Creativity doesn’t come naturally to everyone, even though it moves through all of us, whether you’re a motion graphics designer, sales rep, or project manager. We all possess it, but everyone’s relationship to the creative spirit is unique to them. To be honest, it’s probably a good thing that not everyone is chasing every creative impulse that moves through them. Too much free-form creativity can be just as stifling as too much structure and deliberation (even though it’s almost always more fun).
The trick is striking the right balance between structure and creativity by keeping the opposing forces in check and letting them complement—and not override—one another. As a creative leader of a company founded on the promise of furthering creative expression and functionality, every day is a balancing act because each of those opposing forces deserves a seat at the table. And let’s face it, more often than not, the voices advocating order and structure speak the loudest. Here are a few things I’ve learned about ensuring balance and protecting the role of creativity in the organization.
Check your judgment
Don’t get me wrong: Constraints are powerful, if not essential, to the creative process. But judgment has no place in the world of art and creativity. Creativity sometimes requires you to relinquish your power and your natural desire to exert control over someone or something else. It is kind of like a higher power that you have to commit to and make space for. You have to lean into it, follow it, allow time and leeway to manifest it into something. (I realize I’m beginning to sound like I’m running off to an ayahuasca retreat or something, but I swear I’m not.)
The challenge as a leader is to point that kind of creativity at my business. How do I channel that freewheeling energy into something useful and strong?
Beware the order police
The first thing you have to do to nurture creativity is defend it against the order police. We all know the order police. They’re always lurking around, feeling insecure and threatened by the creative chaos swirling about. They’re just itching to shut it down and impose some structure on it. They hate that creativity is flowing so wildly and unpredictably. Where’s it going? How long will it last? Why is it making so much noise? They just can’t wait for a chance to rein creativity in, and stomp it out.
But creativity is useful and precious. As a leader, you need to protect it.
Approach every problem with a child’s sense of possibility
Children are some of the most creative human beings on the planet precisely because of their lack of self-consciousness. They don’t care what’s expected of them or if their ideas will be judged harshly. There’s no playbook or expectation to which they’re obliged to conform. They’re free to express themselves. The creative spirit is a gift that only humans are born with, and yet society does its best to crush it. Our education system crushes it, our organizations crush it, the ways in which we reward success often crushes it. Everywhere you look it has been stymied, stifled, and generally undervalued.
Allow for some constraints
Yet, pure, unfiltered, always-on creativity can be just as stifling as order. If you want to live in a functional, somewhat orderly society, you need some constraints—and yes, you need the order police because they get things done. The order police have read the standard playbook and are not afraid to quote from it, chapter and verse. The order police know the deadlines and the details and the numbers. And so, the order police often have an outsized impact on decision-making and outcomes.
Meanwhile, the chaotic creatives have decided to write a whole new playbook, only they’ve written it in a language that no one else can actually understand.
Marrying that flow of creative chaos with some useful semblance of order is one of the most crucial parts of any leader’s job. Allowing chaotic creatives to be expressive while respecting the practical limitations, and allowing the order police to set standards and processes needed to get things done without overwhelming the creatives, is a constant challenge. Maintaining that balance can be exhausting but very fruitful. Do it well enough, and you can build an incredibly impactful business that applies innovation and freethinking to products and solutions while still meeting its goals and hitting its numbers.
Let inspiration flow before you contain it
A couple of years ago, a number of Ceros folks and I were exploring the need for better commenting and collaboration tools in our platform. Rather than immediately turning toward how we could monetize or market the new feature we would build, we simply focused on the why, the authentic need we sensed in the market.
Doing so gave us the space to explore the possibilities. Deadlines were not discussed, and practical limitations were pushed aside. The order police were not happy. “Wednesday!” they said. “We need the feature by Wednesday!” But we resisted the constraints and let the idea grow. We gave it time and space and a chance to realize its full potential. MarkUp is now a business in its own right. If we had rushed, it might have just been a feature locked away inside the core business.
The big takeaway? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure of the takeaway. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe this is an example of a moment when clarity isn’t required, in which no marching orders are needed. Instead, perhaps you take away from this what you will, and let it unlock in you whatever it happens to unlock. Don’t judge it, don’t overthink it. Just go forth and create.
Simon Berg is the founder and CEO of Ceros, an interactive SaaS design platform.