2008 - Managing creativity
For the first time this year we awoke to a heavy snowfall
last weekend, so two of my sons snatched the brief time
available to build a snowman.
Kids have been building snowmen probably as long as there
has been snow and people to gather it. There was the obligatory
carrot nose, cinder eyes and black hat. But this being the
internet generation, there was also the 30-second
video with a surprise ending, the music mash up, and
You Tube distribution to a growing audience all before lunch
time when the snow had disappeared.
To aid distribution there was a blog
on my website and links to Facebook and various other websites
where my children have left their imprints. As I write,
they’re making a remix. This wasn’t a school
project or a piece of homework, but in this short exercise
they were demonstrating all kinds of skills expected of
those working in the creative industries.
First there was the concept. Then there was building on
the idea, use of technology, sampling play-lists, matching
music to action, editing, then marketing and distribution.
The end result was raw but entertaining, a small and amusing
product of their imagination that the boys found intrinsically
Today they are back at school and university preparing
for exams that will give them the certificates on which
employers make their judgements about suitability for work.
Yet little in these certificates will tell recruiters about
a potential job candidate’s creative sparkle.
Does this matter? Well, yes it does, according to Gordon
Torr, the author of a new book, Managing Creative People*,
who points out that 15 different sectors in creative industries,
from advertising to video games, now employ as much as 30
per cent of the workforce in the world’s most developed
The thousands of youngsters tinkering around with videos
all over the world are tomorrow’s workforce, only
many of them don’t see themselves this way and, if
allowed to thrive and build on their skills, probably never
Some are more creative than others and managements that
seek to foster and encourage creativity, must recognise
this argues Mr Torr, a former creative director of J Walter
Thomson, the advertising agency. “The truth is that
creative people are different from other people –
special, for better or worse, in a way that we’re
only just beginning to understand,” he writes.
While his book focuses on the need to stimulate and protect
creative people around the power of ideas, he is critical
of those who try to shoe-horn creativity within the confines
of traditional business management. “The three worst
places to have an idea,” he writes, “are in
an office, in a group and in a hurry.”
Too many companies, he argues, have been seduced by creativity
processes that stifle rather generate creativity. For example,
he describes brainstorming sessions - introduced in the
advertising industry during the 1950s – as “an
effective management tool for exterminating ideas before
they are born.”
This kind of approach to creative problem solving, he argues,
creates discipline and process, denying the value of day
dreaming and spontaneous thought that can lead to truly
He makes a distinction between the creativity that produces
the Mona Lisa or an original TV series such as The Simpsons,
and that which solves problems such as how to join a grid
of nine dots without lifting your pencil. Real creativity,
he defines as “using our imaginations to create novel
and original things.”
Sometimes such creativity requires a degree of freshness
and naivety. Paul Arden, the former creative director of
Saatchi & Saatchi has argued that experience can sometimes
be the enemy of creativity since “experience is built
from solutions to old situations and problems.” But
old situations, he says, may differ from the new ones.
This, incidentally, is why so many people, including conservative
managers grounded in continuity, are resistant to change
in organisations if there is no familiarity with previous
experience. Genuinely creative people are defining their
own change constantly and this can be discomforting to those
Early writers on psychology identified a collection of
differentiating traits in creative people such as an inability
to focus attention and suppress irrelevant thoughts, pessimism,
impulsiveness, rebelliousness and egomania. Leonardo da
Vinci, John Lennon, Mozart, Jackson Pollack and Franz Kafka
all displayed such behaviours.
This is another feature of creative people. They can sometimes
be perceived as organisational misfits: unpredictable, unreliable,
morose, arrogant, non-conformist and impossible to manage.
Moreover the way they think and produce ideas has defeated
the best efforts at measurement which means that modern
management approaches based on well-define metrics have
no adequate way of judging or replicating their performance.
Often they do what they do simply because it pleases them.
In the same way, attempts to impose rigidity on creative
thinking can suffocate ideas but managers schooled in performance
measurement may have difficulty appreciating this.
Mr Torr writes: “In a world that demands results,
and that measures achievement in increments of growth, it
is impossible for the technocratic temperament to make sense
of the behaviour of people who are motivated entirely for
the pleasure of doing something for its own sake.”
He is dismissive of attempts to introduce arts-based creativity
training in to organisations using consultants. “Creativity
workshops won’t unblock the innovation pipeline, and
nor will process,” he writes.
This reads like a breath of fresh air. I cannot tell you
how dispirited I have been in the past when asked to write
about some management novelty, such as music sessions with
bongo drums, designed to encourage creative thinking.
While such events, writes Mr Torr, may be helpful for staff
morale, he says that “to attribute to these interventions
miraculous changes in corporate culture by unlocking ‘creative
ability in a powerful way’ is both disingenuous and
He adds: “There is not a single shred of evidence
to indicate these kinds of programmes have any measurable
effect on corporate creativity in the longer term.”
Instead, he says, those who seek to exploit the best creative
thinking in-house need to build a kind of patronage, internal
minders who act as “the tacklers who prevent the defence
from getting to the quarterback.” These must be people
who appreciate great ideas.
In that sense these guardians must be special people in
themselves since “there is hardly anything in this
world as offensive to most people as an idea they haven’t
thought of themselves.” This is the real problem for
creative people in big companies: how to overcome the not-invented-here
syndrome among managers. No wonder the best ideas are born
*Managing Creative People, Lessons in Leadership for
the Ideas Economy, by Gordon Torr, is published by Wiley,
See also: Promoting
ideas in the workplace