Building a Creative Company: Why Every Role Requires Creativity

"Scarf-related expenses are up 300% this year? Looks good."

"Scarf-related expenses are up 300% this year? Looks good."

Creativity is an elusive thing, especially in business.

If you don’t work in marketing, you may not even realize that “creative” can be a noun -- as in, “We’re going to let the creatives figure out how to position the product.”

I don’t like referring to a single group as the “creatives” for a few reasons:

  • Much of the “creative” output in business is derivative garbage anyway
  • It implies that a few people have a monopoly on that trait
  • It sends a message that creativity isn’t important throughout the entire business

Solving problems in non-obvious ways that lead to better outcomes requires creativity. Creativity helps in every role, whether the business acknowledges it or not.

What’s weird is that I think most people agree with this point subconsciously. Executives often worship at the altar of innovation; innovation being creativity applied to problem solving. Yet when they write job descriptions for HR managers, or financial analysts, or consultants, or whomever, they tend to prioritize domain knowledge and years of experience.

Expertise obviously matters, but so does creativity. I’d put creativity at the top of the list of the job description for every position, not just the designers.

Companies Need Creativity Everywhere

When I interview people for product management positions, the first trait I look for is analytical creativity. It's the ability to look at evidence – whether it’s hard data, focus group feedback, a busy supermarket or whatever it happens to be – and see novel implications about what the evidence means. That particular strain of creativity is the raw material for innovation. It’s what allows people to design something that solves the problem people didn’t know they had when designing products. But the point is that people who have the creativity gene can be game changers in any part of the business:

Tell me that SAS’s team didn’t exhibit creativity in developing its famed HR practices that have made the Cary, NC company one of the best places on Earth to work.

Or that Uber’s management team wasn’t creative (besides being clever) in using a school bus strike to generate goodwill in a city that had given its business plenty of legal challenges.

Or that Porsche’s wild 2008 attempt to take over Volkswagen, which sold over 50 times as many cars each year as Porsche wasn’t an incredibly creative strategy. (But for the financial crisis, it would have worked too.)

I could go on, but you get the picture. Aside from accounting (let’s color between the lines for the company’s books, thank you) you generally can’t get enough creativity in any business. Companies that have creative people in positions of power everywhere have the wherewithal to do cool new things and do them well.

Hiring for Creativity: The Coffee Shop Test 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer any ideas for how to bring more creativity into your organization. And for that, I give you the coffee shop test. I prefer it to more well-known creativity tests like asking the interviewee how many uses they can think of for a brick, paperclip, etc. What I like about the coffee-shop test is its universality; it works equally well whether you’re hiring someone in HR or data science.

Here’s how it goes: have the candidate walk with you to get coffee someplace nearby, ideally a place that gets decent traffic, and tell them to bring a notebook. You can get the chit chat and intros out of the way on the walk there (physical motion tends to get people talking). Once you've sat down with your beverages, inform the interviewee that this is an exercise you like to do with potential hires. Then simply ask them how they would change the store experience to make that location more successful based on what they can observe.

You can adapt the definition of “successful” to suit the interviewee’s role, but all roads should still lead back to a business outcome. You'll be surprised by the different directions people take. They might look ways to move the line faster, optimize the product assortment, change the layout, spot improvements in how the staff interact with customers-- there are endless possibilities. They might even start asking other patrons in the coffee shop for feedback to validate an idea (bonus points for product managers who seek feedback!).

Evaluate their performance based on the following:

  1. How perceptive were their observations?
  2. Could they identify problems and solutions in a structured way, or did they just throw out ideas at random?
  3. How inventive were their ideas?
  4. Did you enjoy working through the exercise with them?
  5. Did they enjoy the exercise or seem to find it exhausting?

Innovative businesses make a point of hiring creative people. I’ve only met one CEO who said that creativity was a requirement for every position in the company. And while there are many, many companies who thrive on the efforts of the creative people they employ, imagine the possibilities if we all made a point of hiring for creativity and recognizing its impact throughout the business.