Our culture mythologises creativity while, simultaneously, putting up barriers which prevent people from reaching their creative potential.
As much as “innovation” has been put on a pedestal, enshrined in corporate vision statements and funded by private, state and transnational investors, most companies still do the thing they have always done, in the way they have always done it. We keep hanging on to the coattails of the status quo, for good psychological reasons – fear of failure, various biases – but also because most people, most of the time, do not really understand the direct connection between business innovation, imagination and creativity.
We applaud the achievements of star artists, musicians, designers, architects but that is as far as our appreciation, and our understanding of creativity usually go. The process is reduced to admiration of talent and awards for spectacular success. Creativity is for the chosen few. With talent. And special abilities. It’s just not a thing for average people. Right? Wrong.
We celebrate creativity and applaud the achievements of those star artists, designers and entrepreneurs, but when it comes down to it we accept the new and exciting only once it has been well tested by others.
In the meantime, instead of trying the untried, dreaming up the new, we continue to attend fabulous events and reading blog posts by thought leaders, who continue to tell us that innovation is a good thing, and we must all do it. Yay! It really is like putting lipstick on a pig.
It’s a wonderful idiom “putting lipstick on a pig.” Trying to make something that is too difficult and too ugly seem better by pretending that if you put gloss on it, you’ve done the hard work. Lots of effort, lots of shine, but practically no real effect.
Somehow, putting lipstick on the pig has become the central activity to such a degree that we no longer see the pig, just the lipstick.
If a business is to survive the next five years and then thrive for the subsequent decade, assuming it is in an industry that has a future and that it is run by competent professionals, it has to draw on the collective creativity of all of its people, and all of its customers. It has to see fishing in this collective pool of ideas as a strategic asset, not a thing you do on team building weekends. Can you remember the last time when you spent a week working on something completely new, doing things in ways which were different from the usual ways of doing things, connecting with people outside of your normal circle of colleagues?
Creativity is in part about connecting what is in our heads with ideas from “the edge” and seeing patterns and linkages which may not be apparent to anybody else at the time.
What is required are ways to release the inherent creativity of your people and a system which builds on people’s natural strengths by centering on the psychology of individuals and groups. It needs to be simple in its fundamentals, and a “natural” thing to run. The point of innovation thinking is to allow people in your organisation to have insights about what can be done better, with a system in place to inspire them to do so, collect those insights when they come, and work with them.
Creative professionals have very real value to the business world just beyond that boundary line where art and commerce ordinarily meet.
The value which creative professionals can bring to the table, in addition to providing their specialised services, is in assisting executives in being able to look into the future and to train their people to work in this quickened, confusing, rapidly changing digitally transformed context that surrounds us. Creative professionals can answer the call when someone asks “take me, where I haven’t been.”
Creativity is not about finding new ways to put lipstick on a pig but about ways to make the pig a better pig.
This is the reason why I do what I do – or rather a number or reasons, all pulling in the same direction.
This text is an edited version of a talk I have given several times at conferences large and small, including gatherings of hundreds of bankers, and a dozen or so telecommunication executives. The message is always the same – to innovate you need new ideas, to get new ideas you need people and places you do not necessarily meet or see every day, and the best people here are artists and creatives of all kinds.
Back in the day, when it was normal for artists to collaborate and present their work in public, and nobody carried an iPhone because they did not exist, my old pal, guitar virtuoso Nigel Gavin and I worked together on a series of gallery / festival gigs where he improvised his (awesome) guitar loops / jazzy feel / ambient music to a projection of my photographs. The result was an experience in sight and sound that took the audience on inward journeys of a meditative kind. It worked well.
Now the swelling wave of digital art is upon us. So, Nigel and I are getting the band back together and creating a new sight and sound experience, powered by NFTs, streaming technology and other such good and exciting things. The name of the project is as it was then – Urban Symphony – at which link you will find a quickly evolving project site..
(With thanks to Chris Rea for the title idea for this post..)
