Can a Company Policy Improve Creative Output? Here's How 4 Companies Are Experimenting

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Lindsay Kolowich Cox
Lindsay Kolowich Cox




Nowadays, you don't hear the phrase "office culture" without someone bringing up the open office concept. Cubicle farms have gotten a bad rap over the past decade or so, replaced with more innovative workplace setups that supposedly help breed creativity and collaboration. (Whether or not they actually do is up for debate.)

But open office plans aren't the only way to spark employees' creativity and innovation. According to the New York Times"Studies of innovation come to the same conclusion: You can't engineer innovation, but you can increase the odds of it occurring."

So how are companies trying to improve the odds?

We've found four companies with a different approach to investing in employee creativity. While the effectiveness of these programs can be hard to measure given their inherent subjectivity, it's interesting to see what companies are doing to help cultivate an innovative and inspirational work culture.

1) Sagmeister & Walsh: Flexible Vacation Policies

The concept of flexible vacation policies has been the talk of the town for the past few years. At HubSpot, we've found that an unlimited vacation policy means employees are more engaged and more productive when they are at work. They can spend less time worrying about plans and timing and more time thinking about how to do their jobs well.

But unlimited vacation is just one iteration of flexible vacation policies. In fact, 25% of the employers on Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For offer paid sabbaticals to their employees. While employee retention is one of the main draws of offering these long breaks to employees, another big benefit is letting them explore new ways of thinking.

Design agency Sagmeister & Walsh -- which designed the album cover for The Rolling Stones' "Bridges to Babylon," among many other famous projects -- actually shuts its doors and gives its employees an entire year-long sabbatical every seven years. The first time co-founder Stefan Sagmeister did this, it was because he realized the work coming out of the agency had started to look the same. So he decided to do something drastic: He completely shut down the firm for a year so he and his team could refresh their creative outlook.

"That's clearly enjoyable for myself, but probably even more important is that the work that comes out of these years flows back into the company and in the society at large rather than just benefiting a grandchild or two," said Sagmeister in his TED talk, "The Power of Time Off."

2) Pixar: Small Incubation Teams

If you've ever seen one of Pixar's animated films, from the Toy Story trilogy to Finding Nemo to Ratatouille, you can begin to imagine how many creative minds it takes to produce a feature-length film. It's not like a team of 10 people in a room came up with all those clever ideas -- it takes every member of a 200-to-250-person production group to pull together a film.

"People tend to think of creativity as a mysterious solo act," wrote Ed Catmull, president of both Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios. But in reality, each movie contains "literally tens of thousands of ideas."

And during the creative process, not all of them are gold. So how do you sift through a wave of ideas to extract the very best ones? Pixar had a process.

"While I’m not foolish enough to predict that we will never have a flop, I don’t think our success is largely luck," Catmull wrote. "Rather, I believe our adherence to a set of principles and practices for managing creative talent and risk is responsible."

After Toy Story 2 came out in 1999, Pixar decided to change the mission of its development department. Instead of managing the birth and development of ideas all on its own, as they had in the past and as is traditionally done at other studios, the development department now helps directors put together small incubation teams to help directors refine their own ideas. The challenge is building a team that'll work effectively together.

Then, once the team's assembled, members go to work at hacking through the rough ideas and refining them. Great team dynamics are essential here.

"Nobody pulls any punches to be polite," Catmull wrote. "This works because all the participants have come to trust and respect one another. They know it’s far better to learn about problems from colleagues when there’s still time to fix them than from the audience after it’s too late."

In the end, the philosophy rests on getting creative people together, giving them a lot of autonomy and support, and providing them with an environment for honest feedback. 

3) Google: Rewarding Risk-Taking

Most managers would probably claim they encourage their employees to "be more creative" or "be more entrepreneurial." Fail hard, fail fast ... and so on and so forth. But what are they actually doing other than verbalizing it?

It's one thing to say it's OK to take risks and learn from failure, and it's another thing entirely to mandate it. Google's experimenting with the latter. You may have heard of the company's famous 20% time policy, which requires employees dedicate 20% of their time (roughly one day per week) developing their own side projects. Products that've come out of 20% time include Google News, Gmail, and AdSense.

While the effectiveness of the program has been widely critiqued, its implementation is a testimony to how important the folks at Google believe individual innovation is. Being given ample time to go beyond your comfort zone can not only open the door to new challenges and opportunities, but it also allows people to exercise their natural problem-solving skills.

"Once you have become accustomed to taking risks, you break free from the average way of living and thinking," wrote Stacia Pierce in The Huffington Post.

4) Colgate: Flexible Working Hours

Whether employees have kids, doctor's appointments, or simply work better in the early mornings or late at night, many companies have gotten good results from empowering them to work during hours that suit their lifestyle. Structure can hinder innovation, while allowing employees to focus on work when they're working. Plus, working during their own high productivity hours can help bolster creative thinking. 

At the same time, high-autonomy ethos can also strengthen trust and increase retention rates. 

"The start-ups of Silicon Valley have reaped the rewards of giving employees a long leash," wrote Claire Hodgson for The Guardian.

Flexible scheduling has become more and more common across a variety of industries, and Colgate-Palmolive's only one of thousands of companies adjusting their policies to allow employees more work-life balance. But, as a 209-year-old company with an employee base of more than 35,000, its adoption of flexible working hours is particularly impressive. In fact, the company tops job search engine's list of the 25 biggest companies that go "the extra mile" to help their employees have more of a work-life balance.

The key to success when it comes to flexible working hours? Efficiency and professionalism.

"Past and present employees comment on the Colgate-Palmolive employer review page [on] noting that management sets realistic expectations for employees, promotes time management skills, and clearly communicates," said Mike's director of recruiting. "Colgate-Palmolive offers some great benefits, such as flexible work hours, telecommute options, and nearby back-up childcare centers, which is a nice perk for work-at-home parents. As a result, Colgate-Palmolive has a high rate of employee retention, which is a testament to their culture.”

How effective are these innovation policies? Unfortunately, any metrics you'd use to measure them are a little hairy. There are plenty of folks out there who are skeptical about whether implementing programs like brainstorming sessions, science fairs, and so on actually make an impact on the bottom line. What seems to be the trend here is that, at the very least, employees like having these policies around -- and that can help you retain and attract smart people.

What innovation policies do you find interesting? Share with us in the comment section.

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Topics: Creativity

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