. If they are not helping to design the "how" of the work they do every day, they will not be able to best demonstrate and exercise their creative thinking skills.
- Provide a clear path to advancement. Ensure that your team knows their open-minded ideas will be rewarded with the opportunity to move up and take on new, exciting challenges.
Even if a position seems to be just a cog in the proverbial machine, then the person in that position should be a beautifully efficient, highly adaptable, original thinking cog. Anything else is a path to the Dark Side.
—Bret Morstad is the COO of Perky Jerky, a Denver, CO. based consumer snack food startup. In 2011, Perky Jerky was #93 on the Forbes list of most promising companies.
[Image: Flickr user Lokate366]