Think Big! Build a Creative Culture or Transform Into It!

I started writing about Thinking Big and it is turning out to be a serial topic! As Indians, technical stuff comes naturally, business thinking comes naturally, but creativity is a touch-feely subject that many of us are not that comfortable with! We usually give it lip service and move on to more important stuff like coding or making sales calls!

You ask most Software Product Entrepreneurs about their products, and the third sentence will descend into technical details, programming languages and feature sets.

But that’s exactly the opposite of what we need to be thinking about if we want to build globally competitive, big, huge companies right there in India.

The usual disclaimers first – If you are already running a profitable software product company that serves the Indian market, good for you! If you are already running a successful software product company that does not innovate but magically keeps finding customers, revenues and profits, this article is not for you! If you think that Indian Software Product companies need to think small and be happy serving some section of the market, Indian or globally, this article may not be for you.

This article is for companies and entrepreneurs that are wondering how to build a creative culture like that of facebook, google, twitter or Pinterest and scale globally, right there in India.

That starts with the complete buy-in of the founders of a creative culture in the company and they  will be successful in as far as they act and do in keeping with that culture. Not all companies are on the same level with respect to this culture but to smaller or greater extents that is something they all must have and do have in common to succeed.

Being creative does not mean thinking up whole new products overnight, but providing and encouraging creativity in whatever function someone performs in your organization. It can be as simple telling your junior-most engineer, “here’s a problem that I want you to solve. I don’t care how you solve it. But come up with something new”, rather than telling them how to solve it, which programming language and tools to use. If they struggle, you can always jump in and guide them but the key question is “Do you give them the chance to attempt something on their own first?”¬†And do you do this every day?

Do not underestimate the influence of Indian Culture in preventing the creative culture from forming in your company. We act in many subtle, unconscious, hierarchical ways in our companies that can snuff the creative instincts in a jiffy. The first time you quickly overrule something creative your engineer has proposed, is the time when the whole thing is dead. People revert back to a subservient mode and wait for instructions, having learned a painful lesson! Others watch this and have learned the same lesson too.

Building a creative culture is hard. Transforming into one is even harder!

It starts with hiring – are you hiring creative people? How would you know? Classic resumes and classic interviewing techniques systematically eliminate the hiring of creative people! When Microsoft or Google or facebook have “strange” interviewing techniques that pose problems that do not have a single solution or involve coming up with creative solutions, they are looking for those people who can think differently and creatively!

I am not suggesting that you forego looking for basic competencies, qualifications and experience. But what are you doing beyond that? If you have one position and you have 25 very qualified, technically vetted people, nothing prevents an Indian start-up from following the same interviewing and testing strategies that some of these companies follow to unearth the creative five among those 25! And hire across India if you could.

Diversity is the essence of creativity. People with different life experiences approach problems differently and you will be all the richer for it since creative juices start flowing when you have people in the same room approaching problems differently!

Once you have hired the creative people, building a creative culture starts at the top and has to be reflected in everything you say and do. Otherwise people get the wrong signals and clam up quickly. How many times have you NOT decided on something technical for your entire engineering team but instead called for a Brainstorming Session? How are you sure that the solution you have thought of is the better one than something any of your engineering team members may come up with on their own? It is worth going through the whole exercise anyway, even if your idea prevails in the end in the interest of your company. But you have sent a subtle message that ideas are welcome, will be considered and evaluated fairly!

In a start-up company it is very hard to do these things with all the time pressures but is certainly worth those extra hours since it will pay off for you in unexpected ways down the road. In a start-up, just remember that you are really grooming a set of leaders that are trained in this creative culture and when they lead groups of people, hopefully they would follow the same lead.

Flex time, brainstorming sessions, ping pong in the cafeteria, team building sessions with humour thrown in for good measure, are all small building blocks that build a creative culture. But they are only the icing on the cake. The cake is you and the management team’s thinking and acting around the company. Does it say – we value creativity and your ideas are welcome?

Transforming an existing culture is even more painful than building one, but it can be done. Unfortunately, not every employee is suitable for that kind of transformation. You will have to do some weeding first. You may have to get rid of people and leaders that don’t buy into this kind of approach and replace them with those that do. Then all the approaches that are recommended for a start-up apply to a mature company also.

To those who say it cannot be done in India and these are high-falutin ideas from out-of-touch expats, I could not carry more disappointing news! I have personally done it in our start-up company in Chennai. We hired people from the North and threw them in with others from the South. Creative cultures are about TRUST and there is nothing more appealing and motivating to a technically qualified, creative fresher than to be trusted with some big task! Not only did we find creative solutions even though our experienced leaders or me could have suggested the way on day 1, you would be surprised how quickly these people trained themselves on the basics, and solved problems. And in unexpected creative ways!

So before you expect BIG things out of your company, ask yourselves the question – Have I built a creative culture? Have I transformed my existing culture into a creative one or at least on the way there?

Creative cultures ask constantly the question “What If we do or have….” and out of that comes big products and big companies. It’s not just a nice-to-have. It is everything! Not Java or Python, iPhone or Android, not nicer offices and a well stocked cafeteria.

Do you trust your employees enough to be creative? Do you give them the chance?

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. – F. Scott Fitzgerald