The fabulous Stephanie McGann Jantzen is one of the leading voices in the Fireside community and it was a pleasure to chat to her about Boma Global, the Sonophilia Foundation, creativity, politics, leadership, play and the very serious role which art and the artists have to play in this, defining, moment in human history. You can pack a lot into an hour…
It has been my pleasure and privilege to talk to some remarkable people in my regular Fireside chats, be it as part of the Boma Global Studio series, The Creative Farm (making sense of life through conversations with artists) and other programmes. The live recordings, warts and all, are listed HERE.
There is an interesting, and growing, body of research which supports new ways of looking at recruitment. Generation X and Generation Y will select their place of employment according to how a given company ranks in terms of its social values, and whether or not the potential employer is interested in providing people with real opportunities for personal development and meaningful work. Suddenly, dance, music, visual arts and writing have taken on a meaning deeper than “merely” artistic expression. They must be part of an HR Director’s bag of tools.
Towards the end of 2016, the software maker Adobe carried out a broad survey of over 5000 adults of various ages in the US, UK, France, Japan and Germany. The aim was to measure the sentiment people had towards broadly understood creativity, especially in relation to broadly understood success. The survey, titled State of Create 2016and released under the headline “Creativity Pays” found that investing in creativity bears measurable benefits. Let’s take a closer look since the survey addressed the young, and the not so young, coming from many professions, not just the creatives.
The first thing to realise about working in a VUCA world is that it is not possible to “deal” with a VUCA reality and continue business as usual.
That course of action will only lead to the world becoming increasingly more VUCA, and given the exponential nature of the pace of change, further attempts to “get back to normal” will only result in exponentially greater change. “Formulating strategies” and “developing tactics” to “deal with” these qualities will bring about precisely the opposite result to what is desired. The one way to create a reality which goes beyond VUCA is to work towards reducing the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.
The world is VUCA because our systems of economics, our labour structure, environmental laws (such as they are), investment priorities and political practices have made it so – and to even begin to get a fix on a possible course of action means having to understand that all of those vectors are intimately connected. We have been living under the mistaken impression that we could compartmentalise them – management over here, politics there, healthcare around the corner and income disparity way over the horizon. It has been possible to live under that impression because all of those pots had been on a slow simmer, and appeared unrelated. As a whole, the world may be getting richer but over the last decade income disparity has exploded leading to both stunning misery and resulting social unrest. Climate change has finally pierced the comfortable veil of the world’s middle classes (such as they remain) when deadly storms and floods have become recognised as parts of a pattern and not isolated “natural disasters.” Hundreds of thousands of people have been escaping regions of the planet where it is no longer possible to make a living and soon it will be hard to even stay alive. Environmental degradation and the immediate influence of man’s encroachment into wilderness are now playing themselves out with COVID-19.
