Creativity. Innovation. Originality. These are today’s buzzwords. Every few years, we get a few. It seems like only yesterday that globalization was top of everyone’s worry list. Before that of course it was all about networks and networking. But today every company with its eye on the ball is concerned about how to be — or how to become — an innovator. And so these companies start to look around for the imaginative people in their midst and to ask some serious questions about how to make everyone else creative. Almost always they do so while labouring under a number of misconceptions about how creativity works.
Only some, special, people are creative — so the job of the management is to identify them.
Wrong. Everyone is creative. Go and visit a nursery school. You will see a room full of children who, without any guidance at all, will find things to do and to make. Give them a few crayons or a few examples and you will have to force them to stop at lunchtime and remind them to eat. This doesn’t go away as they grow up. Tell teenagers that you won’t provide a schedule of entertainments and it’s amazing how quickly they’ll still find something to do. Take the TV and video games away — it works even better.
Percy Barnevik, the former head of ABB, once estimated that companies use five to ten percent of the intellectual capability of their workforce. Studying this phenomenon, consultants even gave it a name — intellectual deficit disorder. This is the process by which companies hire smart people and turn them stupid. How do they do this? Largely by telling them — directly or implicitly — all the things that they must not do. Or creating an environment so characterized by anxiety that people lose their capacity to think. While business leaders pride themselves on the uniformity that their culture imposes across their companies, I wonder how many stop to ask themselves what price they pay for it.
You can’t teach creativity.
You don’t have to. All you have to do is liberate it. From time to time, I run entrepreneurship workshops for groups or companies: offsite meetings where we talk about the nature of entrepreneurial success. Without exception, every time I’ve done this, after a few hours, the group has come up with more ideas for new viable products or businesses than there are people in the room. I don’t dish out drugs or put participants through any esoteric exercises. All I’m really doing is releasing the creativity they inherently possess but so rarely get to use.
As I talk to participants, I’m always struck by how after telling me (without enthusiasm) about their job, they’ll invariably tell me about something else in their life to which they bring huge passion — whether music, stamp collecting, community activities or sport. Denied any creative outlet at work, nevertheless their drive for self-expression is so strong that they always find the time and energy they need for it outside of work. Why, I always wonder, don’t companies see that — and find ways to tap it? Would all that creative energy be poured into YouTube if it could find an outlet through work?
Creativity is fast and furious.
Roy Spence is one of the founders of GSD&M Idea City, one of the leading innovative marketing firms in America, and a pioneer in purpose-based branding. This summer, he threw away his Blackberry and went walking across New England for three weeks. It was his first break since founding the company in 1971. "You know, before the tsunami hit, the animals left. Their instincts took over. Well that’s how I felt about this walk. My instinct took over. I needed something else to be a whole person — as a business person, a creative person, a human person."
He had several epiphanies along the way. But one goes right to the heart of the matter: "I discovered that, in a destination-driven society, everything that gets in your way is a nuisance. But on my way across New England, in a journey-driven society, everything was a nuance. That was one big epiphany. So I asked myself: are we most productive driving to the destination or enjoying every piece of the journey?"
It was when Spence stopped being obsessed by the destination of his walk and started paying attention to the walk itself that he found the greatest richness. This isn’t about leaving work to go walking. It’s about how far any of us is able to savor the process by which we accomplish something. Are we sometimes (perhaps even all the time) too focused on getting work done to extract any value from the experience of doing it?
"I’m still sorting through all of this," says Spence. "I’ve talked to my friends about the surface level — that idea of a destination-driven society. We must meet these goals and get there and that’s all we are. And yet all the great works of philosophy talk about how the final destination will get here faster than you want. So maybe it’s more important to pay attention to the journey. If all you’re doing in business is accumulating milestones, then what's the purpose? I think I knew that intellectually — but walking across New England was a time to stop, look and think. That is really, I think, where creativity is birthed."
For every action in business, there is always an equal and opposite reaction. As companies become more obsessed by speed, we could also think about the value of slowness. If we want to be truly innovative, perhaps what’s needed most is the courage to slow down and reflect on the creativity latent within us. Maybe for every Fast Company we need some slow solitude.