The MacArthur Foundation recently announced its 2013 Fellows (link below), so I have “creativity” on my brain. Again. Around the time of the announcement, the “Room for Debate” Op-Ed in the New York Times (link below) had several panelists pen their opinions on “Is Creativity Endangered?” Nothing terribly new, and there were no earth-shatteringly creative perspectives in these op-ed pieces, but a little synthesis of my favorite points, combining some other perspectives, can at least provide some food for thought.
When we mention “creative people,” we tend to immediately link the term to artists, and associate them with “pushing the envelope.” Jana Malamud Smith captures this sentiment more poetically, “We tend to make artists special…because we ask their works to map the outer edge of what is psychologically, aesthetically, technically, and imaginatively possible. We ask them to move us deeply. To appropriate Kafka’s famous thought…we ask their works to labor as ice axes breaking ‘the frozen sea within us.’” (A big thanks to Lauren Camp, from her “Which Silk Shirt” on Mastering Creativity, link below.)
Of course, creativity is not limited to artists. So, MacArthur’s annual gift of fellowships is all the more interesting in its manifestation of diversity. There are scientists, musicians, poets/writers, educators, archeologist, audio preservationist, historian, etc. Most of them are not just talented in their professional disciplines; they are the explorers of the “intersections of disciplines.”
Intellectually, we know and appreciate the risks creative individuals take to bring us breakthroughs, innovations, different perspectives, and to prod us to step into somewhere we haven’t experienced. Emotionally, sometimes, we like the outcomes and other times, we kick and scream or downright detest what’s being proposed. And probably just as often, we shrug our indifference. It’s not an easy task to break “the frozen sea within us,” for both the axe-bearer and the receiver. If these creative endeavors produce success stories, we celebrate the acts and the actors, but the majority of the creative undertakings probably go into the waste bins. In general, we are not too kind to “failures” – which are not all equal, though we tend to treat them equally — especially in organizations.
Some would argue that organizations are designed for efficient operations on known procedures in order to bring maximum profits. That certainly is a big slice of organizational purpose. However, even with such a purpose in mind, organizations can only truly thrive and grow if they pay attention to innovative designs of products and services and create an atmosphere in which employees desire to master their skills. Organizations that survive from year to year without innovation eventually go out of business, or, quite often become the “permanently failing organizations,” a topic I will address in the near future.
Not all the creative and innovative breakthroughs need to be of headline-grabbing quality. Do small ones count? In our “ordinary” lives, yes, they do. In organizations, incremental changes and improvements – small and not easily noticeable — though probably offering lasting effects, tend NOT to get major promotions for their developers. There is another potential detriment for creativity in organizational environment: Organizations are big on groups and committees. Groups and collaborators can create, and have from time to time produced, innovative ideas, products, and practices. However, it is most often the individuals’ thinking and working alone that lead to creative breakthroughs. One of the “Room for Debate” op-ed authors encourages us to immerse ourselves in nature, for example, walking in the woods, to find the creative flow. A group walking in the woods for awesome ideas? Possible, not probable.
In his op-ed piece in the New York Times, the strategic and innovation designer, Idris Mootee writes, “Creativity is not just about ‘aha’ moments or interesting ways to look at things. Creativity is about putting empathy to work. Creativity is not about perfection. Creativity is a means to solve complicated problems.” And, “Many heads are not necessarily better than one. Many heads often reduce creativity by producing group-think. Give individuals space to create, with well-defined goals. Then use the group to build on those ideas and to improvise.”
I find strong resonance in Mr. Mootee’s words. What’s your view on creativity?
Have a wonderfully creative week. Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
Direct Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.