“Thou shalt edit thyself” was the eleventh commandment. Maybe Moses found only ten of them because Yahweh had a wry sense of humour. Or maybe it was a case of following one’s own advice. (“Needs a bit of trimming here…”) Perhaps the hope was that we’d learn by example, eventually. But we haven’t learned as well as we may have. Loose words everywhere fly through the air like pieces of shrapnel, or lie around the corner like rotting banana peels, just waiting for someone to slip. Sometimes they swarm like that annoyance of mosquitoes I have in my garden right now. Quantity and loudness over quality at the right volume. Too much, too loud. Would verbosity be one of the many ways in which we hope to drown out that persistent internal voice which whispers “memento mori”? Or is it just vanity? But I stand—we all stand—waist-deep, in a rising tide of a spew of barrage-stream-of-consciousness (consciousness if we’re lucky, that is). Especially now, when people are desperate, at all costs, to prove their existence in a world where everyone has suddenly become a broadcaster. “Everybody’s talkin’ at me, can’t hear a word they’re sayin’…”
In the meantime, the tide keeps rising. It’s up to my belly button now. An undisciplined discharge, full of sound and fury, signifying not exactly a whole lot (apologies to William) but certainly carrying an emotional payload: existential dread, mixed with a confused sense of one’s own importance and an urgent need to transcend the limits of one’s condition. The tide keeps rising. It’s now up to my throat and the risk of drowning is real. I do so wish people would treat their words with some more respect, and restraint. A wild flow of verbiage will not drown out the dread. It won’t even dilute it. Instead, you won’t hear yourself think for long enough to discern a way forward. Can writers and editors help, I wonder? Writers think in words like architects think in wire and balsa wood. (This is, in part, a natural progression from thinking in mud, plasticine, spaghetti and our own poo. Writers just take it further.) We hope to have progressed from being children to being grown-ups, and to have learned some discipline along the way. A little more structure; a little less poo. How can writers and editors pass on that learning to the rest of humanity? Any ideas? Editing is about discipline, and discipline is conscious application of what we learn, over and over. Editing is practice. It is a relationship where truth is subjected to scrutiny and made conscious. Then a little less subjective and a bit more universal, if you’re lucky. Editing is about paying attention. Ah. Attention. Here is the rub. A rare and precious thing… All this reminds me of the story of a successful writer giving advice to a rookie: “I have learned that there are two rules to success.” “Yes, yes, please, tell me!” … “Rule number one is, never tell them everything you know.” …
READ THIS in the Journal of Beautiful Business on Medium.
Our culture mythologises creativity while, simultaneously, putting up barriers which prevent people from reaching their creative potential. Now is the time when business urgently needs a new conversation with the arts – a conversation centered not on sponsorship or ownership but on partnership.
I submit that without such a partnership, without accessing artists’ and creatives’ brains and not just their output, business leaders will from now on keep going around in ever decreasing self-referrential circles, in the misguided conviction that they are actively innovating. The need for new ideas is pressing, and business has to look for those further afield than the next “brainstorming offsite.”
Artists and creatives can, and should, be the sources of “the creative juice” required to shift our companies and our economies into World 2.0, if that world is to be anything like a place worth living in. How? Engage artists and creatives not just to do stuff but also to show you, teach you, how they think so as to get that stuff done. Yes, that means getting them into your boardroom, paying them a decent fee, listening to what they have to say and then giving it serious consideration. (I will get into the mechanics of how this ought to work in another article.)
You see, people readily applaud the achievements of star artists, musicians, designers and architects but that is usually the limit of their understanding of creativity, and appreciation of it. The great writer James Baldwin put it most succinctly, describing artists as “a breed of men and women historically despised while living and acclaimed when safely dead.”
The process is reduced to admiration of talent, and awards for spectacular success. There is an assumed barrier between “those people” and you. Creativity is for the chosen few. With talent, and special abilities. It’s just not a thing for average people. Right? Wrong. But you do need to learn how to shift your thinking into a more expansive, curious, searching mode, because creativity is a process, not a talent. It is a way of working and looking at things. Is consists of endless polishing of your craft, and not waiting for the Muses to Grace you with Inspiration. And lots of spade work, actually committing to getting good at functioning creatively. The painter and photographer Chuck Close summed this up: “inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
In business, which urgently needs new thinking, most companies still do the thing they have always done, in the way they have always done it. Even now, in our weird new reality, they hope to get back to “normal” as soon as possible. Even if “innovation” has been put on a pedestal, enshrined in corporate vision statements and funded by private, state and transnational investors, most companies sing praises to innovation while hanging on to the coattails of the status quo. For good psychological reasons, of course — fear of failure, various biases — but also because most people, most of the time, do not really understand the direct connection between imagination, creativity and business innovation. We celebrate creativity and applaud the achievements of those star artists, designers and entrepreneurs, but when it comes down to it we accept the new and exciting only once it has been well tested by others.
