Surprise Is The Key To Unlocking A Creative Culture

Good surprises make people happy and excited, so why not sprinkle a few into your business to help mix things up? The results might surprise even you...

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Good surprises make people happy and excited, so why not sprinkle a few into your business to help mix things up? The results might surprise even you...


Surprise Is The Key To Unlocking A Creative Culture

Good surprises make people happy and excited, so why not sprinkle a few into your business to help mix things up? The results might surprise even you...

Share this article

My old boss used to compare the desire for a creative culture to that of a spanking paddle. A spanking paddle initially delivers shock and surprise, before the supposed pleasure follows. The same goes for creative cultures in that if you want all the benefits of a buzzy, exciting and energetic workspace you need to be prepared to go through a little pain first!

It’s very easy to fall into habitual, predictable work days, where people turn up and react to what their Outlook diaries tell them to do. Where familiar days turn into familiar weeks which turn into forgettable years. In this environment, people’s comfort zones become entrenched and in the absence of newness or challenge, they become distracted and start to lose their shine.

The likes of Trip Advisor, Facebook and Google Maps have all made our lives easier but they’ve also made them way more predictable. They’ve dialled down our spontaneity, depriving us of exploring the unknown and those moments of serendipity.

Author Jon Evans laments in the Alpine Review of how we will never be lonely or lost again as we will always be connected through technology, even in the middle of nowhere.

In his view (and mine) ” never ‘being lonely’ or ‘being lost’ may sound good on paper, but it strikes one as akin to settling into a very comfortable wheelchair rather than learning how to run...I think people who have never been truly alone will never truly be able to be self-reliant and independent...people who have never known the intoxicating terror of being lost will be far less able to deal with the new, the uncertain and the inevitable transcience of everything in life”.

I have a 4 month old baby boy called Fred. To him everything is intriguing and surprising because everything is new. He pokes, stares and whenever possible shoves things in his mouth! As we grow older and the world becomes more familiar it offers up less surprise and as a result we’re less present, our learning stagnates and our energy wains.

A recent Harvard report found that people spend 47 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. Inspirational author Eckhart Tolle suggests we spend as much as 90% of our time lost in thought…and this mind-wandering generally makes us unhappy.

Surprise is a great way to keep the magic in a relationship and it’s no different for a company culture. If you have an established culture that needs a reboot then a few tweaks here and there often won’t be enough to change the behavioural norms.

This is where that metaphorical spanking paddle comes swinging into action! It’s a well documented fact that people are wired to enjoy surprise (of the positive variety obviously). A good surprise jolts people awake, intensifies emotions (by about 400 per cent) and energises everyone involved.


Do we have your attention?

The spontaneity hijacks all our mental processing and pulls our focus into one thing. Surprise triggers the pleasure centres of our brain which create new neural pathways whilst releasing lots of lovely dopamine! “The region lights up like a Christmas tree on the MRI,” said Dr. Read Montague, an associate professor of neuroscience at Baylor. “That suggests people are designed to crave the unexpected.”

Businesses are starting to embrace this craving and are using it to their advantage. Stack, a monthly magazine subscription service, delivers a different independent magazine to your door every month. Phish, is a rock band that never performs the same show and Birchbox, a beauty surprise gift box service, has gained over 1 million subscribers since it was founded 5 years ago.

A little thought about how you can surprise and delight your people is always time well spent and boosts productivity, creativity and innovation. For me delivery comes down to a question of imagination and bravery. The possibilities are endless but here are a few ideas to get you into the swing of things! (Spanking paddles are optional.)

Mix up those mundane meetings! There are too many of them and they’re all run the same way. Steve Jobs made a habit of the walking meeting, according to CNNMoney, which quotes from Jobs’ biography: “taking a long walk was his preferred way to have a serious conversation.”

Harvard have recently found your creativity can spike by as much as 60% when you walk. Or take a note from eBay, where one day every month, the IT department bans all meetings. Scott Seese, eBay’s CEO, says that on that day, “all people are allowed to do is think’. Ideas are noted and brainstormed the next day, voted on by staff and the best are implemented.

Get creative with company comms

Fulfillment company PBD Worldwide realized they were having lengthy internal e mail conversations which were sapping energy and creativity. They made Friday an e mail free day and noticed how that day became a happier and relaxed environment where people are more productive and energised.

CEO Scott Dockter says "Employees like it because we get things done faster," he says. "Instead of the back and forth, things are solved quicker." Or go one step further and really play with comms occasionally; handwritten letters, paper aeroplanes, maybe even employ a town crier!

Something small and simple can be equally effective. BSkyB group head of internal comms Hamish Haynes' team promoted their share scheme by leaving bags of chocolate coins on people’s desks before they arrived for work, with a follow up email explaining the scheme.

'For a few moments, it created a buzz, a sense of inquiry,' he says, 'but without the coins, the information would have fallen on stony ground. You have to open the door a crack, then hit them quick.'

chocolate coins

Chocolate coins: £1. Getting people to understand the direction of your business: priceless

Spruce up your space

Our environment is everything so make it stimulating and your people will love you. Put a four poster bed in the middle of your office as a new meeting space. Tech company LivePerson has hammocks for people to take time out in.

Bring in masseuses to meet, greet and treat anyone who arrives in your reception. Ban people from sitting at their desk for a day. At Lego, all staff, including senior management, do not have a dedicated desk and their activities during the work day determine where they sit. Not what department they belong to.

Reappraise annual appraisals

Annual 360 reviews are generally a pointless, bureaucratic waste of time and energy which have been proven to actually demotivate staff. Why not ban them…a few forward thinking businesses like Accenture already have and with a staff of 330,000 people if they can do it, anybody can.

Give the responsibility of reviewing performance to the employee. Make demanding feedback a daily norm; so everybody reviews everyone else.

Get People Face-to-Face

In our screen centric landscape human interaction is a surprise quite simply in itself. Find ways to take time out to connect with people in person, if you can add a twist then even better!

Sky Scotland contact centre director Mike Hughes definitely went one step further and was sent to their two customer contact centres in Dunfermline and Livingstone riding a bicycle and trailer, delivering ice-creams to very surprised staff as a way to thank them for their work.

Identify the areas of your culture that currently feel stale and then get creative about how you can start surprising and delighting your people around them.

This should not feel like a slog! If it puts a smile on your face and feels a little risky do it…people, on the whole, will love you for it. Spank away.

Jim Lusty is a partner at Upping Your Elvis, specialists in Creative Leadership

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Surprise Is The Key To Unlocking A Creative Culture

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