Ari on Business, ZingLife

Creating Creativity pt. 1

This is an excerpt from Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 3: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Managing Ourselves. Available now at Zingerman’s businesses or through the Zingerman’s Press website!

ari_journaling_scratchboardCreativity is a nearly universally sought-after attribute. I really can’t think of anyone I’ve ever met that didn’t want to have more of it. The funny thing is that unlike baking a cake or building a cathedral, you can’t really design and create creativity—it kind of just happens. What you can do, though, is actively build an environment in which creativity, encouraged rather than encumbered, is much more likely to occur.

The interesting thing, though, is that until I started work on this essay, I really couldn’t have explained to you what it was we were doing to make that happen. But having given it much more thought of late, it’s clear to me that we were all, by training standards, unconsciously competent: good at being creative but clueless about what we were doing that was making it happen.

One caveat before we begin. Although everyone is interested in the idea of being in a creative setting and living a creative life, I’m not sure that all of us are ready to do what it takes to really increase the odds of it happening: sharing information widely; releasing control; encouraging the crazy, can’t-quite-figure-out-what-to-do-with-them kind of ideas that challenge the status quo and our existing realities. The essay that follows, then, is my only recently realized take on how we, and other creative companies and individuals I know, have cultivated our minds and our methods to make creativity an everyday, even ordinary, occurrence.

Calling for Creativity

Let me take you back a few years, to the dark days of the economic morass of 2009-10. After fifteen years of doing ZingTrain work and speaking all over the country, we suddenly started getting a whole mess of requests for me to present on a subject I’d never ever spoken on. You guessed it—the calls were all about creativity. Each was some version of, “With the economy tanking like this we really need to crank up our creativity! You guys are so great at it. We want you to come speak and share your secrets.” Or, “We want you to help our people learn how to build an innovative organization the way you guys have!” I was honored, but at the same time caught off guard. The problem was that we’d never done a day—or an hour, or even ten minutes—of training, teaching, or writing specifically focused on the subject of creativity.

Over the years we’d developed effective organizational “recipes” for service, quality, and complaint handling. I’d presented extensively—both within our own organization and around the country—on visioning, customer service, servant leader- ship, Open Book finance, training techniques, marketing, and management. But we had nothing—not even an idea of an outline—on innovation. How, I wondered to myself, could we have been so out of it that we’d completely missed such an important concept? Stumped, then, I decided I’d spend some time talking to the clients from whom we’d gotten the inquiries to find out more about what they wanted.

The good news was that they were quite enthused about the idea of me coming to talk. One said, “Just tell ‘em what you do!” Others asked more specific questions. One guy who runs an innovation department at a big company wondered, “Who at Zingerman’s is responsible for innovation?” Heck. I had no idea.

Who was responsible for our creativity? It’s as if he’d asked me who was responsible for breathing. I stuttered and stumbled a bit before muttering, “Everyone, I guess.” (It turns out that was totally the right answer, but at the time, I was very unsure of what I was saying.) “Do you give people dedicated time for innovation?” another woman wanted to know. That really left me feeling foolish—we didn’t set aside any time at all. I’d never realized we should. “But don’t you teach classes on it?” still another person asked. “Well, no,” was my honest answer. “We’ve never taught one at all.”

I was starting to feel like an innovation impostor. Clearly, our clients were convinced that we were really creative, and that we had the kind of caring-capitalist-cool they were looking for. And yet, here I was, basically coming up empty when it came to talking about it. We had no constructs designed for creativity, no corporate program for it, no classes to teach it. Somehow, though, we’d made it happen anyways.

Read Part 2 of this essay.