It's virtually an article of faith that creativity is essential in business. But what's often missed—even amid the chatter around startups' edge in innovation—is how small companies can often gain a creative lead, too. To be sure, innovative thinking demands creative thinking, but it's a mistake to conflate the two, which often underestimates small companies' strategic advantages.
Especially in their early days, most startups and smaller companies aren't able to compete with their biggest competitors on price. Few have anywhere close to the budget to go after things like TV ads and celebrity endorsements. So they turn to other methods to get the word out—often effectively.
Not to boast, but I should know. My company, Nextiva, is one of the fastest-growing telecom companies in an industry dominated by some huge competitors. To compensate for our size, we've relied on creative tactics to get an edge and power our growth. As vice president of marketing, several of those initiatives fall under my domain. Here are two things I've learned in the process about how small companies can spark creative thinking in ways big corporations often can't.
Big companies are often divided up into silos. Sales teams communicate primarily within the sales department. Every conversation is about sales, and employees are on a sales-specific floor or wedged into the "sales" corner of the office. Same goes for marketing, procurement, design, etc.
Needless to say, this isn’t the case in many small businesses. Employees across many disciplines share the same space with one another and—even by accident—overhear which challenges their colleagues are facing and which opportunities they're chasing.
This is all pretty intuitive. What's less obvious to startup leaders and small business owners is how to channel these facts of life into into real results. Don't just be a melting pot as a function of your scale—encourage it. Hold meetings in which members from a variety of departments are in attendance, and assign each person the task of coming up with three ideas for a team other than their own.
No, they aren't the experts—and that's the point. This unorthodox exercise can go a few ways: Employees may experience mental blocks (a few certainly will), or they may open up to ideas they’d never before thought of. Even halfway-there concepts, thrown in from outside, can be a great jumping-off point for the main team to pick up and run with, using their own expertise to refine it.
I’m banking on the latter happening. In addition to creativity flowing in these meetings, you may find your employees get more invested in areas of the company besides their own. Try this a few times each year and see what happens. We do this often, and it's always surprising to watch what comes out of it.
Cross-functional thinking doesn’t need to be limited to periodic meetings. Ask your employees to think about the needs of other departments on a daily basis.
In order to do this without forcing it, you need a culture where team members feel the freedom to express ideas (both good and bad)—where they can easily get their managers' attention to discuss an idea or concern, and where failures aren’t punished but thought of as opportunities for learning.
Having open dialogue helps people feel safe thinking outside of their job functions. That's structurally much harder at bigger corporations, and it's one area where small companies can gain an edge.
But for all the attention "startup culture" tends to get, this type of experience isn't always easy to create and sustain, no matter your company's size, history, or existing vibe. It can take practice to get right. For us, it was years before we perfected what I now think is a pretty inspiring and collaborative company culture.
After all, you may have other concerns that seem more pressing. Maybe your company is growing fast and strapped for talent, where everyone is spread a little thin. Just take it one step at a time—but don't let your creative resources lie fallow or lapse.
Talk to your employees about how you can help them be more creative. Maybe they need flexible hours or would benefit from a company retreat. Listen to your team members without judgment, and question the reasons why the structure you have in place is there. You may find productive ways to loosen up and let new ideas flow. But you need to have these conversations first. After all, creativity is worthless if no one's communicating it.
Yaniv Masjedi is vice president of marketing at Nextiva, a leading provider of cloud-based unified communication solutions, headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona. He is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs.