Can Marble Jars Make Your Company More Creative?

Creativity from a jar

In her book Daring Greatly, researcher Dr. Brené Brown tells the story of when her daughter Ellen shared a funny but embarrassing secret with a friend. Later, she was humiliated and hurt when other girls in her class started giving her a hard time about her “secret.” Her friend had betrayed her confidence, but afterward her mother’s advice gave her a great framework for friendship and trust. Interestingly, this same framework can be used by organizations to create an environment where creativity flourishes. We’ll come back to this story, but first it will help to take a quick look at how different companies address creativity in the workplace.

Lots of companies simply give lip service to the importance of creativity in their organization. Others do more than that and show they value creativity by incorporating it into their business model. This range of integration can be broken into three categories.

  1. Creative Adoption

    At this level, companies embrace creativity as part of their culture and they empower all their employees to tap into their creative capabilities. Their corporate values place importance on creativity as a means to achieve goals, as a critical skill to look for in job candidates and to develop in employees. Workflows and budgets reflect how leaders respect the creative process and its ability to generate value.

  2. Creative Quarantine

    These organizations believe creativity belongs in isolated departments and roles in their company. Only departments like marketing and design are encouraged to be innovative and bring fresh ideas to the table. The core business model focuses on efficiencies and increased productivity.

  3. Creative Denial

    Here leaders believe creativity is for other companies. There is a focus on the analytical and quantitative aspects of business. Formulas are repeated and new ideas only come when competitors have proven them valid, which makes the company a perpetual laggard in the industry. “This is the way we’ve always done it” is this group’s mantra, even in marketing and design functions.

Today’s continuously evolving business climate puts even greater emphasis on the importance of creativity and innovation. As the rate of change (technology advancement, industry disruptions, new workforce generations, etc.) continues to accelerate, companies in creative denial can find themselves two or three iterations behind the industry leader. Not only are “Deniers” not considering ideas until after they mature, they end up adopting these concepts as they are declining in their usefulness.

You still may not believe creativity has huge value in businesses today. I don’t expect you to take my word for it, but you may want to listen to two industry leaders.

Recently, Microsoft and Steelcase, the global leader in commercial furniture, announced their partnership in creating spaces that help unlock the creative potential in people at work. Like the creativity adopters above, these two industry giants claim creativity is the value driver for businesses today. The business world has been infatuated with productivity and efficiencies for awhile, but Steelcase and Microsoft claim the low hanging fruit here has been picked. Now, the opportunities lie in improving your company’s creativity quotient.

Steelcase is working with other well-known companies like Ford, Xerox and Adecco to help them create workplaces that foster innovation. Many of these companies are in industries that have been disrupted by technology advances and new ideas. A few quotes from a recent Steelcase article highlight that these leaders understand how critical it is to create an environment where change can occur.

“We must change,” says [Jim Farley, CEO and chairman of Ford Europe]. “We can either keep on doing what we’ve done up until now and get the same results, or go in another direction and become a vibrant organization.”

If this is true, then what keeps companies from living out their creative potential? A major factor is a lack of trust.

A researcher quoted in the Steelcase article emphasizes how important it is for leaders to address this.

“A leader must create a trusting and safe environment so people can express themselves, feel happy to try new things and dare to fail,”
Dr. Iñaki Lozano Ehlers, founder and managing director of BICG.

Returning to Brené Brown, she says “vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation and change.”  When asked how you can be vulnerable with someone you don’t trust, she responded, “You can’t.” Research shows why this is a big problem for companies.

In a previous article, I referred to the Edelman Trust Barometer, which shows the level of trust employees have in their leadership is lower than ever. This is an issue for many reasons, but it indicates most companies have a hurdle to overcome in order to promote a creative culture. Without trust, people will not risk being vulnerable and that creates a sterile environment incapable of fostering creativity, innovation and change.

Brené Brown isn’t the only one who sees the link between trust and creativity or innovation.

“When people trust and share their successes and failures, what they know and what they don’t know, the result is innovation. It’s just natural.”

-Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last

In this ‪ article, leadership expert Patrick Lencioni makes a strong case for the critical importance of trust. Discussing innovation he says…

“It’s about inspiring trust among your people, provoking productive conflict, and driving them to commit. There are plenty of great ideas inside your company; your job is to create the conditions that allow the best ones to be genuinely voiced, collaboratively developed, and purposefully launched into the market.”

Let’s go back to the story of Brené Brown’s daughter feeling betrayed by her friend. Brené remembered her daughter’s teacher used a marble jar in class. When the students were behaving, the teacher would put a marble in the jar. When they acted up, she would take one out.

“I took a deep breath and I said, ‘Ellen, trust is like a marble jar… You share those hard stories and those hard things that are happening to you with friends who, over time, you’ve filled up their marble jar,’” Brown says.

In other words, like receiving a celebration from Ellen’s classroom marble jar, trust is a reward that must be earned.

If you take this example one step further, you can see how to apply it in the workplace. The key is to encourage and reward acts of trust in your company. What are some ways you can create a “marble jar” culture?

Encourage Risk-Taking

We’re not talking about ropes courses and trust falls here. It’s more about celebrating courageous acts of vulnerability taken by employees. When someone bravely shares ideas that open them up to criticism, acknowledge them and hold them up as an example to others. Show how these ideas are being considered and give updates if they are implemented. If a decision is made to not implement the idea, share the logic behind that decision and acknowledge if it inspires new ideas. As the “marble jar” fills with examples of creativity, look for opportunities to celebrate with a social gathering (the workplace equivalent of a class party) or other rewards.

Work on Your Response to Ideas

As important as it is to encourage individuals to share ideas, it is just as important to create a culture that responds effectively to those ideas. This can be done through sharing company principles or axioms that characterize an idea-friendly culture. Meeting protocols can include guidelines for effective brainstorming or ways to ask probing questions instead of shooting down ideas immediately. Workshops can be held to facilitate idea sharing, encouraging participants to think of ideas from other industries and connect them to current challenges your company is facing.

There are a variety of other ways to encourage creativity in your organization. By being intentional to develop your company’s creative capacity, you may soon realize your culture moving from treating creativity with denial and quarantine to adopting creativity and innovation into how you do business. One day you may look around and realize the marble jars are constantly full.

Does your company deny, quarantine or adopt creativity? Do you notice any “marble jars” in your workplace? Do you have ideas for creating them and applying them to your culture going forward?

Dustin Staiger is a business and marketing coach in Houston, TX. He addresses team and individual effectiveness, marketing, communications and creativity for smaller, entrepreneurial organizations as well as large enterprises.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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