Planning to Be Creative? Start Violating Conventions

“Become a master of the rules, then violate them with abandon”
Pablo Picasso

In May this year, Fast Company published their 50 Best Workplaces for Innovators list for 2023, which sought to recognise companies that encourage bold ideas and experimentation. Amongst the list were some expected names, such as Amazon and Mozilla, alongside some surprising inclusions, such as an Australian digital marketing firm. Nonetheless, all of the companies featured have certainly earned their place on the list.

The reason why these businesses are so successful is because they embody the values associated with a pioneering work environment. They are constantly striving to explore new opportunities, embracing any failures as learning experiences, and encouraging collaboration between different departments to cultivate innovative ideas.

Companies included in Fast Company’s list have a shared trait: they demonstrate a disregard for traditional business practices that are typically necessary for success. This mindset is exemplified by the famous quote from Pablo Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you may violate them like an artist”. This quote accurately summarises the innovative and creative approach adopted by the organisations featured in the list.

In today’s rapidly changing technological environment, innovators must be able to rapidly adapt to new situations and modify their approach as necessary. However, when maximum operational efficiency requires standardised processes and structured approaches, can we still create innovative solutions? Is it possible to reconcile these two seemingly conflicting objectives?

It may seem that way, but as the top 50 firms on that list demonstrate, it is feasible to mix the two strategies for optimal results.

In this new digital age, we need new guidelines.

Businesses in all industries, regardless of size, are struggling to keep up with the rapid changes brought about by the digital age. Startups often thrive in this type of environment, as they are not limited by the constraints of their company’s past and can therefore be more nimble and innovative. They are often thought of as the disruptors, as they are able to quickly and easily enter the market and establish any identity they desire.

It is evident that the development of technology has caused a variety of challenges for established organisations, highlighting the need for them to adopt a new approach. Unfortunately, larger businesses that are attempting to transition to digital platforms have not responded quickly enough to the obstacles that they are faced with due to this technology-driven progress.

Businesses face a clear challenge in order to benefit from digital technologies: they must adopt a digital mindset, but doing so in an organised and strategic fashion is essential for the project to be successful. The question then arises, how can they adapt to the digital age while still honouring their commitments and responsibilities? In other words, how can companies stay true to their values and regulations if embracing change and innovating requires them to go against their own rules?

It is possible to create a sustainable business model in which employees can be innovative and grow, while also allowing the company to prosper. To achieve this, corporate leaders must embrace a new way of functioning within the organisation, where values and procedures are established from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. This means that they must be willing to challenge the very same protocols that enabled their success.

Leave to fail

Jeanne Ross, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Centre for Information Systems Research, has published a thought-provoking piece on the topic of businesses embracing digital transformation. In it, she outlines a series of steps for those looking to get started in this area:

  1. Distinguish Transformation via digitalization of analogue processes initiated by digital means.
  2. Give freedom for digital company executives to develop their own KPIs and guidelines.
  3. Identify as well as the development of future authoritative figures.

Implementing a culture of innovation in the workplace can be a challenging undertaking, but it is essential to begin with the basics. Companies need to be able to distinguish between the technology that is driving the current landscape (such as data science and artificial intelligence) and the strategies which are put in place to utilise these technologies to achieve their desired outcomes (such as reliability, predictability, security and visibility).

It is essential, as Ross states, to not have digitalisation activities be the sole focus of digital technology. This implies that the stringent success criteria of existing initiatives should not be applied to the limitless potential of new, developing technologies (such as cost savings and customer satisfaction). While these may be used to measure the success or failure of such technology, they should not be viewed in isolation.

It is essential to acknowledge that emerging technologies may bring about a range of advantages, such as new commercial opportunities and enriched insights that are data-driven and creative. For this to happen, organisations must put the established KPIs and conventions to one side for a period of time. Companies should instead concentrate on experimentation. As there is no certain way of predicting whether customers will enjoy a new product, service, or feature, it is crucial to give room for exploration – and for potential failures.

It is certainly challenging to create an environment free from distractions which will enable individuals to explore new ideas and develop creative solutions. As Ross outlines in his second point, it is essential to provide digital leaders with the space to experiment and explore inside the company, allowing them to take risks, try out new approaches and learn from any mistakes made in the process, even if that means disregarding certain traditional rules of doing business.

By taking the initial step of assessing what produces profit and what does not, businesses have the potential to lay the foundations for further achievements. This can only be achieved if the right personnel are in charge of the process. Ross’s final point is that, without the presence of leaders who are knowledgeable in the new methods, the strategy will not be able to be successful.

Traditional leaders can find it difficult to adjust to new circumstances due to their hesitance to depart from conventional practices and their bias against any methods that go against their knowledge and years of experience. Consequently, companies that are eager to innovate should take a gamble when choosing their next set of leaders by prioritising qualities such as creativity, communication, attention to detail, and a lack of fear of the unknown, instead of placing too much emphasis on prior experience.

Recent Developments in Innovation

It was unsurprising to many that the tech giant Amazon would be featured on Fast Company’s list of the most creative companies. After being included on the list, Amazon published a blog post revealing the reasons for its perceived creative nature. A quick read of the post reveals that Amazon aligns closely with the principles of human empowerment, failure acceptance, creative cultivation and innovator development.

It may be surprising to some that many successful organisations have traditionally been managed solely by senior executives, however, those days are well and truly in the past and the game has changed. It is now essential for organisations to have individuals who are willing to break the rules in order to drive innovation and progress. This does not mean that companies should throw caution to the wind and act without any form of governance; instead, they should create policies that are more reflective of the realities of the modern world, which should be more like guidelines than strict rules.

In today’s business world, innovation and keeping up with the times need a culture of experimentation and openness to failure.

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