Here’s something clients sometimes say at the start of a change project: “I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with all that creativity, this is a very serious and business critical issue we are tackling.”
Here’s what clients always say at the end of a change project: “I’m so glad we really injected all that creativity; everyone was so inspired and really engaged – I think this really worked!”
Whether a company is in the middle of a merger, a massive culture shift, a digital transformation or adapting an operating model for better performance, creativity can be the silver bullet in powering employee mindset and behavior change.
What do I mean by creativity? It can be an awesome creative slogan or motivational mantra about how everyone contributes to the new corporate purpose. It can be employee-made story telling videos posted on internal social media. It can be fully immersive experiences that make employees see the world through the eyes of others. It can be VR/AR training. It can be leaders dressing up in costumes for all hands meetings. I’ve seen all of these in action and they work. Most of all, it can be any type of exercise that really pushes people to think and feel differently.
Why does creativity work so well?
- It causes participation. A well executed creative approach stimulates a reaction. With this reaction, employees are involved. This approach is the antidote to the groups of employees out there who want to stick their head in the sand and hope a change ‘goes away.’ The creative approach is the metaphorical stick that pokes them out of that hole in the sand.
- It makes us feel. Research has shown that what we feel is supremely powerful in shaping our behavior. In the tug of war between rational thought and emotional feelings, emotion always out maneuvers rationale and logic in driving our behaviors.1
- It is human. Designing the creative approach forces the organization to understand the change from a deeply human perspective. It throws up questions such as, ‘What is their experience now?’ ‘How do people feel today?’ and ‘What do we want them to feel going forward?’ This process drives a level of empathy necessary as a first step in successful change.
- It’s dynamic and collaborative. Creative approaches often invite ideas to build on each other. They also open and empower by triggering exploration, posing questions and inviting debate.
One of the most challenging observations I’ve made over my career is that companies emphasize creativity in how they engage and shape the behavior of customers on the outside (what would marketing and advertising be without creativity?), but are more hesitant to be creative with their own employees. There are usually three reasons why:
- Undervaluation of the impact an investment here would make. Decision makers often fail to believe that money spent on creative approaches will pay off. However, there are well established studies that show employees who are inspired and engaged are more productive and less likely to leave.2 Factoring in a budget for change management that gets employees gaming, immersing and creating is the route to positive ROI. An uninspiring PowerPoint presentation delivered with a free lunch is not going to migrate employees through the steps required to get meaningful attitudinal and behavioral change.
- Decision-makers focus on facts and data. Data that points to the advantages of a change like a merger or new operating model may make rational sense, but it won’t impact the emotional drivers of employee choice. Employees are more likely to align with a new company vision or initiative if they feel personally inspired and connected. The way to make that happen is likely through creative messaging and experience design, not dry company emails or PowerPoint.
- Creativity is perceived to take too much time. When leaders are asked when they want organizational change to happen, they often say: “yesterday!” So, there is natural reluctance to take time to come up with creative concepts and activities as well as tools and technologies. The flip side is that moving fast with change initiatives that don’t use bold creative thinking are less likely to be impactful. Weak results fast are not as compelling as strong results that take a bit more time.
Recently, Daggerwing was pitching creative ideas to a risk-averse client who was responsible for transforming an entire function in their global operation. First we described a Virtual Reality technology concept that could be used by hundreds of employees in every global location – helping them to really see themselves in the center of a bold and momentous vision – at an efficient cost of under $100K. Then we described an alternative activity that would involve putting hundreds of employees in room together, asking them to each blow up a balloon and write a behavior they needed to stop on the balloon. Then, the employees would ceremoniously pop those hundreds of balloons at one time – inspiring laughter, connectivity and a funny story to share with family later that evening. Factoring in the cost of balloons and markers would cost the company about $25 dollars. The client’s response? She laughed at how divergent these two examples were, and then admitted that she often got blocked just at the mention of the words, ‘let’s take a creative approach,’ as she failed to appreciate the wide range of creative ideas that could be considered.
If you are taking the brave step towards creativity in a change management program, here are some things to consider to ensure your success:
- Can you start small? If some stakeholders are not completely bought in at the start or are reluctant to provide funding, get started with simple, low budget approaches.
- Does your idea cause employees to act or react? Remember if employees are participating at any level, it will have greater impact.
- Does it cause employees to feel something? If employees connect at a deeper emotional level to the change ideas, they will be more likely to act.
- Does it inspire human empathy? Everyone wants to be seen and understood. If your change approach demonstrates this, you are much more likely to win the trust of employees and their willingness to step forward on the change journey with you.
- Is it dynamic and collaborative? Creative activities and techniques can not only get employees to come up with new ideas, it can help them build on each other’s ideas to get to a stronger outcome that they feel ownership for.
Ultimately, whether you are setting up an immersion room so employees can better understand the lives of customers or running a storytelling workshop to help leaders connect with their teams in more authentic ways, creativity is the critical ingredient that pays off with stronger results every time.
1 Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2010) Switch: How to change things when change is hard. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.
2 Heskett, J. L., Jones, T.O., Loveman, G.W., Sasser, W.E., & Schlesinger, L.A. (1994) Putting the Service-Profit Chain to Work. Harvard Business Review