How to keep creativity flowing in an organisation: Lessons from @mailchimp

There’s a great video of Mailchimp cofounder Ben Chestnut doing the rounds at the moment. Ross sent it to me a couple of days ago and on his strong recommendation I made the time to watch the whole thing yesterday evening whilst it was raining here in Sydney. Ben talks about a range of things, but mainly walks us through how to keep creativity bubbling along in an organisation, even when you need to begin managing it more and more tightly. It’s an awesome talk.

Here are a few kernals of wisdom I managed to jot down. They’re not verbatim, but close enough for you to get the picture.

Only take 2 weeks to do anything

“Only take 2 weeks. If you’re still talking about it after that, I don’t want to hear it. You’ve got to keep moving it. Velocity. Keep this fast pace. Make people keep making things. We just launched something – can you help? I don’t say “We’re working on something, can you help.”

In this bit of the video, Ben talks about how people can get so caught up with the idea of making something that you never actually make it. This is a huge lesson to learn and something I’m focusing on getting better at. Instead of saying “we’d like to make this” I’m trying more and more to just make something (anything!) and then share that with my colleagues (and clients!) so they can see what I’m trying to do and work on the second version with me.

I love the part where he talks about not saying “We’re working on something”, but instead says, “we’ve launched something” – that’s a very big difference and leads to much more creative outcomes because something is being live tested by users or customers. And, it’s much more fun to see stuff you’ve made out there.

Don’t defend the work you once did

You end up defending the money machine that you made 10 years ago. No ones making new machines. You’re just defending it. Even worse, the creative people at the bottom start thinking that the only way to get ahead is to become a manager.

In this bit, he speaks about how once you’ve hired a number of managers the focus of the organisation turns to protecting the revenue and the customer list you’ve been able to generate. When I worked at World Vision this was a clear presence in many of the things we did. The large success of the Child Sponsorship program had meant that the chance of anything else starting up and succeeding just as much was always very rare.

At Mailchimp he focuses on allowing people little wins and constant moving towards creating something, anything. See the two week bit above.

Be focused on the process, not the success

“Instead of focusing on the work, focus on the entropy or the by product.”

When I was watching this video, I couldn’t help but feel a resonance between the way Ben described how he got into Mailchimp and others I’ve recently ben exposed to and posted about like Yvon Chouinard and Julien Smith. Warren Buffet, too. Instead of focusing on the success you want to have, focus instead on the fun and byproducts of the work you’re doing. The rest, it seems, takes care of itself.

Sometimes, success can surprise you

To that point, Ben’s final message was that Mailchimp just happened. It was something they built for a client and then kept iterating on as the client continued to demand new features. Pretty soon, they realised it was making more revenue than their little web development shop.

“There was no leap or anything. Whilst you’re in there doing your work this thing just pops up.”

It’s a great video – set aside the hour and give it a watch.