Saturday, December 04, 2010

Creativity Under The Gun: Perspectives

I am working on a paper about teaching 'Creativity' at the workplace. I have been fascinated by the various workshops and consultants who teach 'Creative Thinking' to white collar workers, and whose methods range from well-set formulas to the abolition of collar, and everything in between. I must admit my curiosity starts from my rather dim view of managers of all sorts, those poor souls who has no skills other than carrying out orders and shepherding others to carry out orders, those who wants to be as far distant from the customers and as close as to the boss/ the owners as possible, and those who don't even possess the skills of making a cup of tea for themselves but claim to have the solutions which can solve the problems of the world: But then I exaggerate. However, whatever the managers are capable of doing, I wonder, how can they be creative: Isn't management all about maintaining the status quo and not to be creative?

This one question pushed me to attempt to understand creativity, and also to critically reflect on the management trade, which I tend to do on and off, in my blog and elsewhere. I must clarify this isn't about scepticism, but wonder - how can you teach creativity to the middle-aged poor souls who always wanted to be slaves, of their ambition, of mortgages, of hierarchies, of bosses that be, of rules and procedures, of formulaic lives? But it indeed seems you can - as millions of dollars are spent on this by smart people and organizations, which surely know what they are doing - as well as there are some successes along the way: Some companies have indeed become quite creative.

So I read around the area and came to know two or three things about Creativity which I did not know before. In my mind, this is a good place to start the discussion - about the nature of creativity - and then progressively explore the areas of management creativity as I keep going.

The first thing I learnt about is the myth of the lone genius. Steven Johnson, whose video I posted earlier on this blog, pointed me to the idea: Creativity, though it seems to be an individual act which originate at a special Eureka moment, is often a social process involving 'liquid networks', chaotic and crowded. The great men often muddle through to big ideas, often the big ideas are lost and found later, because the networks do not support their growth and development. This inherently 'social theory of creativity', if I may call it, runs counter to the stories of Eureka moments primarily inherited from the age of Romantic Science, of 19th century England, where the myth of apple falling in front of Newton was invented. As Steven Johnson contends, Darwin did not reach his big idea while reading Malthus one day at his study, but much before, while he wondered around in scientific literature and went around the world. This conception has some significance in my mind about how organizations try to become 'creative'. In my mind, each organization, however big, is a microcosm of humanity and they need to replicate the 'creative environment' - where openness and spirit of inquiry are highly valued - rather than trying to get creative by hiring a few 'creative geniuses'. Some sectors already do it very well, like Advertising Agencies and Social Software companies; but, in others, where the potential of creative work is no less pervasive, sectors like Education and Public Service, creativity is supposed to come from a few while everyone else should be locked in a chain of command. It is no surprise that these sectors have completely failed to make the mark and is plunging into deep crisis day by day.

Apart from the creative genius/ creative environment debate, I have also tried to understand what creativity is. I have been taught, in the first part of my life when I was in a company career, that creativity is about thinking 'outside the box'. A few examples aside, most of which seemed like practical jokes, the idea never made much sense to me. I have been to seminars wearing thinking hats of different colours, and attended meditation sessions to unlock my creativity, and found them to be deeply repressive. My aha moment in this regard came while reading David Bohm, who talked about science as a creative endeavour and the business of creativity is about finding truth and beauty in the order of things. In this view, as I interpret it, creativity is about finding the 'laws' of nature and the beauty of order and relationships: Transposed in the corporate classrooms, this is about discovering the box first. I can indeed see how creativity can be taught, the first lesson being - Your boss was not appointed by the God - but know that such lessons will surely be unpalatable for most organizations. It is an interesting point as I can connect this to something I read in Michael Cusumano, who argued that while Japanese firms are good in developing industrial software, they fail to develop application software because they lack the irreverence and thus creativity of the American workplace. The same can indeed be said of Indian software engineers, who are doing great work in projects but failing to imagine product ideas: The power distance and individualism are surely coming in the way. However, in line with my belief that everyone can be creative (not just the 'creative geniuses'), I shall also believe that different cultures are creative in different ways. It is the job of the businessmen / policy makers to discover what makes their workers tick and 'create', given their cultural contexts.

Third, I read an interesting study by Teresa Amabile, where she looked at creativity under the time pressure, a reality of everyday corporate life. The study is quite clear: Time Pressure does not help Creativity. However, she looked at four different scenarios of creativity under the gun, and I found these scenarios profoundly interesting:

- High Time Pressure scenario where people think they are on a MISSION, which leads to HIGH level of creative energy

- High Time Pressure scenario where people think they are on a TREADMILL, which leads to LOW level of creative energy

- Low Time Pressure scenario where people think they are on an EXPLORATION, which leads to HIGH level of creative energy

- Low Time Pressure scenario where people think they are on AUTO-PILOT, which leads to LOW level of creative energy.

I found this fascinating and inherently usable. We are back again to the 'Social Context' of creativity, the job of creating the canvass and encouraging the people to play, think and create, rather than the usual formula of 'teaching creativity'. However, this is what I wish to explore - the learning theories and techniques that are used to 'make people creative'. As usual, I shall possibly write about this more as I go along.

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