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Donkin on Work - Innovation

April 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 satisfying.

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 nations.

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 will.

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 creative insights.

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 around them.

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 misleading.”

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 in garages.

*Managing Creative People, Lessons in Leadership for the Ideas Economy, by Gordon Torr, is published by Wiley, price £24.99.

See also: Promoting employee creativity

and: Liberating creativity

and: Nurturing ideas in the workplace

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved