Managing Creativity

I wrote this as a “think” piece for Karen Mahony’s web consultancy Mahony Associates. I worked with Karen for a number of years, first at Wolff Olins and then with her consultancy. Karen now has a small studio – baba – in Prague and is doing some very interesting work, very different from the corporate stuff she was doing in London.

Managing Creativity?
How do people manage to be creative? In a time of rapid change this becomes a key question. As we move in to a joined-up world where barriers of time and location are dissolving, the demand for new ideas, new ways of doing things, new products, new services, new business models, new forms of interaction and communication between people, grows ever more insistent.
In Peter Drucker’s phrase the imperative has now become “… doing something different rather than doing better what is already being done.”
In the following pages we hope to provoke some fresh thinking about what it is to be creative and how creativity can be managed.

“It’s the computer – but it’s not just the computer. It’s the biological revolution – but it’s not just the biological revolution. It’s the shift in energy forms. It’s the new geopolitical balance in the world. It’s the revolt against patriarchy. It’s credit cards plus video games plus stereo plus Walkman units. It’s localism plus globalism. It’s smart typewriters and information workers and electronic banking. It’s the push for decentralization. At one end it’s the space shuttle – at the other the search for individual identity. It’s flex-time and robots and the rising militancy of black and brown and yellow people on the planet. It’s the combined impact of all these forces converging on and shattering our traditional industrial way of life. Above all, it’s the acceleration of change, itself, which marks our moment in history.”
Alvin Toffler, “Previews and Premises”, Pan Books Ltd, 1984 ISBN 0 330 28421 5
“When I say, ‘The Internet changes everything,’ I really mean everything.”
Larry Ellison quoted in “Larry Ellison: Oracle at Web Speed” Fortune 24/5/99
“Change, after all, is only another word for growth, another synonym for learning. We can all do it, and enjoy it, if we want to.”
Charles Handy, “The Age of Unreason”, Business Books Ltd, 1989, pp4
2 What is Creativity?
Creativity can be defined as the process of generating something that makes a difference. It is about doing something or making something that in some way changes the world or changes how someone experiences it. Creativity can occur in any sphere of human activity. Often it is quite spontaneous, a natural reaction to an event or circumstances when a creative response is almost accidental in nature. More interestingly it can also be a deliberate form of action, a process that can be learnt, a process that can be nurtured, and, one hesitates to voice the heresy, a process that can be managed.

“Those who can free themselves of old mindsets, who can open themselves up to new information and surprise, adapt to perspective and context, and focus on process rather than outcome are likely to be creative whether they are scientists, artists, or cooks.”
Ellen Langer, “Mindfulness: Choice and Control in Everyday Life” Harvil/Harper Collins 1989 pp122
“Creativity is the ability to transcend the taken-for-granted.”
Karl-Erik Sveiby, “The Pro-Team: Solving the Dilemma of Organized Creativity in Production” 1995
3 Managing Creativity
The process of generating something that makes a difference, usually involves a mix of insights, observations, talents, skills and abilities.
More often than not it needs a number of people playing different roles in the process. Most importantly of all, except for those spontaneous, accidental moments of creativity, it requires a deep understanding of the process itself. This is why the real secret of creativity may lie in how the process is organised, the boundaries set, the direction defined, the resources allocated, the progress monitored and the outcomes evaluated.
In this sense the key to generating creative outcomes, in what ever field, lies in the management of the process. It needs “managers” who can create the circumstances that allows creativity to flow and have the flair and sensitivity that allows the magic to happen.
Many of the elements that are involved in managing creativity will vary from field to field, but we have identified seven components of the creative process that we believe need “managing” in any creative venture.
Our candidates for success in any creative endeavour are: Curiosity, Capabilities, Clarity, Challenge, Collaboration, Context, and Craft. What are yours?

“Management is, all things considered, the most creative of all arts. It is the art of art. Because it is the organiser of talent.”
Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber quoted in Winston Fletcher, “Creative People: How to manage them and maximize their creativity” Hutchinson Business Books, 1988 pp51
“..whereas much of today’s discussion represents innovation and entrepreneurship as something slightly mysterious, whether gift, talent, inspiration, or ‘flash of genius’, this book represents innovation and entrepreneurship as purposeful tasks that can be organised – are in need of being organised – and as systematic work. It treats innovation and entrepreneurship, in fact, as part of the executive’s job.”
Peter Drucker “Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practice and Principles”, Heinemann, 1985, ppviiii
“Business, in the mad global marketplace, needs a rush of serious creativity. Creativity is, invariably, a by-product of sparks, new views, juxtaposed interests, etc. How does a company acquire those assets? Diversity!”
Tom Peters, “The Pursuit of Wow! Every Person’s Guide to Topsy-Turvy Times” Macmillan 1994 pp19-20
4 Curiosity
The implied questions ‘why?’ and ‘why not?’ underlie all creative activity.
The ‘why?’ is a questioning of how things are. The ‘why not?’ is a questioning of how things might be. Both carry the idea of the world as a dynamic field of possibilities rather than something fixed or static.
Cultivating curiosity, by encouraging the hunger for new experiences and new ideas and by provoking deep questions and different frames of reference is at the heart of successfully managing the creative process.

“Powerful and effective ideas are unlikely to emerge from isolating creativity on a pedestal. Instead, managers must learn to immerse themselves in their companies’ actual circumstances….Creative thinking will arise naturally from a visceral sense of the state of things and from early intimations of new openings and opportunities – awareness acquired by an unbounded and active engagement with the environment.”
RegisMcKenna, “Real Time: Preparing for the Age of the Never Satisfied Customer”, Havard Business School Press, 1997, pp147
“What do you consider to be the major reason for your early and continuing success? Answer, without hesitation: an immense curiosity to know what is going on elsewhere.”
Raymond Loewy, “Industrial Design”, “Royal Designers on design: a selection of the annual addresses given by Royal Designers for Industry at the Royal Society for Arts,1954-84” The Design Council,1986, pp174
“An emeritus professor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cyril Stanley Smith, points out that historically, necessity has not been the mother of invention; rather, necessity opportunistically picks up invention and improvises improvements on it and new use for it, but the roots of invention are to be found else where in motives like curiosity and especially, Smith noted, ‘esthetic curiosity”
Jane Jacobs, “Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life”, 1986, pp222
5 Capabilities
Creativity is often described as a problem-solving activity. The problem with problem-solving is that it focuses on what is rather than what could be. If we want to do things differently rather than better we have to learn to search for the capabilities in any situation. Instead of identifying problems we will have to open ourselves to potentials. Instead of a world of fixed unchanging categories we will have to learn to see the world as more fluid, more open to change, and, ultimately, more mysterious. The trick we have to learn is to balance our habits, our experience, with the fresh and the new. We have to find ways of making the familiar strange to us. We have to tune in to the mysteriousness of the everyday. It is here that play and playful activities assume their role. Play releases us from a hardening of the categories. Play is the tool that allows us to see the capabilities concealed in the familiar.

“The great landscape gardener, Lancelot Brown, when confronted with a client’s estate, did not say “what is your problem?”, he asked “what are the capabilities of this piece of land?”. Optimism, generality, and scope flowed where otherwise all would have been pessimism, specificity, and narrowness. That is what is wrong with conventional wisdom: not enough Capability Browns and too many Problematic Tom, Dicks and Harrys.”
Michael Thompson “Rubbish Theory: The creation and destruction of value, Oxford University Press, 1979: pp51
“To think of design as ‘problem-solving’ is to use a rather dead metaphor for a lively process and to forget that design is not so much a matter of adjusting the status quo as of realising new possibilities and discovering our reactions to them.”
J.Christopher Jones, ” Design Methods: seeds of human futures”, 1980 edition, John Wiley & Sons, 1980, ppxxiii
6 Clarity
Any genuinely creative enterprise is always marked by periods of confusion, ambiguity, false trails and diversions. If you are creating something new, if you are looking at things in a novel way there have to be moments of uncertainty. Clarity of purpose is the anchor and the compass that allows the individual or team to navigate through the necessary chaos of generating new experiences, processes, services and products.

“If it is impossible to stress too strongly the importance of briefing, it is almost equally impossible to stress too strongly the need for the manager to dig deep, to leave no stone unturned and find out everything he can about the project before the briefing begins.”
Winston Fletcher, “Creative People: How to Manage Them and Maximize Their Creativity” Hutchinson Business Books, 19888, pp78
7 Challenge
Making a real difference is always uncomfortable and often disruptive. The familiar, the tried and tested, the conventional is much more comfortable.
It?s also boring and that is why given the right challenge, that intrigues or engages, people can startle themselves with what they produce. Pose the task in a stimulating way, get people to believe they are doing something meaningful, provide a vision of how the seemingly impossible is possible and creativity can start flowing like water released from a dam.

“A game designer, Gunpei Yokoi, asked his boss, ‘What should I make?’ Nintendo chief executive Hiroshi Yamauchi replied, ‘Something great.’ …What should I make? Something great. Wow! What a turn-on! What a motivator! What a challenge to the human imagination! What a wake-up call to curiosity!”
Tom Peters, “The Tom Peters Seminar: Crazy Times Calls For Crazy Organisations” Macmillan, 1994, pp216-217
“A lot of times people don’t do great things because great things aren’t really expected of them and nobody really demands they try and nobody says, ‘Hey, that’s the culture here, to do great things.”
Steve Jobs quoted in Steven Levy, “Insanely Great: The Life And Times Of Macintosh The Computer That Changed Everything”, Viking, 1994, pp143-144
8 Collaboration
Much of the research into creativity has focused on try to identify the characteristics of creative individuals. What is more interesting and less well investigated is the role of collaboration in the creative process.
While creative individuals undoubtedly exist, the notion of the lone creator often seems to crumble when you look at particular cases.
Invariably, the lone creator is, in fact, surrounded by people, who, directly or indirectly contribute to their work. More interesting still is the phenomenon of group creativity, the way that the right mix of people, with a diverse set of skills, experiences and values can come up with a great film, some mould-breaking software, an exciting magazine, an innovative product, an imaginative new business. What is even more fascinating is the way that many of the people involved in such a group may not conform to the characteristics of the creative individual, but in the right context can make as valuable a creative contribution as anyone else.

“…social creativity brings more resources to bear on a given creation than any single individual can master. Whether or not the whole is greater or less than the sum of its parts, it’s certainly greater than any one part. Different members of a team bring different resources to a team. We know different things. We have different strengths. We can make up for one another’s weaknesses. In both quantity and quality of contributions to a task, a team has more to offer than any individual.”
Jay Oglivy “Reconstructing Genius? in “Social Creativity”, ed Alfonso Montuori and Ronald E. Purser, Hampton Press, 1999
“People tend to think collaboration is about people working together. They are mistaken. The issue in collaboration is not just creative individuals, but creative relationships.”
Michael Schrage in an interview in
“…the Lone Ranger is dead. Instead of the individual problem solver we have a new model for creative achievement. People like Steve Jobs or Walt Disney headed groups and found their own greatness in them.”
Warren Bennis quoted in an interview in Management Skills and Development, April 1998
9 Context
If there is a secret to managing creativity it is manage the context, not the people. Managing a context is a subtle art, requiring a super sensitivity to what is going on and knowing when to nudge, when to provoke, when step back and let things happen, when to support and when to challenge. In the right context almost any one can be creative, in the wrong one the most creative person can be reduced to impotence. Creating a context where creativity can thrive maybe the most creative thing that any manager can do and there are no formulas, no neat set of rules, checklists that can do this for them. What it takes is a respect for people and their abilities and the passion to build a situation where people will do the very best they are capable of doing.

“John Coltrane, the legendary jazz musician, was once asked how he managed to perform with such inspiration night after night. He said, ‘When I get to the gig there is McCoy Tyner (pianist), and Elvin Jones (drummer), and Jimmy Garrison (bassist). They begin to play, and the inspiration takes care of itself.'”
Robert Fritz, “Creating” , Butterworth Heinemann 1994 pp248
“The best thing you can do for creative people is just get out of their way. Give them a task and leave them alone.”
Peter Drucker quoted in Winston Fletcher, “Creative People: How to manage them and maximize their creativity” Hutchinson Business Books, 1988, pp107
10 Craft
Craft, like clarity, is one of the bedrocks of creativity. Curiously, the English word ‘craft’ is derived from an Icelandic word meaning ‘strong’ and often it is craft that can give a creative venture its bite, its edge, its strength. Akio Morita, the founder of Sony, once remarked something to the effect that anyone can have a good idea, it’s making happen that is difficult. It is here that craft comes in to play. A foundation of craft, the knowledge that something can be done well and how to do it, breeds the confidence to attempt the new and unfamiliar. Creativity always involves doing something or making something that will have an effect in the world.
The most original idea or concept poorly executed, whether it be a web site, a business plan, a novel, a film, a recipe or any one of the myriad of possible creative outcomes, will founder and fail to make an impact. An original idea develop with craft has the strength to stand out and make a difference.

“Making things look good, feel right and come across clearly should be a general objective.”
Theodor H. Nelson, “The crafting of media”, From the catalog of the “Software” art show, The Jewish Museum, New York, 1970. Show Curator: Jack Burnham. Museum Curator: Karl Katz.
“Craft is something useful made with artfulness, with close attention to detail.”
Stewart Brand, “How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They Are Built”, Viking 1994 pp54
“An artist is not simply a person with ideas. He is the person who has the skills to make his ideas manifest.”
Eric Gill quoted in Sir Gordon Russell, “Skill”, “Royal Designers on design: a selection of the annual addresses given by Royal Designers for Industry at the Royal Society for Arts,1954-84” The Design Council,1986, pp132
There is a temptation to experience creativity as something that “just happens”. For despite the pain, sweat, effort, and plain hard work that invariably accompanies the production of something creative, the “creative bit” of the work, often, just seems to slip out easily and unexpectedly. The paradox is that the real difficulty seems to lie in letting it happen. Sometimes we stumble accidentally in to the state where this occurs. More interestingly, people and groups who consistently produce creative work seem to have learned, consciously or unconsciously, how to manage the process. They choreograph the complex of elements, conditions and circumstances surrounding their work so that the “creative bit”, as Mozart said, will “flow like oil”.

“calm is more conductive to creativity than is anxiety”
Jenny Holzer, ?TRUISMS 1979-1983?
“Despite Thomas Alva Edison’s memorable remark, “Genius is 2 percent inspiration and 98 percent perspiration”, we are not all going to become geniuses simply by sweating more or resolving to try harder. A mind follows its path of least resistance, and it’s when it feels easiest that it is most likely being its most creative. Or, as Mozart used to say, things should “flow like oil” – and Mozart ought to know!”
Douglas R.Hofsadter, “Variations on a Theme as the Crux of Creativity”, in Metamagical Themas, Viking, 1985, pp 233
“Creative people are especially good at ordering their lives so that what they do, when and with whom will enable them to do their best work. If what they need is spontaneity and disorder, then they make sure they have that too.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Living Well: The Psychology of Everyday Life”, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997, pp 39