Before starting Meahana, I spent thirteen years building and deploying simulations with the goal of helping clients become better businesspeople and sales leaders. I’ve modeled various situations with clients and their executive teams many times.
The basic question always comes down to this: How do customers and employees feel about the value of creativity?
The weighting of this answer is determined by the company (market leader, niche player, or new entrant) as well as the market growth rate of the segment (mature slow growth, medium, or hyper-growth).
Not surprisingly, new entrants put a premium on creativity!
Why? Because customers demand creativity, and it helps fuel a company's early growth. As companies and market segments mature, the “value of creativity” erodes as the focus shifts to building processes and increasing scale.
You Can Innovate in a Variety of Ways
Even if you’re not innovating on the product or customer side, you can still function as a Business Artist when it comes to being more efficient or helping employees stay engaged.
For example, what if you could invent a new way for people to share information or create knowledge communities in a way that doesn’t feel corporate but instead feels authentic and helps people build new relationships?
Or what if you could develop an innovative way to test and iterate new product ideas that involve not just the product team itself but also individuals from across the business? You would get a much more diverse range of ideas and opinions, therefore increasing the chance you would spot design flaws earlier in the process.
This all sounds great, and of course, everyone wants to have better products earlier in the design process. That helps everyone. But how do you actually build a bridge between creativity and conformity?
The answer might seem like it’s taking you in the opposite direction of creativity, but it works well.
Taking a Scientific Approach
There is an artistic way to do a task, which at first is focused on finding new approaches, seeking out divergent thinking, and keeping the brain in exploration mode. This goes on until the artist sees a pathway forward, or they discover a certain routine that can become a process.
At that point, no more iteration is required. The brain sits back and says, “For now, this is the new way of doing this task, this workflow, this type of customer slide deck.” And the brain is able to then focus on new creative tasks. The ones completed for now are put into a standardization framework and often distributed to others so they can also conform.
This happens all the time in new businesses and organizations. At first, there aren’t many official policies. There is usually no employee handbook, no complicated HR department, and rules and regulations are kept to a minimum. But as time goes on, the team grows, and you encounter various situations that set precedents; the list of standardized practices keeps growing and growing.
Over time, you find as an artist that it’s hard to be creative in your work because everything involves levels of red tape that crush your enthusiasm and make you wonder if it’s worth the effort in the first place.
How to Balance Creativity and Conformity
So, how can you move forward? I propose that the balance between creativity and conformity must exist with the following framework:
- The question to ask is: “Is this a task that would benefit from a Business Artist approach?”
- If yes, would this task need a new approach regularly or infrequently?
- If regularly, this is not a good task for developing conformity.
- If infrequently, a conformist approach may work for a while.
- If no, a conformist approach should work for a while.
Here’s one small example: introducing yourself at the start of a sales meeting. Is this a task that would benefit from a Business Artist approach? Yes, of course. This is a task that needs a new approach regularly. Therefore, this is not a good task for conformity to be developed.
Here’s why: The Business Artist seller would never use a pre-canned introduction script that required them or anyone in their company to conform to. Instead, they would sculpt a new talk based on the people in the meeting and the vibe, making sure to connect with everyone and create a memorable experience.
Before we come down to the idea of conformity too hard, though, it’s important to understand that conformity is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s a vital part of any group or organization that is going to get anything done over the long term.
The opposite of conformity is anarchy. A collection of people all doing their own thing and rebelling against any sense of control is obviously unhealthy. Unless you want daily riots and protests on your hands!
A 2012 study from Harvard Business Review showed that conformity is a key component of a creative culture.
You need creative types (aka Business Artists) on your team, but you need other cognitive types—namely, conformists.
They wrote, “We studied forty-one radical innovation teams. The groups had varying proportions of three types of people—extremely creative, detail-oriented, and highly conformist—along with more general thinkers, typically the largest component. Our most surprising finding: Conformists, though they may be useless at generating breakthrough ideas, dramatically increase a team’s radical innovations.”[i]
The bottom line is that creativity and conformity are not at odds—they are bedfellows in the pursuit of innovation. You need a good balance of both approaches.