11/22/2010 02:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Managing China: Stimulating Creativity in a Sea of Convention

China is not an individualistic society in which people are confident in self-expression. Innovation will never spontaneously combust. To unleash creativity, managers must forge an environment in which conceptual exploration is encouraged and rewarded.

I am often asked whether the Chinese have the capacity to "be creative." The answer is yes. On an individual level, mainlanders, enriched by a nuanced world view that focuses on interconnectivity of -- or relationships between -- seemingly unrelated phenomena, are highly conceptual. Furthermore, mastery of the Chinese language requires a combination of lateral and analytic thinking. (Most Chinese characters are "categorical ideas" expressed through a disciplined framework of strokes.) Finally, denizens of the Middle Kingdom, Confucian to the core, are ambitious, eager to leave their own mark and achieve societal acknowledgemnt.

But unlocking Middle Kingdom creativity is still a tough nut.

JWT's Uncompleted Journey

I am the CEO of JWT North Asia, an advertising agency. The largest share of revenue is generated from Mainland operations. With a priori apologies for a bit of chest thumping, JWT has achieved a reputation for setting Mainland creative standards. In industry circles, we are known as the "temple of advertising" and, more often than not, dominate awards shows that celebrate creativity and strategic originality. Our turnover rate has never exceeded 15% and is usually well below 10%, a far cry from 30-40% industry averages. Through it all, we have consistently enjoyed double-digital top- and bottom-line growth.

Our greatest managerial challenge is to forge an environment of self-expression and innovative thinking. Success hinges on liberating the creative juices of local staff, from junior account executives and copywriters to senior business directors and creative directors. Without mould-breaking ideas, our relationships with clients are doomed to be short and unprofitable.

Yes, we have made progress. But gains have been hard won, and can be easily lost. Due to cultural imperatives, we are always in danger of regressing back to order-taking, client-appeasing passivity. (In 2005, an Taiwanese managing director landed in our Shanghai office. Her rigidity quickly unleashed despair. Productivity instantly dropped.) These tendencies are reinforced by cultural traits that have not significantly evolved since I arrived in Shanghai in 1998. While more "internationally aware" and "modern," the "new generation" has not become "individualistic," at least not in the Western sense. Society does not -- and perhaps never will -- value challenge to convention. Success is still largely a function of external acknowledgment rather than personal vision.

Advertising, Creativity & Innovation: Dangerous Terrain

Advertising, as a professional landscape, is dangerous terrain. Global and "cool," the field remains seductive. However, many of China's best and brightest stay away, drifting towards the respectability of client-side jobs or owning one's company. (The Self-Made Man is as iconic in Confucian China as in Marlboro's America.) Advertising is not safe. Our product is abstract. Despite a renewed focus on "measurability" and return on investment (ROI), there are few objective standards against which creative ideas can be evaluated. There is no formula that guarantees success, impossible without the leadership "X factor.' Leaders have the courage to persuade, not prove. China, however, is a rule-bound terrain on which rational technocracy is prized more than conceptual adventurism.

China is characterized by a coexistence of conformism and determination, a quixotic combination that has enabled a totalitarian Leninist power structure to lead 1.3 billion people towards superpower status. Subordinates must know precisely what is expected of them. However, at the same time, they must be rewarded to be innovative. Creativity should never be revolutionary. It, like all Middle Kingdom forces of forward momentum, must be incremental. Leaders, in advertising or any other value-added industry, must limn the destination while providing a clear path, a safe path, of getting there.

To liberate ambition -- the dragon in the heart -- latent in every Chinese, a leader must perform the hat trick of making subordinates feel safe enough to dive into shapeless seas. To release the productive potential of the Middle Kingdom's New Generation, managers must ensure employees are given enough space -- but not too much space -- to color outside the lines. Experimentation should be gradual, within the realm of convention.

How to Harness an Innovative Impulse

Here are a few "rules" that can help managers release the innovative, entrepreneurial energies of subordinates.

Define, and Dramatize, the Vision. The Chinese abhor the abstract, non-quantifiable, and unclear. To ensure a sense of security, corporate leaders must raise a hand toward the mountain top. Everything in the Middle Kingdom is a means to end. Without a magnificent destination, the journey -- the process, the joy of collaboration and creative release -- is pointless. Without "confidence of purpose," troops will be immobilized, frozen in their tracks. With no end game, few fight. Your staff, individuals loath to define themselves independent of external acknowledgment, will lapse into anxiety-driven passivity. They will seek refuge in the harbor of hierarchy, opting for "safe silence" rather than proactive self-expression.

