Creativity: can a new book inspire it?

The week before last I had the privilege of being an interview subject for a comprehensive study on creativity.  Thomas Vogel, an Emerson College professor currently on sabbatical to research and write a book on the topic, inspired me with questions for well over an hour.  Thomas has a very specific hypothesis and framework for his project that I’ve promised not to reveal, but suffice it to say he’s interested in the following:

Techniques for identifying creative talent.

Whether a culture or environment can encourage creativity.

How to evaluate creative ideas.

Ideally, Thomas’s book will deliver both a report on how great creative organizations do what they do, as well as offer a blueprint for companies striving to become more creative themselves.

There are plenty of people who’ve written about creativity as it relates to our business.  There are the classics like Bob Levenson’s The Bill Bernbach Book, filled with quotes from the master and remarkably relevant to this day; The Book of Gossage, arguably the genesis for the creative perspective that defines Goodby, Silverstein and Partners; and Richard Wilde’s Problems: Solutions: Visual Thinking for Graphic Communications, lessons that have helped teach two generations how to think visually.

More recently, anyone interested in creativity has been rewarded with Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element, a brilliant thesis that admonishes the public school system for confining us to such narrow definitions of intelligence; instead it implores us to find our personal passion and a tribe that can foster it.  IDEO CEO Tim Brown shares his insights in Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. And, of course, there’s always Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers with its simple message and evidence that it’s all about practice.  Lots  of it.

But thinking about organizational creativity – is that an oxymoron? – makes a lot of sense in an age where ideas, stories, technology and media aren’t simply converging, they’re crashing into each other.

Yes, Jaron Lanier, in his You Are Not a Gadget, reminds us that group think won’t yield the kind of original creative idea that one brilliant individual can conceive, but the fact is that we create more and more in teams now.  Take a look at Pixar for example. What comes out the back end is so much more than a writer’s or even a director’s original vision.  Sure someone has to be the benevolent (or not so benevolent) dictator, but the finished product requires not only lots of individual creativity but a culture and organization that fosters it. One that accepts diverse opinions and doesn’t suffer the “not invented here” syndrome or tolerate the ugly kind of competition where people feel compelled to stand up and declare, “that was my idea.”

When we made ads, it was easy.  A writer and an art director had an idea and executed it.  But today, the possibilities of technology, the difference UX can make, the need to design, program, and build something complicates matters.

It’s hard enough to identify creative talent.  Getting different kinds of talent to work together, toward a single goal, all welcoming each other’s contributions to make something better is a challenge. Whether or not one book can help remains to be seen. But an effort to explore how creative companies foster originality — comparing techniques for hiring, identifying common characteristics, understanding  how leaders inspire — is a welcome one.  It will be both fun and interesting to compare one company to another and learn each other’s tricks.

My guess is that Professor Vogel’s ambitious project may not give aspiring creative organizations all the answers, but it will at least force them (and us) to ask questions about what they’re doing and whether or not it’s fostering more creativity, or just getting in the way.

I wish you luck with the project Thomas. Can’t wait to read the results.

Photo by: Lisa Dragon

18 comments
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tobe
tobe

I teach a "creative" course at COM/BU titled Creating Video Advertising. Edward generously came and spoke with my students. There are two issues here. First is creativity as artistic expression. Second is the strategic use of creativity. Advertising is purposeful. There are objectives that need to be achieved for the client. The goal for a teacher/mentor is to define and inspire creativity in our students both artistically and strategically.

I hope my comments don't fall into the "Those Who Can, Do; Those Who Can't, Teach." category.

Thomas
Thomas

Breathing inspires creativity. Books, no matter how well researched and written, do not. Just one person's opinion.

Rita Kaye Vetsch
Rita Kaye Vetsch

Here is a Wonderful & Inspiring Multicultural Children’s book called “The Many Colors of Friendship”. Realizing how important it is to give our children tools and the right education about Diversity, Multiculturalism and Racism, I wanted to write something meaningful that children come away with a positive message. A great way for us to give children ‘wings’ for the future, and encouraging our children to make new and diverse friendships.
Rita Kaye Vetsch
http://www.eloquentbooks.com/TheManyColorsOfFriendship.html

Spencer Ostrander
Spencer Ostrander

Sounds like an exciting book, having read Gladwell's "Outliers" as well as attended Tim Brown's talks and read "Change by design" I wholeheartedly agree that fostering creative talent and is essential to the necessities of any modern company. Given the constant advances in technology and changes in consumer trends a creative team is the only option for remaining innovative. Obviously I believe IDEO has been 'ahead of the game' in this development. Pixar is a wonderful example as well.

