Creating an Environment Where Great Ideas Thrive
Don’t just inspire your team —
help them turn their ideas into
great work.

The first agency Adam Morgan worked for had cutting-edge interior design and seemed like the perfect place for inspiration. But even though the office was creatively appealing, people hid their ideas in their offices. Because the environment was so competitive, nobody felt safe to share their brilliant ideas.

In this episode of Real Creative Leadership, Adam Morgan shares the 3 components of an ideal creative environment — and practical advice for how creative leaders can inspire great ideas and bring them to fruition.

Watch this episode to discover:

  • Four ways creative leaders can inspire, nurture, and refine creative ideas
  • What effective collaboration looks like — and how to promote it
  • How to foster the right kind of ownership and accountability
mentioned in this show:
adammorgan
Adam Morgan
Executive Creative Director Adobe
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The Stoke Group
Digital Marketing and Full-Service Content Agency

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Transcript

Adam Morgan:

All right. Thank you so much for joining us. This is Season Two, Episode Five, and this episode is all about building the right environment for creative teams and so creative ideas can thrive. And let's talk about this. So building an environment, what does it take? If you look around the internet and you asked that question, like how do you build an environment for creativity? Most likely what you're going to get is a lot of articles about setting the environment, like the physical environment. Meaning what colors are inviting for creativity, what kind of design you should have around you, what kind of physical environment, like your desk, your workspace. And while that's important, what I'm going to talk to you a bit today isn't going to be about the cool art on the walls and how we have a modern design because, let's be honest, it is true, most creative businesses have really cool design, right?

Adam Morgan:

Even at my work, we have cool fonts and words all over the walls, and design and elements and different colors and all this cool modern design. And that is absolutely a part of it. That's absolutely important. It does get you in the right mood. It does help. But what I want to talk today is about how you can use leadership and the leadership aspects of creating an environment. After all, this is Real Creative Leadership, so it's not an interior design podcast. So that's what I want to talk about. And first, I want to start with a story. The first agency that I worked for in the mid-1990s was Dahlin Smith White, and their theme was, “do something wild,” because it matched up with the letters of the business. And as part of that, I mean, the design of the business was really, really crazy. They took a standard business building and redesigned the wall so there weren't any straight lines anywhere. The walls were wavy and curved and offices were not square. Everything in that building was designed in a unique way.

Adam Morgan:

It was crazy, right? And it had cool colors, and cool light fixtures, and everything was amazing as far as design. But then what they had in the environment, and when I'm talking environment, it's beyond just the look. But the environment was very intense and there was an intense competition where teams were pitted against each other. It was like, you were constantly battling it out just to get an idea through. And to be honest, that environment, in terms of the rivalry and how people would hide ideas in their offices and they wouldn't share because you were rewarded if you won the competition, right? If there were like 10 teams battling it out for a TV spot, the team that won, next thing we know they had a bonus or a better office, right? And so it created a completely different environment for creative ideas, where people were afraid to share and talk about them because they didn't want them stolen. So today, I want to talk to you about that aspect of it. How do you as a leader create the right environment without creating the bad baggage that comes along with some of those environments?

Adam Morgan:

So let's move on and here, I've split it up into three categories. So we're not going to talk about physical stuff. If you want to look at physical stuff, go to an interior design thing, but I want to talk about three different categories. I want to talk about leadership, how you as a leader can set up the environment and set the stage and set the tone for a team. Next, I want to talk about culture, and this is really a mix of leadership and the team coming together to create a culture that works for you. And then finally, I want to talk about the things that the whole team needs to do in order to create a great environment. So not everything lands on the shoulders of the leader, but everyone takes a little bit of the weight. Right. So let's start first in leadership. And here's some of the things that I feel like are really, really important for building that environment so that creative ideas can thrive and you feel safe and encouraged and all of that good stuff.

Adam Morgan:

All right. So number one in leadership is creating a safe harbor. And this is really where people need to feel safe. They need to feel like they're not going to lose their job for sharing ideas or they're not going to miss out on promotions. They're not going to miss out on opportunities. They're going to be rewarded and taken care of. And it's really how we're encouraging thinking outside the box. Now, in a lot of articles, I hear talk about this, where they call it, it's creating a culture of risk-taking. And I know that I mentioned culture as the second thing, but this is where you as a leader help influence that culture. So a culture of risk-taking is where people feel like they can try new ideas. They can explore this space. They can think outside the box. They can come to the table with weird and wacky and crazy ideas.

