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We Need To Rethink How We View Creativity

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In a world of new economics, perpetual change, and reduced latency, it goes without saying how important creativity is right now to every organisation on the planet. IBM's survey of 1,500 global CEO's identified creativity as the number one 'leadership competency' of the future. When we think of creativity at an individual level we think of moments of inspiration, big ideas, free-flowing associations, uninhibited thinking. Yet as soon as we think of creativity at an organisational level a strange thing happens. We start to try and control it. We start setting targets. And applying rules. And ritual. Things that make the organisation comfortable but do little to facilitate what we're actually trying to achieve. So creativity is often boxed into a department. Or made the jurisdiction of particular people. Or forced into the artificial restriction of a brainstorming session. Step outside these demarcations and enter a world full of friction, obstruction and justification.

This is wrong for so many reasons, but worst of all has to be that it is such a motivation-sapping, energy-depleting, conviction-destroying reality. If you are, say, a commercial person with a lot of ideas and a passion to change things for the better this can be absolutely soul-destroying.

And I think this needs to stop.

The desire for command and control completely underestimates the value of stepping back, getting out of the way, letting go. It should be about environment not expectation. Facilitation not forcing. Reinforcement not rhetoric. But it is so often not.

Pixar know a thing or two about creativity. The kind of creativity that generates not only spectacular but long-term commercial and artistic success. This fascinating talk (I would embed it but the embed option is clunky as hell - go watch it anyway) by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, reveals the culture and practice of an organisation that is truly built around creativity.

He talks about how we think of creative inspiration as a mysterious solo act, a singular eureka moment or idea whereas in reality, many kinds of product development are highly complex, with the creative process involving a large number of people, often from different disciplines, marshalled around a vision, working effectively together as a team to solve a great many problems:

"There is this illusion that this person is creative and has all this stuff, well the fact is there are literally thousands of ideas involved in putting something like this together. And the notion of ideas as this singular thing is a fundamental flaw. There are so many ideas that what you need is that group behaving creatively. And the person with the vision I think is unique, there are very few people who have that vision.. but if they are not drawing the best out of people then they will fail."

So whilst the organisation (and its leaders) are there to support group leaders, and protect the vision, how the group works is all important:

"We say we are director led, which implies they make all the final decisions, [but] what it means to us is the director has to lead.. and the way we can tell when they are not leading is if people say 'we are not following'."

And he talks about the fallacy of control, the tendency to over-manage, how constant effort to prevent error "screws things up". It is, he says, better to fix problems than to prevent them. Leaders are not set up to know all the answers, and accept that they cannot know everything that is going on. The need to control stifles innovation, and is not as scalable as having talented people that you trust. Long-term success doesn't come from playing it safe, but from adapting to the instability of existing in the middle, in the space where ideas are formed, between the divergent pull of art, commercialism, technology and time. The creative leader's role is not to control, but to create the right environment, to mix things up, to change the dynamics, to protect the vision, to challenge people to keep learning.

In thinking about 'flow' in organisations, John Meredith points to a couple of interesting posts by Joichi Ito (CEO of Creative Commons), and John Lilly (CEO of Mozilla). In the first, Ito talks about Hagel, Seely Brown and Davison's book The Power of Pull which defines the difference between an old organisational order that stocked resources and information, desired control and precision, and pushed messages from the centre to the edge, to a new world where innovation happens at the edges and resources are pulled as needed. From stocks to flows and streams. So whilst it is important to set a general trajectory of where you want to go, it is equally as important to embrace serendipity - to develop a network through sharing, connecting, building, helping others solve problems and allow that network to provide the resources necessary to turn random events into a valuable ones.

Ito then goes on to draw a comparison with Edward Hall's definition of monochronic time (where time and space are delineated into meetings and cubicles to allow organisational scale) vs polychronic time (where everyone is invited, meetings in the open, inviting people into the meeting like a long flow of consciousness).

Doing things in a Polychronic way, says Ito, lacks order and scalability but is rich in context and serendipity and some of the best meetings with the most value have been with connections outside of his normal circle (like Granovetter's strength of weak ties). The point being, that if you plan everything then you are not open to serendipity or unseen value:

"So while my life may look completely chaotic and disorganized...I feel like I am floating in a rich network of highly charged people and serendipitous events, not a single day going by where I don't feel like "Yay! I just did something really good!" Although the heavy travel is wearisome and the lack of stability slightly disorienting, I feel like I'm surrounded by loving, smart people and feel happier than I've ever been in my life."

In the second post, Lilly (in the context of remembering when in his youth he fell asleep in a lecture that contained what was perhaps the very first demonstration of the World Wide Web) reflects on the real turning points in his life and how decisions that he thought would be critical turned out to be not important at all, and how other things he decided to do just for fun changed everything:

"you never know when a decision you make is going to have a profound effect in your life...So my coping strategy - what I do to make everything work for me - is try to put myself into situations where there are tons of great choices, tons of great people, tons of great outcomes possible - so that it makes the odds that I make some really important & good choices that much better."

This sobering Newsweek piece on the decline in American creativity that got some twitter love over the past few days makes some important points (based largely on the work of the University of Georgia's Mark Runco) about the non-denominational nature of creativity, its role of in enhancing both performance and motivation, and about the restriction on creativity of rigid practice and curriculum (Pre-school children for example ask upto 100 questions a day but over time this stops - not because they lost interest. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions).

I think we need to rethink how we view creativity. Organisational reward is misplaced. Management practice is outdated. We need to open ourselves up to more serendipity, to what our networks can contribute. We need to stop trying to control it. We need to loosen up.

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