How creativity can survive and even thrive in big corporates

When people think about creative organisations names like Google, Pixar, Zappos and Disney top the list. People get excited by the idea that there are organisations where you can get paid to play, invent and experiment with ideas. Then people look at their own cultures and probably die a little on the inside. The gulf between nirvana and reality seems unbridgeable.

But one thing you need to learn is no company or culture is nirvana. Just like no marriage or family is perfect. They are all dysfunctional — it depends on the scale. Does that mean that you should give up? No, it means instead of looking elsewhere — start the process of change where you are now.

It all begins what we mean by a creative culture. It’s like when we dream up the perfect partner. We have a long list of attributes that we find it hard to prioritise. They are all important! But whom we end up having a long-term relationship with rarely fits the bill of “perfect” partner. Because what we value and what we desire is different. Desire may be a partner who looks after themselves. However, what is truly important to us is someone who puts looking after us first.

To be fulfilled and have work that is incongruent with your values, what do you need? Most people say, a sense of purpose. They want alignment with the company’s mission, but not everyone can work for an organisation that does charitable work. I think it has to come from someplace deeper — from inside yourself.

The most creative cultures I have worked in haven’t necessarily had games rooms or vending machines full of nutritious snacks. But they have allowed me to express myself. To laugh, be playful and try slightly unorthodox ways of doing things without trying to force me out. It wasn’t the org statement on the wall that I was loyal to. It was the sense of freedom and purpose that I could imbue in my work that made me proud to work there.

For me, a creative company culture is not only about a place where you can have lots of ideas. It also lets you dream, question, collaborate and foster independent thinking. I don’t know if a workplace can “allow” you do that. You are not going to get a company-wide memo or a KPI that says, please challenge the way we think and act around here. What you can ask for is a culture that does not stop you when you try. Because companies want desperately for their people to be creative, but they often don’t know how to bring it out in their people. We need to show them what it could mean for us through our actions.

Don’t wait for permission take the initiative. I have worked in all kinds of terrible situations with unsupportive bosses, management and a real-life culture of fear. However, that has not stopped me from pushing the boat out and trying. Why? Because not acting was so much worse. It meant the system won and life is too short to let the system beat you.

The results have paid off far greater than expected. It helped me shape my career and feel in control of the work I did. The projects that I did were exciting, fulfilling, stretching and creative. Yes, I was able to be creative in a boring old corporate, and that made me fulfilled. While the petty politics still existed, it didn’t consume me, because I had plenty of outlets where I could put my energy and get a tremendous return.

What advice would I give for those dreaming of more creativity at work and thinking that it’s elsewhere? That’s not. The journey to a more creative and fulfilling career starts where you are now. But you must act, take a chance and create. Sometimes you will fail as not everything you try will be well received but that is also life. You learn the most from things that didn’t go to plan. And where all these learnings will take you is on a career path powered by your own volition. And that is the most rewarding thing of all.