A few weeks back, Jonah Lehrer did a talk at the RSA to present his new book “Imagine: How Creativity Works”. In the book, Lehrer aims to shed some light on creativity – often thought of as magical – to debunk the myth that it is the preserve of the chosen few. By taking a neuroscientific approach, he looks to identify the patterns, environments and situations that encourage creativity to make it more widely understood.
At the RSA, Lehrer discussed two concepts from his book on how creative success is achieved:
1. Through “moments of insight” – the creativity that comes when we least expect it and when we step away from the problem. E.g. on a long walk, when we travel, in the shower. When the answer arrives, we know it is the right one.
2. Through “grit” – sheer determination and a stubborn refusal to quit on a task. This is often accompanied by a “feeling of knowing” (similar to having a word or someone’s name on the tip of your tongue) and the confidence that if you keep going you’ll find the answer.
Lehrer states that when you’re working on a creative problem and have hit a wall, you need to take a break and step away. Whereas when you have that “feeling of knowing”, keep going because that’s ‘grit’ at work.
There were two other pieces of research that Lehrer referenced, that caught our attention –making us think about the messiness of creativity, and whether companies, as they grow, are equipped to deal with this.
The future of problem-solving is collaborative
Lehrer referred to Ben Jones’ findings on the move away from the lone genius towards collaboration. Our problems are becoming more and more complex and need insight from multiple specialisms to solve them. Jones concluded this through observing patterns in scientific paper submissions – those that were considered more ground-breaking were often those with multiple authors. Innovation was found where seemingly unrelated fields collided.
Similarly, as a company’s problems become more complex, they will need to gather various experts to solve them and create the right spaces and environments for them to work together. As Lehrer stated during his RSA talk “there is value in having smart people hanging around together and solving problems”. Bringing those different thinking processes, ways of working and fields into the same space will be energetic and experimental, but it will also be chaotic and unpredictable. Is this something that a growing company can deal with?
Innovation requires tolerance of ‘craziness’
Lehrer also referenced Geoffrey West’s research (a physicist) on the differences between cities and corporations – as cities grow they become more innovative, but as corporations grow, they become less so. West’s research originated from his studies of organisms and eco-systems and their growth patterns.
Part of the reason for this, says West, is that “cities are tolerant of extraordinary diversity”. When they are small, most companies start off this way – lots of crazy ideas flying around – but, as they reach 50 employees, they move from multi-dimensional to one-dimensional. This is not surprising because as companies grow, they need to consider efficiency, productivity and introduce administrative processes, but it means they lose the creativity and innovation they had as a start-up.
How do you manage creativity?
These research pieces led us back to thinking about the concept of managing creativity (although we believe the term ‘managing creativity’ is an oxymoron – explained later). Creativity is chaotic by its very nature and until we can get comfortable with that we won’t be able to innovate. Are organisations, corporations and businesses equipped to deal with this chaos as they grow? It’s messy, it’s uncomfortable and it’s uncertain.
Teresa Amabile looked at this in her seminal 2001 paper “How to Kill Creativity” (pdf) – a look at the environments that need to exist within an organisation for creativity to flourish. Amabile had found that even though creativity is a desirable feature for innovation, it is often squashed in organisational environments because of conflicting demands:
…creativity is undermined unintentionally every day in work environments that were established – for entirely good reasons – to maximize business imperatives such as co-ordination, productivity, and control.” Amabile, 2001.
As well as identifying the three components of creativity – expertise, creative-thinking and motivation – Amabile identified six elements for enabling creativity: challenge, freedom, resources, work-group features, supervisory encouragement, and organizational support. In brief, creativity cannot be managed in a top-down fashion. It needs space, support and encouragement, but doesn’t work well with control. From our experience of working with teams of creative producers, we’ve discovered that creativity cannot be ‘managed’ only ‘facilitated’ (our earlier point). In contrast, as organisations grow they establish more structure in order to increase profitability. This creates a tension and the paradox that Lehrer also pointed out in his talk – how do you maintain the intensity of a start-up, whilst growing?
We’ll cover our approach for working with creativity in our next post.