Adam Morgan:

But creating this culture of risk-taking starts with leadership. It starts with you. It starts with you not just saying it because I think it's really easy for people in companies to say, oh yeah, we encourage creativity. And we create this culture of risk-taking. But then the reality is when you're in meetings and all the boxes don't line up where it's like green, red, and yellow, and everything's not green, there's a red one, and then suddenly it's like heads are going to roll and whose fault is this. So it's really a matter of you as a leader and talking with other leaders of the company, you need to make sure that you're okay with everything not being perfect. And you need to create an environment where people feel like they can take risks and they can share ideas.

Adam Morgan:

And it can't just be words. So how do you know if you've done that? So you can talk about it. You can role model it. You can encourage that in meetings. You can do all the work behind the scenes where you go to the leaders who do freak out when things aren't perfect and you can talk to them about... If you've watched the episode before with John Coyne, where he talked about getting them in the right mindset, where they're in a building mode rather than in a judging mode. Those are all the things that you need to take care of as a leader. You need to create that safe harbor. And there an awesome book from Simon Sinek called Leaders Eat Last, and he's basing it on the military where in the military they first send the grunts, so the people who are on the front line, in to eat first. And the leaders come in afterwards to the mess hall and get the food last.

Adam Morgan:

And the reason why, is if something happened, a bomb strike was called or they have to rush off to a mission, the people who are actually going to be on the front lines will be fed and ready to go. And then the leaders who are going to be staying back and doing the strategy, they're least important so they eat last. Awesome book. Please check it out. It'll give you a good idea of what I am talking about of creating this safe harbor and creating an environment where people feel like they're not going to lose their jobs over taking a risk. And here's one good sign. So if you've made it or you think that you've created this safe harbor, for me, a good sign is that everyone feels like they can speak up. If they feel like they can't speak up in a meeting because they're going to be shot down or put in their place, they'll stop speaking up. So that's a good sign. Like ask your team, ask your employees if they feel like they can speak up in a meeting.

Adam Morgan:

Now, some of them may be quiet and not want to. That's fine. But if they feel like they can speak up, that's a good sign. Okay. So that's safe harbor. The next thing for leaders to create a great environment for creativity is to champion good ideas. And this is all about showcasing, here are our ideas, here's the ideal, here's what good ideas look like, so that people have an idea of a vision of where to go. You can't just say, hey, come up with great ideas and then not give them examples. Otherwise, they'll like, who knows, everyone have a different interpretation of what that means. So sharing ideas regularly, whether it's in your team meetings, whether if someone does have a good idea, hold up those good examples, showcase them, share them around the company. That's what you need to do. You need to become a champion of good ideas so that you're letting everyone know here's the bar. Here's where it's set. And here's what we want you to look for. Another thing that kind of goes in line, this is item number three that you need to do as a leader. And that's inspire the team. It's one thing to show the good ideas, but it's also you've got to get them in that right mindset. You've got to get them pumped up and excited about creating good ideas.

Adam Morgan:

So how do you do that? Here's what I've done. So for the last six years at Adobe and then even decade before in agency, what I do for my team is I started a weekly workshop, is what we call it. Every Friday morning for one hour. And I honestly got this from one of my mentors, Ron Stone, when I worked at Publicis. Every single week, he'd do the same thing. And the idea is you have a weekly workshop where all the creative... Again, we're speaking about creative teams, but you can apply this to any type of a team that you have. And it's just a weekly meeting where nothing is necessarily required. They just have to show up and we're going to share great books, great ideas, great examples. We're going to show awesome work.

Adam Morgan:

Bring in guest speakers. Show a TED Talk. Have someone do a book report on some cool book. Whatever it may be, but it's all about getting inspired. And when the team is inspired, then they're all pumped up and ready to go out there and actually come up with great ideas. So that's how you set the tone. You set the tone by example and the best way to do that is not just setting the tone of meetings, but also inspiring them by having that example of like, here's good work, here's what we care about, here's what I want you to do, now go out and do it. All right. The last thing, number four, that you need to do as a leader is to give direction. So you can't just say, hey everyone, let's do all this great stuff. It won't happen.

