Not all processes are fail safe. Image from National Library of Ireland, via Flickr.

Not all processes are fail safe. Image from National Library of Ireland, via Flickr.

When I joined the digital agency Huge in 2005, it was a tiny startup with 13 employees. To us, creating great work meant logging insane hours and fighting to the death for ideas we believed in.

As we grew, we found that “stay late, work for cheap and fight hard” didn’t exactly scale. But we also knew that we must have been doing something right, so we attempted to document “the Huge process.”

Every time we thought we had it, we unsuccessfully tried to implement it for our next project. Eventually we figured out that a formal step-by-step process wasn’t the answer. Instead, we needed a flexible set of guidelines that we could apply to our projects and which would govern our agency culture.

Whether you work for an agency, a startup or a large corporation, you can craft a company culture that encourages creativity and collaboration. Here are three guidelines that we’ve found work for us.

Be flat: Great ideas can come from anyone

One of the first things I tell new senior hires is that Huge is a collaborative agency. Inevitably, they find me a month or two later and tell me how painful the collaboration process is: “Everyone has an opinion!”

They’re right: Collaboration is really painful. It’s much easier for one or two senior people to set a strategy and for everyone else to follow suit. But it’s also a risk. Even if 90 percent of what the rest of the team has to say isn’t adopted, what if 10 percent is brilliant? Being open to that 10 percent is what drives innovation.

To do this properly, it’s critical that everyone feels comfortable bringing his or her thoughts to the table. It’s messy and it requires sophisticated leadership from senior team members, but we have found that it’s also what gives us the most success.

We aren’t the only organization committed to staying flat. Even though IT hosting company Rackspace has more than 5,000 employees worldwide, collaboration is actively encouraged. The company employs a flat structure by ensuring teams stay small and that leadership is accessible. Lanham Napier, Rackspace’s CEO, sits alongside the marketing team at the same type of desk as everyone else. 

Image by Tom Fishburne via tomfishburne.com.

Image by Tom Fishburne via tomfishburne.com.

Competition is good

The word “competition” can carry negative connotations, but competition in the workplace is healthy and can bring out the best in teams. It’s not easy to work collaboratively, receive less-than-positive feedback or rework ideas, but this is what helps people grow and get better at their jobs.

I once ran a critique of a client’s internal design group in which a creative director and I sat in on every work session for two days and then shared our observations. Our biggest takeaway was that the design group was too nice.

People weren’t being honest about their impressions of the work that was being presented. They would notice flaws and say nothing. The result was that they weren’t pushing themselves to grow.

When we shared this observation it was met with immense relief. In the ensuing conversation, people confessed their desire for “real” feedback and the freedom to challenge ideas. Creative teams thrive on growth and to grow you have to be challenged. Healthy competition is key.

Image by Tom Fishburne via tomfishburne.com.

Image by Tom Fishburne via tomfishburne.com.

Choose your mantra

We may be fuelled by competition, but at the end of the day it’s our values that make us who we are. Whether it’s a company-wide philosophy or a personal set of goals, figure out what is important to you and what you want to accomplish and then put it in a mantra.

Our mantra is “Make something you love.” It serves as a reminder to stay focused on creating the kinds of products that we would want to use. It means that staying inspired is more important than adhering to a particular process or rigid set of rules.

Whether you’re a fan of the company or not, Google’s famous mantra, “Don’t be evil,” says a lot about the company’s values. It’s both charming and powerful, especially if you consider the amount of data Google has access to and the scope of its influence.

While having a process in place helps people get work done, it doesn’t always provide the right conditions to be truly innovative. By embracing sometimes-uncomfortable new ways of working together, you can foster the culture needed to produce game-changing work for your company and your industry.

Image by Tom Fishburne via tomfishburne.com.

Image by Tom Fishburne via tomfishburne.com.