“Education systems” everywhere have done an excellent job of beating all but the safest and blandest ‘creativity” out of pupils. That’s where the stupid, destructive conviction that creativity=being able to draw comes from. Worse, that is also where understanding of creativity also ends for most people. “Accepted creativity” is limited by fear. Which is rather unfortunate, because actual creativity comes from courage. If you arere able to draw a perfect apple, that does not make you creative, merely skilled at drawing apples. If you’re able to draw an apple that says “fuckya” to the established way of drawing apples, that is what drives creative progress. It comes from a place of curiosity and a desire to find out “what happens, if…?” Curiosity opens the door to creativity and creativity drives engagement, commitment and, of course, real innovation. Right now is when we have needed extreme innovative thinking the most. There is no going back to normal. Perish that pathetic excuse of a thought. Given how crucial new ideas are to our ability to build World 2.0 — and how important it is that those ideas be drawn rom the widest possible pool of personal perspectives and cultural insights, we need to consciously work to remove that barrier between creativity and “normal people”, and broaden the definition of what we see as creativity in the first place. We need to get into the real work of true innovation thinking, across industries and verticals, with all the hard work and complications this entails.
Can you remember the last time when you spent a week working on something completely new, doing things in ways which were different from the usual ways of doing things, connecting with people outside of your normal circle of colleagues? Because if you haven’t, you weren’t actualy doing innovation.
Don’t feel bad. You are not alone in this. Science tells us, this is a universal problem. There is a ton of research which confirms what we all know deep down: everyone wants innovation, but only after someone else has taken the risk and the trouble to make sure it works first. We want innovation, but not the possibility of having to try a number of times before we get anything decent.
What often ends up happening is a sort of a complicated innovation theatre — which may look interesting, but does not get us any closer to actual innovation taking place. Case in point: a couple of years ago, after twelve months of correspondence aiming to arrange a time to meet, I finally made a presentation to many of the decision makers of a large, well-known construction company. They wanted to look at ways they could become more, you know, innovative. “Too many of them in this room” I though, but proceeded to give my talk which was, ostensibly, well received. Head nodded, lips smiled. Another month went by, then another… I was eventually told that they were “not going to pursue innovation this year.” An interesting statement, I thought, since it opened up a whole raft of possibilities when trying to deconstruct its full significance.
So where to start? Allow me to draw a three-dimensional map of your business. Actually, it is a map of every business, and it resembles a severely squashed down traffic cone. The peak, the highest area right in the centre is where you are busy building up a pile of knowledge, expertise, maybe even success and wealth. It is where the most brain power of your organisation is focused.
Around it is the “slope of progressive execution” — where methods are worked out, products tested, procedures developed so as to keep building up that central peak. It covers a lot of ground and is the supporting piece of landscape as far as the peak is concerned. Out towards the edges, where the circumference of the squashed cone is the largest, that is where your organisation interfaces with other pieces of the landscape — other companies, the world at large — that area which you might describe as “not us.”
Around that circumference is where new ideas are formed. You become progressively more familiar with those ideas as they move towards the centre, but at the edges, where your ideas clash against the ideas of others, that is where the “necessary new” comes into being. You may capture the new and carry it towards the centre in time, but to begin with you are out along the boundary line, where new ideas hatch, listening hard to discover which ones might be interesting, and placing your bets accordingly. This process needs to be supported. If possible, it needs to be formalised, given a framework to hang on and, yes, you can learn different ways of accessing all that “new goodness” from artists and creatives. (More on that coming up in another article, promise.)
Creativity is in part about connecting what is in our heads with ideas from “the edge” and seeing patterns and linkages which may not be apparent to anybody else at the time. Which results in innovation. To get more creativity, you need to extend the size of this flattened out area, and speed up the rate at which ideas from the edge get carried towards the centre, up that slope of progressive execution. That is where those conversations and partnerships with artists and creatives really bear fruit. You are aiming at a space where innovating is as much a natural part of your business operations as planning and execution.
To innovate, we need to imagine, as imagination means not sticking to what we know. To imagine means to let go of boundaries, and to face the fear of the unknown. To do that properly, you need teachers and role models. Role models of imagination.