Adam Morgan:

You have to show a vision. So you need to give a direction. And then here's the most important second half of that is you need to let them manage themselves. You cannot take over. Too many times, I think creative leaders go out there and say, here's the vision, here's what you need to do, here's the direction, we're going to do X. This year we're going to do some big campaign or we're going to change this thing in our company. And then you start to take over and you do it your way and you try and push them. And that's not the right way to do it. So you have to show them the vision, show them how to do it, and then back off and let them manage themselves. And you jump in when they need help, but they've got to push forward.

Adam Morgan:

So the other thing that is important is you're not just saying, hey, here's the vision, go off and do your thing. You still have to be accessible. You still have to show that you're available and that they have access to leadership when needed. And that's what your job is as a leader, right? So give the vision, let them manage themselves, but then be there for them and let them know that they can have access because they may not know how to do it perfectly on their own. The team may struggle or maybe someone's new to it, or they did it differently at their old job. Whatever it may be, you should still be around, but you're just not micromanaging everything. Okay. So those are the four things of leadership. Create a safe harbor, champion good ideas, inspire the team and then give direction, but back off.

Adam Morgan:

All right, next. Now let's talk about culture. This is where you as a leader and your team need to come together to create a team culture, a company culture, whatever it may be. So the first thing as part of creating an awesome culture for creativity to thrive is first of all, have a purpose. You need to know what your company or your team delivers and where that bar is. So if this is your creative team, what do you stand for? Are you all about speed, are you about production, or are you all about great ideas and bringing great creativity to the company, great design? You've got to figure out what your purpose is as a creative team or as a company, if you're using this at a higher level. But know what your team delivers and then make sure everyone understands that, make sure everyone can repeat it back so that it becomes part of the fabric of the team and not just words on a plaque on a wall.

Adam Morgan:

All right, next. This is awesome. Step two in creating a culture is creating an environment where collaboration thrives. Now, I came from the agency world where creative teams were always split up, where there was a writer and an art director or designer. And they were always teamed up because we knew that, this goes back to the Bernbach days of like pairing those two together with their individual ownership, but still coming together as a team, that is where really, really good ideas come about. And the reason why is because you can bounce ideas off each other, you can share, you can build off of each other. It's really all about that collaboration. So if you want great ideas, you need to have collaboration. And if you're not a creative team, let's say you're a group of developers or marketers, whatever it may be, you need to find ways to create that collaboration.

Adam Morgan:

Don't let everyone just live in a silo and do their own thing. So split up into teams, spice up the partnerships, break down the silos, make sure they come together. And I'm not saying like group creativity. I'm not saying group brainstorming because those are the worst meetings ever where people put out little toys and sticky notes and say, hey, let's be creative. Great ideas usually do not come out of that. Great ideas come out of you going through the creative process of taking in all the information, trying new ideas and then sharing them with your partner and then incubating, letting it sit in your subconscious and then having that eureka moment. That's what you need. But it gets better when you're building off of each other and in smaller groups. So, that collaboration is important. And here's where you come in as a leader for the collaboration. You need to make sure that the people who come up with those good ideas get credit. Right.

Adam Morgan:

Leadership cannot take credit. You absolutely cannot take credit, but you got to make sure that the people who came up with those ideas get credit. And whether that's just recognition in front of the team or awards or bonuses, however you do that, you just need to make sure they get credit for it. So have them collaborate and then get those teams and the people who came up with those ideas, make sure they get it. All right, next, as part of culture, you need to create space for the creative process to work. Now, remember, I just went on that diatribe at the beginning of like, it's not always just about the physical space. So when I'm talking about creating space for the creative process, I'm not saying you need to put a big war room that has cool colors and great design so that people feel like they're in the mood to create. No, I'm talking about mental space for the creative process.

