Monday, December 16, 2013

People are creative, institutions aren't

I read a recent Slate article entitled Inside the Box, which purports to demonstrate why people "don't actually like creativity" according to the subtitle.  The article notes that we celebrate the results of creativity - new products or services - but claims that when push comes to shove, most of us really don't like creativity.  The article quotes research from Cornell that examined how creative people were in the face of increasing uncertainty.  Not surprisingly, the research found that when people are faced with more uncertainty, they become more adverse to creative thinking and rely on trusted frameworks.  This isn't really an insight. 

The author of the piece goes on to state that even in creative organizations - ad agencies for example, "...ideas be ignored or ridiculed in favor of those who repeat an established solution."  As if this experience "proves" that people like or dislike creativity.  Rather, it demonstrates that creativity and its outcomes are accepted or rejected on contextual and situational conditions, not uniformly rejected by humans everywhere.

What really bothered me about this article was the assertion that "people" don't actually like creativity.  I can find so many reasons to reject that claim that I don't have enough time to respond to all of them.  But let's first debunk the myth that people don't like creativity, and examine the root of the problem rather than the symptoms, as the author has chosen to do.

People are very creative

Yes, we all know the story line that most people have creativity beaten out of them by the educational system where people are rewarded for one right answer.  And yes, many people do face challenging work environments where more emphasis is placed on productivity, efficiency and short term financial success than on creating new products and services.  But these conditions aren't proof that people dislike creativity.  They indicate constraints by conditions or institutions, but they don't demonstrate a dislike of creativity.

In fact, if one were to open the apeture a bit and closely examine all of these "non-creative" people who dislike creativity so much, you'd discover that while the scholastic and work environments may be a waste land of creativity (tongue firmly in cheek) many people spend their free time in very creative activities.  Plenty of people go home to unleash pent-up creativity and inventiveness through hobbies like painting, drawing, sculpture, music, wood working and thousands of other creative activities.  There's plenty of creative energy, just not much of it welcomed or directed at work.  Plenty of people act in community theater, sing in a church choir, play musical instruments with friends, write blogs, newsletters or novels.  The range and expanse of creativity after work hours staggers the mind.  What we should be asking is how do we capture just a small portion of that creativity and use it effectively at work.


If people dislike creativity so much, why are there so many inventions and patents developed each year?  Why do we constantly see so many new inventions that become new products and services? Why so many new companies created?  The creativity and inventiveness of the population is incredible, and left to their own devices many more people would leave their hum-drum jobs and create new companies that deliver new services or products.  How can we ignore all of the creativity in our economy, even in a market that has suffered through slow growth for close to a decade?  It simply is not the case that people are afraid of creativity, or even afraid of the risks associated with creating new products or even companies.

Institutions are afraid of creativity

Here's the rub.  People aren't afraid of creativity.  As individuals we are highly creative, and not all of the creativity was surgically removed in kindergarten.  But we face a huge dilemma.  Our scholastic institutions, work environments and other collectives are often afraid of creativity because they are based on order and control.  Creativity threatens rigid command and control structures.  Let's look at three examples of institutional control that stymies creativity.

Occam's Razor.  Occam, while perhaps not all that famous as a philosopher, left us with one pithy saying.  It's known as Occam's Razor, which suggests that the simplest answer is usually the best.  Businesses, institutions and schools have claimed this for their own.  They prefer simple, easy answers if they solve a challenge, and they are correct in doing so.  Every organization has constraints on people, resources and capital, so finding the simplest answer is always best.  But when no simple answer exists, or a compelling new answer must be found, creativity then becomes vital.  While creativity should always be an option, Occam's Razor suggests that creativity may in some instances interject too much uncertainty in a situation where an answer is found more easily with traditional means.  The more often this occurs, the more often we turn first to simple solutions rather than exercise creativity.

Institutional Preference.  Once an institution or organization reaches any size, it becomes concerned with self-preservation.  It seeks to defend the ground it holds and create incremental change to gain new territory or customers.  Creativity is viewed as a useful tool to initiate growth, but becomes questionable when it challenges any internal orthodoxy.  The more rigid the structures, the less welcome creativity becomes.  Thus, large, entrenched bureaucracies tend to reject creativity the most - corporations, educational systems, governments.  After all, creativity questions or rejects the status quo and may create new and very unusual solutions that neither the institution nor its constituents finds comfortable.

Pain and Risk avoidance.  Creativity is welcome in a setting when a group or company seeks to enter a completely new market, or when they believe there's "nothing to lose".  Otherwise, creativity runs the risk of creating new products or services that may be rejected by customers expecting incremental change, or may create products or services that are ridiculed by the market.  Creativity is often welcomed only on the margins, by firms and institutions in a leadership position, willing to take a significant risk to create new products, or by institutions and firms that lag so far behind that they have nothing to lose by leveraging creativity.  Otherwise most organizations shun creativity because there is little upside and significant downside.

What can we learn about creativity?

From this admittedly non-scientific review of creativity, I hope to leave you with a few things to think about.  First, people of all ages are naturally creative.  We just often fail to tap into their creative energies at work or in institutions.  In research we've conducted we've found a tremendous range of creativity and experience that flourishes for many people after 5pm and on the weekends.  This includes many people who don't seem creative at all at work.  We simply need to align this creativity to corporate goals and tap into it far more frequently.  It is a latent capability waiting to be mined.

Second, people don't dislike creativity, but institutions do.  Institutions have a lot to protect - territories, markets, customers and products.  Creativity threatens the existing order, and there's a lot of investment in that existing order.  Creativity, if enacted regularly within an institution, will require the organization to examine its own belief systems, hierarchies, rules and expectations.  Far simpler to reject creativity and create incremental solutions that don't threaten the structures and disciplines of the organization.

Third, creativity is becoming more and more valuable as large institutions become less relevant to individuals.  Increasingly, people are realizing that governments, educational institutions and large corporations aren't infallible and certainly aren't permanent.  As we create more communities and connections across geographies, countries and industries, as connection devices and channels grow, we will recognize the inherent creativity in all of us and tap into it more frequently.  Organizations will have no choice - they will either shift to embrace creativity more often or will lose share and position to firms that do adjust.

I don't want to argue that "everyone" is creative, or that we are all creative to the same degree or in the same way.  I certainly have no artistic skills, but I enjoy writing, playing musical instruments, tinkering and a number of other activities I consider creative.   Luckily I get to explore some of that creativity at work, and some at home.  We must rethink and refocus our creative energies and capabilities, and learn to leverage them not only off-hours, but increasingly at work and in institutions.  Further, like a character in a Philip K Dick novel, we need to stop believing what people tell us about ourselves and start recognizing our own capabilities.  Everyone is creative to some degree, and in some way.  Tapping into that creativity is vital.  People aren't afraid of creativity, in fact most revel in it.  They just do so away from work and other institutions that reinforce continuity over change.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:22 AM


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