At JWT, everyone knows the definition of success: We develop communication that "buys consumers' time." By harnessing a new era of digital empowerment, we transform passive exposure into active engagement. We forge enduring "brand ideas" -- long-term relationships between shopper and brand -- that deepen consumer engagement via media-neutral "participation platforms."

This vision requires vivid, unambiguous promulgation by the CEO. During one-on-one discussions and group rally sessions, the boss eliminates end-game vagueness. He articulates a common vocabulary to define success standards. (Mao's Utopian vision was outlined in a Little Red Book. Ours has been advanced as Three Golden Rules.) Amongst rank and file, 20th-century terminology has been banned. JWT's "brand pioneers" are forbidden from uttering outdate phrases such as "TV commercial," "creative idea," "360 degrees" and "media proposal." They have been replaced by "filmic expression," "engagement idea," "idea-centric" and "connection plan." Manifestations of our common mission are omnipresent: on t-shirts, elevator doors and backpacks; in public relations efforts and annual party skits; inside newcomer orientation material, even reception-area clocks.

Provide a Training Framework for Creativity. Pointing to the mountain top is not enough. Managers must over-invest in training and, more specifically, outline a step-by-step "path" toward creativity. The Chinese are capable of conceptual brilliance. When required to take "risky" leaps within a hierarchy, however, they are stymied. Workers, even at senior levels, are more confident in logical than lateral thinking, particularly when "answers can't be proven." The contours of the "gold-standard" must be readily apparent. To this end, we have articulated a simple methodology, one that might seem prescriptive to Western advertising executives. Here are five inviolable steps of "Engagement Planning" -- rooted in four "truths" -- that generate "model creative" output:

First, identify a Consumer Insight, a fundamental motivation for behavior, that springs from conflict in the heart. This "conflict" can be between or within "human" and "cultural truths."

Second, identity a "Unique Brand Offer"(i.e., UBO), rooted in a "product" or "brand truth," that addresses the insight.

Third, fuse the UBO and Consumer Insight into a "Brand Idea," the long-term relationship between consumer and brand.

Fourth, express the Brand Idea as "Engagement Ideas," creative platforms that encourage consumers to actively participate with (or "spend time" with) the idea.

Fifth, develop a "Connection Plan," a marriage of media and creative idea that leverages the former to increase the salience of the latter and vice versa.

Aspire to "Guru" or "Icon" status. In China, masses must be led toward an unfamiliar Promised Land that exists at the intersection of Stability and Opportunity. The credibility of bosses, therefore, must be beyond reproach. They must attain, and demonstrate, "expert power," mastery of an opaque system in which, as Deng Xiaoping said, rivers are crossed by feelings stones. (JWT's Northeast Asia Executive Creative Director is referred to as the "emperor" of Chinese creativity.") In Confucian China, a civilization in which individual identity is tantamount to societal recognition, connoisseurship must be acknowledged in public, by other industry role models. Any CEO worth his salt has published a book proclaiming a paradigm for glory. JWT's recruiting efforts have been enhanced by leaders' television appearances and though pieces in magazines. My Chinese name, "Sharp Wave," is in the public domain, conveying both intellectual breadth and ambition.

Ensure consistent, unified management. The Taiwanese CEO of one of JWT's largest (and struggling) competitors once leaned to me and whispered, "Tom, the Chinese are uncomfortable with transparency." Nothing could be further from the truth. Opacity, a defining feature of China's business landscape, is fundamentally counterproductive here. And no one likes it. Conventional Chinese leadership is characterized by two unfortunate traits. First, corporate "dictators," struggling to maintain a position atop pinnacles of power, issue unclear instructions. They promulgate hazy edicts requiring oracular interpretation. Second, they divide and conquer, encouraging rival power factions at lower levels of the organization. A common expression -- "gao chu bu sheng han" or, liberally interpreted, "it's lonely at the top" -- illustrates pervasive insecurity of senior managers. Survival is rooted in the obeisance of minions who, unable to see the big picture and unwilling to advance an untested agenda, are locked into submission.

