Within the startup realm, there is a big difference between having an innovative product versus an innovative business. Some startups have a new technology, but stick to a tried-and-true business model. Others take an existing product, and give it new life with a creative business model. The most competitive startups do both, all the time and every time.
In today’s competitive world, with its accelerating rate of change, no competitive advantage lasts long. According to Josh Linkner, in his book “Disciplined Dreaming,” we have entered the Age of Creativity, in which each incremental gain is zeroed out as global competitors quickly copy and adapt. The only sustainable competitive advantage is creativity.
He makes the case, and I agree, that creativity in a company, large or small, doesn’t just happen – it requires a culture. If you want to build and maintain a creative culture in your organization, you need to make sure your operation is guided by these seven critical rules:
1. Fuel passion. Every great invention, every medical breakthrough, every advance of humankind began with passion: a passion for change and for making a difference. With a team full of passion, you can accomplish just about anything. To promote passion, you need to develop a sense of purpose, promote collaboration, and have fun.
2. Celebrate ideas. Many businesses give lip service to their celebration of innovation, but punish, rather than reward, risk-taking and creativity. In a creative culture, rewards come in many forms: money, yes, but great businesses also celebrate creativity through praise (both public and private), career opportunities, and perks.
3. Foster autonomy. People and teams that can call their own shots are better able to produce valuable creative output, since requiring approval at every step kills the creative process. Granting of autonomy first requires extending trust. The key is to provide a clear message of what you are looking for, and then get out of the way.
4. Encourage courage. Netflix, which is known for its creative culture, tells employees to “Say what you think, even if it is controversial. Make tough decisions without excessive agonizing. Take smart risks. Question actions inconsistent with our values.” Encourage team members to take creative risks without fear.
5. Fail forward. Rather than characterizing something that doesn’t work immediately as a “failure,” position it as an experiment. These experiments can be called “failing forward,” because each one leads you one step closer to the perfect solution. The key is to fail quickly. Flush out ideas and let go of the ones that fail.
6. Think small. When you want to foster big ideas, it’s important to have a strong sense of urgency, be nimble, and not afraid to embrace change. It’s easier to accomplish this in a small team, in a small local environment, before you try to extend it a much larger infrastructure. You will see results sooner, and be more able to overcome opposition.
7. Maximize diversity. A diversity of thought and perspective fuels creativity and builds creative cultures. To connect with customers, for example, you need to understand the world from their perspective, not yours – this is one area where a diverse culture can make a huge difference.
Fostering creativity doesn’t mean that you don’t need a business plan, or must forgo all discipline in running your business. A successful business is still all about execution, so you still need clear milestones, checkpoints, and metrics to keep you on track.
Creativity is the ultimate competitive advantage. Not just one innovation, but a culture that assures that you are never standing still on the technology or the business model. Make it the priority we are all looking for. No investor wants to bet on a “one-trick pony.”
CEO & Founder of Startup Professionals, Inc.; Advisory Board Member for multiple startups; ATIF Angels Selection Committee; Entrepreneur in Residence at ASU and Thunderbird School of Global Management.