Adam Morgan:

Meaning, if you're just like in meeting, after meeting, after meeting, you're never going to have time to really stop and think about things. Or if you don't have the right resources or you don't have the right... It's mostly time, right? Like creating space and time and free time in order to think, that's how you create space for the creative process. And that creative time, there're some companies that have done things like you can take 5% of your time for innovation or sometimes it's like Friday afternoons, no meetings. I know we do that at my company. You can't have any meetings, so you can actually have that deep work and focus your time. And if you have teams that are regularly coming up with creative ideas, you need to make space throughout the week. They need to make sure that they're not just stuck in meetings all day long.

Adam Morgan:

You, as a leader can go represent or have some of them represent in different meetings, but it's creating space. It's creating time for them to just sit down, put on their earphones and just zone out and get into the zone. Like that's what we really need. And again, sometimes it's not even saying like, all right, I'm going to set aside this time for you to go over into your cube and do whatever. No. In one agency where I worked in Jackson Hole, my partner and I, we'd go outside into this field. I guess I was lucky enough to be next to this big horse field and a stream and a creek running right through the middle of it. But we'd go out there, take off our shoes and put our feet in the creek with a notepad and just having an hour or two just to chill out and actually focus on deep work and coming up with great ideas.

Adam Morgan:

So good ideas come when there is mental space available. And don't make it so that people have to do that at night or weekends. I know for much of my career, that's been the only time I ever find space to come up with ideas. So figure out a way for them to have space and the resources during the work hour. All right. The last thing on culture. So this is number four. We talked about, first, purpose, then collaboration, and then creating mental space. The last thing, and this is really, really important. And it's called rigor and refinement because here's the thing, when we talk about creativity, sometimes people think, oh, we just need to let the creatives go off and do their thing and not bother them. Excuse me. And it's not about just having space to Zen out and think about things.

Adam Morgan:

There has to be rigor around this. Like if you don't refine those ideas, if you don't have creative direction, then your ideas are never going to get better. So it's not just about creating mental space, but you have to come and have critique. You need to have leaders who know good ideas and who've experienced it and have lived in the trenches and lived in the arena and they need to be able to go to that work of the rest of the team and give critique. And you as a creative person need to accept that critique because that refinement is how your ideas get better. So it's really, really important that you don't just go off and do this like Zen environment where if ideas are perfect and there're all of these wonderful little babies and no one can say anything wrong because the only way we create an environment of risk-taking is there's never a wrong answer.

Adam Morgan:

That's not true. There are wrong answers. There are bad ideas, thousands and thousands and thousands of bad ideas out there. So you and your culture need to say, we want to get to better ideas, therefore we will accept rigor and refinement. We will take a creative direction. And it's not that we're being overly harsh. Like there are some agencies and the environment I know is beyond, like too much refinement and too much rigor, where it's like rounds and rounds and rounds. No, just create the right amount, the right amount of critique, the right amount of creative direction so those ideas get better. All right. So that's it on culture. Lastly, we're going to talk about what can the team do? How can the team, not just leadership, but everyone has to help build this environment? All right, there are three points here. The first one is ownership, meaning you can't just...

Adam Morgan:

I know as a leader I can assign jobs to different people, but people have to own it, meaning they have to accept it and they want it. And they need to have the desire to own it so that they can go off and know that it's their idea and their project, their thing. And a big part of this is also how you organize the team. Remember how I talked in the beginning of my first agency, where it was this arena where we would just put 10 teams all competing for the same idea or the same project. That was like the extreme of what doesn't work. And I know back in the 1990s, they were like, oh, if we just push teams and have more competition, then we'll get better ideas out of them. But the truth is it discouraged people and they were frustrated and it's like, you never had an idea.

Adam Morgan:

You never owned the project. It was just like;al creative you were in the melee pit with everyone else. So when I say ownership, it's two parts. It's like yeah, create ownership so people can have their own space, their own projects, but then the team needs to own it. They need to take responsibility for it and they need to make sure they take care of it. So this kind of goes back to that whole topic, I think we talked about it last season, which is, do you go with the pool versus the individual teams on accounts? And I've just found that whenever we do the pool model, which is where you put all the creative teams in a big pool and then as projects come in, you just kind of assign them off one by one. I think that's just so demoralizing because you're just in this big group and you don't own anything and you don't even know what your next project's going to be. And so you just kind of stop caring and it's just like yeah, sure, just tell me what to do, give me whatever and I'll do it. And then the ownership is gone.

