Creativity, In Business Or Otherwise: Can it apply to the collective? Or is it just for individuals?

If creativity can be defined simply as “something new, different, outside the accepted, that catches your attention,” then, I think a group of individuals definitely can be viewed as creative based on what they offer.  But we’d get into some murky water about whose idea first sparked the group effort, and how the idea got further developed, and when creativity morphed into diligence, and so on.  It just seems easier to judge whether an individual is creative or not.  So perhaps I just answered my own questions.  Putting the best creative minds in one room does not guarantee an outcome of the most amazing product, whereas a motley crew might offer the most ingenious creation.

I came across this book some months ago, Creativity in Business, by Michael Ray and Rochelle Myers.  It was based on a popular course taught by the authors at Stanford University.  Ray is a professor in psychology and Myers is an artist and musician who has worked in the business world.  In their introduction, they write, “…without the involvement of some very deep personal sources of creativity, idea-generating techniques used alone could produce confusion – or at best, short-term gains.”  Further on, they used a wise man’s saying, “Art is basically the production of order out of chaos.”  Many business leaders (yes, I’ll allow calling them “leaders…,” at least the ones who have succeeded by being thoughtful) have mentioned, in various manners, that business environment in general, and some elements in particular, are by nature chaotic, e.g. personnel dynamics, moving market targets, various resources, etc.

So, is management like art, attempting to bring order out of chaos?  To some extent yes.  But there is the issue of control which also looms large in management.  What’s the difference?  Control is a tool with which to bring the objective, order and profitability, into fruition.  Order is a dynamic ‘thing’ which should evolve over time.  I love painting the sky precisely because it’s always different.  So, my objective is the different renditions of sky, but the control lies in the years of practice with watercolors.  We all have witnessed and experienced those managers who are into power and control, with less emphasis on leading their groups to achieve a certain order, or outcomes.  These managers confuse control/power with order.  One important ingredient in creativity is curiosity, and some managers seem to go out of their way to avoid being curious.  Control doesn’t, or shouldn’t, become synonymous with eliminating all discretionary actions by their employees; used artistically, it’s an interplay between providing structure and allowing people to explore.

There is an old movie, “Operation Petticoat,” a comedy starring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis.  The captain’s (Grant) role was to decommission a submarine, and Curtis was his first mate.  On route to their destination, they ran into all kinds of difficulties, and the captain allowed Curtis and his crew to acquire resources and assistance in a number of unconventional ways, including painting the submarine in bold pink.  (Was the captain ineffective in exercising control, or brilliant in enabling a desired outcome?)  I know, it’s a movie; it can’t happen in real life!  But the point I make is that management needs to learn to turn people loose to try different avenues.  That’s the equivalence of artist’s need to learn to let go.

Ray and Myers, while acknowledging the impossibility of capturing the creative process in words, do give some outlines for orientation; they call it “Essence,” that “inner resource” living in us.  There are five elements in this Essence:

  • Intuition
  • Will
  • Joy
  • Strength
  • Compassion

Wonderful and expressive words, but oh so difficult to act upon, even individually; and combining all five of them?!  To be creative is a process and a journey; it is a way of life; it is not a goal.  The goal is a song, a painting, a mural… and getting there is about being creative.  An artist friend related a story:  When asked how much time it took to paint a particular painting, her answer was 20 and 30, 20 years to get there and 30 minutes to paint.  Other companies in the computer industry might look at Apple with some envy, in that they seem to churn out awesome consumer products every year.  But it is so much easier to admire what the eyes can see, isn’t it?  Yes, it is a cliché to talk about going beyond the surface, that there is a lot more beneath the surface, etc.  It is always the “how” that eludes us.

This particular book has brought me a lot of pleasure; I love this type of book with its exercises to help me probe into my own potential and contemplate my soul.  The book provides volumes of testimony by well-known business leaders; Steve Jobs was one of their guest speakers.  It is also refreshing to read the MBA students’ and executive students’ “aha’s” at which they arrived after struggling through some seemingly simple exercises, such as watching the movement of water.

There is a wonderful study cited in the book, an analytical study of the process of creativity.  The study was done in a prestigious art institute.  Student were brought individually into a room with two tables, one with 50 or so objects on top; they were told to select one object and set it on the other empty table and do a painting of it.  They were given 2 hours to accomplish the task.  The process was filmed and the paintings were judged by experts.  Those paintings judged to be not very creative were done by students who came in, picked an object, brought to the other table and promptly painted a painting of it.  The ones judged to be more creative were done by students who would change seventeen times.  These students never seemed to be through with their modifications; they seemed always to be trying to find another perspective.  This seemingly muddling-through process, as if not knowing what to do and being without a plan, without a vision, isn’t really random.  These students had some ideas in their heads, but were trying to find expressions approximating what they tried to visualize.  Visions and paintings interplayed through several iterations.

So, creativity is very personal.  I have no doubt that there are books and exercises out there attempting to help the business community learn to break loose in a   collective manner.  I have facilitated such exercises.  The funny thing is that while in my heart of hearts I do believe in the value of some of these exercises, I have never felt at ease facilitating them for groups.  It just feels forced and hokey.  In hindsight, I think this disquiet for me lies in the nature of creativity; as I said, it’s very personal. Participants in a workshop designed for business are seldom there willingly and usually full of skepticism, so whereas these exercises might be tolerated and even fun to do in this classroom environment isolated from the noise of work, participants have difficulties bringing the lessons back to the “real” working world.  The root of this difficulty is that you can’t cram ten-years’ worth of experience and journeys into a three-day workshop and think/hope there will be much staying power.

But I remain hopeful that people in business world will keep trying.  Expand that Essence for yourself, won’t you?  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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2 thoughts on “Creativity, In Business Or Otherwise: Can it apply to the collective? Or is it just for individuals?

  1. I used to enjoy many of the creative exercises during business retreats, but I agree that they often lacked staying power, particularly after returning to stifling management control.

    • “Control” isn’t necessarily the enemy of creativity — it helps actually — but management uses control to smother, and thereby kills creativity. That’s one of the major reasons why I feel uncomfortable facilitating these exercises, as if I’d be betraying participants.

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