Sunday, March 13, 2011

9/100: Teaching Creativity

It is interesting that I land myself in a situation that I am writing about - how to be creative under pressure. I am writing a coursework for my masters studies in Education, and the subject is how companies can 'train' their employees to be creative. I have been reading literature and following discussions on the Internet for a while on the subject, and formed an opinion: That too much emphasis is put on technical aspects of creativity - the mechanics of coming up with a new idea - and not so much on the context, that creativity is a deeply social process, which can flourish in an environment set for it.

This brings me head on to the managerial view of creativity, that it is not a haphazard process of getting there, but one that can be managed within time lines and budgets. Indeed, that's exactly what the managers of creative departments - design shops, advertising agencies etc - have been doing for a long time. It is important to note that these organizations are rather typical and they put as much emphasis on setting themselves up as creative solution shops as any other organization. So, the emphasis on creative atmosphere is almost automatic: It is not just craziness of some of the art directors, but a clever ploy to encourage creative thinking.

Teresa Amabile writes about business creativity and she wrote extensively about how creativity can flourish under pressure. In her four-quadrant model, the high creativity/high pressure model works when people see they are on a mission; the high creativity/low pressure model works when people are on an exploration, she says. Remember a sense of mission must be created, as well as the organization must actively think how to pass on a collective sense of mission to its people. The discussion centers around the environment as much as it does for the technical process for creativity.

The reason why this subject appeals to me is because I am trying to encourage some creative thinking with regard to our business programmes in the college. It is incredibly difficult, given the layers of accreditation and management, and the existence of established practices, both commercial and intellectual, that this model must operate with. Besides, the pressures, as in any SME, to keep the revenue going and keep the whole organization in balance are incredible. Risk taking is generally avoided. So, there are a number of environmental constraints why creative thinking, particularly to initiate some sort of a paradigm shift, isn't forthcoming.

So, as a manager, my first task was to create a 'creative' atmosphere: A safe place where people can trust each other and speak their mind. To do this, I tried to remove the hierarchies and the boundaries that came with it. The next step was to eliminate fear: The organization never had hire-and-fire, but people were generally cautious about not displeasing anyone. After working for some time in the organization, I concluded that this fear comes out of the tone of the discussion, which is usually formal and constricted by the roles and positions of the individuals.

What I have been trying therefore is to change the tone - keeping it respectful and balanced, but making it playful in a way, by which one can express what they feel without having to argue. This turned out to be more difficult than I thought: Humour, while incredibly powerful, is a difficult communication platform to establish. These days, one of my selection criteria is to see whether the potential candidate has a sense of humour, because otherwise I shall find it extremely difficult to integrate her in the creative 'pond' that I am trying to create.

So far, I have facilitated a number of experiments in the content and delivery at the business school, but kept them at the experiment level. I have not pushed for formalization of any of these - online learning, networking platforms, custom text books and tutoring - because it is easier for people to take risks with something with lower stakes. What I have in hand, therefore, is a number of pilots and concepts at this time. I see this as an essential first step for initiating some creative thinking in a highly regulated environment managed through a hierarchy.

I am indeed moving towards the next stage, the riskier one when some of these pilots are formally incorporated in what we do. I can't claim that they have been sufficiently tested, but I am also aware that we don't have much opportunity to keep experimenting on these ideas anymore. The obviously bad ones must be dropped now and the good ones must be given greater support and focus, within the formal process. This stage, which an organization must invariably arrive at, sooner or later, usually is painful, as the owners of the original idea usually resent the formalization, as it often involves some compromises. I am fully prepared with these risks - institutional and intellectual - and actually enjoying this progression into phase two.

So, my writing and my work are so intricately linked that I am enjoying it immensely. I keep this blog for the opportunity to reflect and to converse, so this is an obvious post to make.

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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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