Adam Morgan:

So to create ownership, for me, it's been making sure each of the creative teams actually have, whether it's an assignment, a project... Sorry, I have to edit that cough out. Anyhow. And so for me, it's really about giving the teams and the individuals, ownership over projects. Or maybe it's like a division of something or a certain product, and then other teams have a different product, but find space where you can each have ownership and then own it. Which leads me to the next step, which is accountability. You can't have ownership without accountability. So if you give teams ownership of things, then may need to be accountable for it. Not you as the leader, but they need to be. So if there are deadlines, you need to be very clear of what the delivery needs to be and what expectations are. And then they need to deliver that. They need to be accountable. And that's where time does matter, that deadlines do matter. So as a creative team, you should never come up and say, oh, I had so many other things. We just couldn't do it.

Adam Morgan:

That is unacceptable. So if you own it, you need to deliver on it. And the last thing of all, the thing that the team needs to do is create friendship and trust. And this is something that you cannot do as a leader. You can't just say, hey, you're all going to be friends. You all have to trust each other. There's no way. That's where the team itself needs to figure that out. If they feel safe and they feel like they're not competing against each other, and they're sharing ideas, and they're getting inspired, that's where they're going to build that friendship. They're going to build that community. And a lot of times that is built when you're not working on projects, right? It can't be a part of projects. That's where things like the creative workshop or different meetings that are just there for fun or for coming together and talking about ideas, that's where you build community.

Adam Morgan:

And even more than that, it's like after hours, you need to go off and do things that are fun. If you're not making the environment fun, then it's not going to work. So building fun and friendship and trust comes from the team coming together, actually doing things, maybe it's talking about movies, maybe it's going out to lunch every Friday, maybe it's meeting for a pizza night at [Ad Mo's 00:22:35] house in his backyard. I don't know. Whatever it may be. You've got to create those little moments of fun so they feel like they're part of a community. All right. Well, that's it. Those are the things that I wanted to bring up. So when you're creating an environment where creative ideas can thrive, you need to first, as a leader, set the stage, set the example, champion ideas, create a safe harbor, inspire the team, all that good stuff.

Adam Morgan:

And then you need, with your team, to create a culture. Figure out your purpose. How are you going to collaborate? How are you going to find space? How are you going to have rigor and refinement? That's really, really important to create that culture. And then finally, as a team, you need to have ownership. You need to own it. You need to have accountability, but you also need to have friendship and trust and have fun. So those are the elements that I feel like are really, really important for creating a good environment, at least from my lived experience from both agency and inside companies. Those are the things that need to be present in order to create an awesome environment. Now, if you want to also put awesome art on the walls, excellent. That's totally going to help. If you want to make your walls wavy and crazy and no straight lines, more power to you. I think that's important, but that's not how leadership creates the environment. That's just how the architects do it.

Adam Morgan:

All right. In closing, if you didn't already, please go back and watch episode four with John Coyne. He gives his experience as a leader and he's not a creative director. He is a marketer, strategist, and he's in charge of a huge team. And he goes back and talks about how he creates the environment and how he prepares stakeholders and how he prepares for meetings so that creative ideas can really have a chance. So make sure you go back and watch it. It was awesome. All right. Last of all, where can you find us. Again, for me, you can find me at adamwmorgan.com, on my website, or as always, please join us on realcreativeleadership.com. That's where you can watch these episodes in video or listen, or whatever you want to do. Or you can find all of these on your favorite podcast, all these episodes. Or you can find them on YouTube, if you want to watch on YouTube. That's fine too.

Adam Morgan:

And as always, this was brought to you by The Stoke Group. They help with all the production and they're great partners. So I really appreciate them. Please check out thestokegroup.com, if you need an awesome agency or you need to help build awesome creative ideas, and they have been creating an environment where ideas thrive as well. All right. Thank you so much for joining us. The last ask here at the end is if you like this content, please go out, subscribe, thumbs up, give a great review, whatever you need to do to help us get the word out to more people so that we can share and build a community because by building this big community of creative leadership, that's how we're going to go out and make a dent in the world and make creative leadership important at every company. So thanks for listening. I appreciate it. Keep things going, do your best, create awesome creative, and we'll see you next time. Bye.