JWT China, on the other hand, has been blessed with cohesive management for 12 years. We have an American CEO, a Hong Kong Executive Creative Director, an Indian Strategic Planning Director and a Shanghainese CFO. We are a culturally balanced team, aligned in terms of product, ethical and management issues. Our unified front, a no holds barred approach to challenging convention, attracts the industry's best and brightest. Within any "structured" environment, political gamesmanship can never be eliminated. However, if senior leaders adopt a zero-tolerance approach to cliques and camps, maneuvering can be diminished.

Stable management is also patriarchal. The Chinese, reticent with the unknown, crave the safety of family. Corporate leaders should position themselves as tough-but-loving parents, dispensing discipline and guidance in equal measure. Similarly, the company should encourage employee-to-employee bonds -- JWT's Facebook group is a hit, as is our intranet gossip site -- so co-workers become a network of "brothers and sisters." Our yearly company trip is an institution. Movie nights, seasonal parties, four o'clock fruit and birthday celebrations make employees feel safe.

Create an Environment of "Dangerous Silence." In America, we talk. We enjoy sounding off. In China, fear of lost face stifles self-expression. Fear of appearing "stupid," particularly in front of superiors, is the mother of insecurity. During creative reviews and client meetings, silence pierces. Genuine individualism -- i.e., societal encouragement of challenging convention -- remains relegated to the counterculture, a tiny group, disconnected from the mainstream.

To combat lowered eyes and shy smiles, management must explicitly foster an atmosphere of paradoxical "safe self-expression" and "dangerous silence." Performance evaluations must reward conceptual adventurism rather than process management. Hierarchical advancement must be fueled by "the courage to persuade," a willingness to articulate the abstract, an eagerness to put an idea on the table and have it shot to pieces. Those who fail to offer points of view must be called to task, shamed by discretion. Experimental follies, learning that frames debate, must be applauded. Leaders, of course, must be careful never to scoff at new ideas. Even unworkable ones should be warmly embraced. Managers must listen, probe, and identify nuggets of inspiration. Raises should not be egalitarian; they should be meritocratic. The greatest rewards should be reserved for the laterally bold, conceptually vigorous and intellectually broad.

Provide Frequent Positive Reinforcement. Yes, meritocratic values are critical. Nonetheless, if young Chinese do not have tangible sense of advancement, they will retreat. Reinforcement schedules must be predictable. Raises, however modest, should be given every year. Promotions should take place at least every eighteen months, lest talent head for the exit. Within our client management department, we have no fewer than nine working level seniority designations: account executive, senior account executive, account manager, senior account manager, associate account director, account director, senior account director, group account director and business director. Our Creative unit, by repute a magnet for earring-sporting, tattooed individualists, boasts almost as many. A few years ago, our sister company, a media company, followed global imperatives by streamlining seniority grades from nine to three. Emotional turmoil erupted. Turnover spiked. The managing director was fired.

Offer Psychotherapy. Managers must coach, listen, advise, cajole and encourage. They must be prepared to spend 25% of their time as counselors. The Confucian combination of restrictive regimentation (face, hierarchy, rules, obedience, conservatism) and trenchant ambition (drive, status projection, careerism) is a spiky brew. Employees want to shine but they are afraid to let it out. They want applause but fear the stage. (Weddings, funerals, conferences and annual parties all feature emcees.) The new generation, sans professional role models or switched on parents, is ill-equipped to navigate the cross currents of these contradictions. Furthermore, they lack insight into their motivations and do not possess the vocabulary to express anxiety. The question, "How you feel?" can unleash tears. Offices should be furnished with comfy couches and stocked with tissues. My degree in Psychology, not to mention having a Jewish mother who was a clinical psychologist, has been pretty useful.

Summing Up

In conclusion, we have defined seven ways for managers to stimulate latent conceptual boldness in the face of pervasive comformism and safety-seeking:

1. Define, and dramatize, the vision;
2. Provide a training framework for creativity;
3. Aspire to "guru" or "icon" status;
4. Ensure consistent, unified management and position the company as "family";
5. Create an environment of "dangerous silence";
6. Offer frequent positive reinforcement;
7. Provide ample psychotherapy.