Imagination is perhaps not a concept which immediately springs to mind when we are asked to list strategic values but I would argue that it actually ought to be at the very top of that list today. A severe lack of imagination has got us into many of the tight spots in which we find ourselves today.
Executives need to find ways to strengthen their own imagination, and grow the imaginative faculties in their people. And to learn about imagination in a time of change, you need to go to the only class of people who see change as fuel and imagination as the daily practice of their craft. Over time, creative professionals have been defined as providers of specified services (writing, photography, music, visual art) which are sometimes seen as somewhat opaque and magical. Apparently, we reach for starlight and mix it with mud and breath of unicorns, to make something the World has not seen before. Which is a lovely image, though not quite an accurate one.
What we do is think differently, and we do it as a matter of course. Because of this we are able to handle change better than many other people, and to work with this change as raw material, and as fuel for creating.
Creative professionals can answer the call when someone asks “take me, where I haven’t been.”
In this little request to look just beyond that boundary line where art and commerce ordinarily meet, lies very real value to the business world. Business people do not usually venture there, but now really, urgently, must.
The mental processes artists and creatives employ can help in the context of looking for ways to tap creative potential, and creating conditions conducive to innovation thinking. Where most business thinking centres around delivery of optimised, repeatable result, creative professionals eat and breathe change, variety and exploration. To imagine situations, run scenarios and quickly assess options is entirely familiar territory to the majority of creative professionals, regardless of their specialisation. This is not necessarily because every creative professional is a natural born genius. Many are, but most are professionals who have focused on making this kind of thinking into daily practice.
The mutual exchange of value between business and creative professionals can, therefore, take place on planes other than just what we have been used to. The value which creative professionals can bring to the table, in addition to providing their specialised services, is in assisting executives in being able to look into the future and to train their people to work in this quickened, confusing, rapidly changing digitally transformed context that surrounds us.
Most ideas are never used, or even remembered. They come, flash brightly, and are gone again. The neural connections that generate new ideas are fleeting, electrochemical sparklets easily lost in the flow of conscious thought and unconscious churn. New ideas are formed in the high pressure zone between the known and certain, and the unknown and unpredictable — when we allow our minds to wander freely while attached to some point of reference residing in what we know; anchored, as it were, in the ordered while perusing the disordered.
Creativity is in part about connecting what is in our heads with ideas from “the edge” and seeing patterns and vectors which may not be apparent to anybody else at the time. This is an entirely subjective process, so any framework designed to capture the ideas of those around you needs to take into consideration the simple fact they all those people will probably work in different ways.
“The problem is that the broad world of ideas has become largely separated from the world of business.”
The COVID19 crisis has, with stark relief, lit up the inadequacy of the many systems which surround us, and leaders in many organisations are finally realising that it is time to address issues other than the easily calculated bottom line. The choice before us is a simple one — try to return to “the way things were” or push through to create systems which actually serve us. The fallout from the disease is going to be broad and deep-reaching. Estimates of intermittent lockdowns till well past the end of 2021 are now getting their hearing so even here, in crisis control, it is clear that what is badly needed is imagination — a chronic lack of which has got us to where we are. Stubbornly pressing on to return to how things were before the virus, will only get us back to that same point where our lack of imagination will be sure to lead to another crisis. Without imagination, we are not going to be able to deal successfully with this crisis, or with any other crisis that is just around the corner. Without imagination we will try to force our way back, instead of visioning a world that could, and must, come to pass. This is true as much on an individual level as on a nation-state level but this writer is concerned with business, so let’s take a look at that a little more deeply. As much as organisations resisted it, the process of change has been forced on us, and it is happening faster than even the most ambitious futurists ever dared suggest. People who work in this field called innovation have been repeating like scratched records, for decades, that change is inevitable, change is happening all the time, change is the only constant, change is something that you need to work with, not against, that change is fuel, not a reason to be terrified, change is the defining principle of our times…