Spencer OstranderY
Sophomore
Design+Management
Parsons/New School

Chokdee Rutirasiri
Chokdee Rutirasiri

Our design firm recently gave a workshop at a higher ed marketing conference and we found ourselves talking less about best practices of design (specifically digital design) and more about how to create a culture within one's organization that fosters creativity in order to innovate. We introduced ideas around managing internal politics, agile development, brainstorming, etc. It seemed to resonate with folks.

Our design process is built upon creating a core design team with the client—not just an advisory board we check in with. So it's critical that we assess the talent on the client-end properly to form that development team. We'll pull in marketing, IT, admins, senior management, etc. Everyone is required to check their title at the door. Initially we found that clients were not used to this sort involvement and transparency. But the end result is not only about producing a solid product or service but about changing the culture of how the business is run in order to support said solution and grow.

So far it's been good strategy but clearly it has its own set of risks as well as rewards.

Chokdee Rutirasiri
Chokdee Rutirasiri

Thanks for the RT yesterday, Edward. I have to say I saw you on "Greater Boston" and have referenced you a few times at conferences for how to engage and use Twitter.

A quick aside, I think we were on opposite ends of a JetBlue flight recently (Tampa/Boston) and it was delayed. I was checking on Twitter and was able to find out via your tweets about my flight status, so thanks!

edward boches
edward boches

Chokdee,
Thanks for sharing. I am a big fan of mastering agility in this day and age, and like the fact that you assess talent on the client end. Also, like "check your title at the door."

Mark Burgess
Mark Burgess

Good project (and subject) but needs definition of "creativity" to drive conclusions. Profits/revenue make sense. Like trying to define what is cool without benchmarks. Inspiration generally leads to creativity.

Jeff Shattuck
Jeff Shattuck

I will read this book. I think. A couple of things concern me:

1) I doubt the prof will be successful. He seems to be taking on what economists take on: something happened, so you ask why. The problem with this approach is that you know the answer you seek (company A was creative, company B was not) so as you work to explain, you are reined in by reality and your thesis must support what happened. It's a fool's game. Not one economist has ever been able to predict much of anything over the longer haul based on past happenings, and the longer haul is the only haul that matters.

2) What is creativity? Can this guy really define it. Goodby is creative, yes, but so is IBM, so is Oracle, so is Toyota. Across all these companies creativity must be measure using some sort of common denominator. What is is? Profitability? Revenue? Sheer number of ideas pursued? Tolerance of failure? What? Without a definition, you got nothing.

Here's the thing: I have only ever seen one commonality across creative organizations, competition. And to an academic, competition always seems to be anathema. I get it: once you're tenured, your not competing really; I mean, you are if you want to, but if you want to just hang out and utter brilliant soundbites, you can do that too. Worse, as you look out over the human condition, your answers could never be simple, no way, no how. You're a professor for god's sake!

Bottom line: this guy will, at best, be guessing and even if he's right today, will be be tomorrow? Doubt it.

Jeff
.-= Jeff Shattuck´s last blog ..Stasis kills. =-.

edward boches
edward boches

I have an ex student of his working here. Dylan Klymenko. He raves about Thomas and still uses daily many of the techniques and exercises he learned in the class.

Dan
Dan

You know Edward, it is funny that you also got a message about his appreciation for what is being said here. He is that kind of guy. He will accept anything that adds to a conversation. When I talked to him about the comments here, he had a very stoked expression. I had been itching to respond and he invited me to do so; which created an even wider grin when I told him I would.

I was fortunate enough to take Professor Vogel's Creative Thinking graduate course at Emerson College through the Global Marketing Communications & Advertising program (the one he directs). Like others in the course, I went in with a very linear way of thinking. It took 4-5 weeks for the change to happen, but when it did, we all popped at once. It was remarkable. I had marketing department work and agency life in my back pocket. Not once did I expect such a drastic shift in thought -- Oh, and especially as a media guy (as media guy as they come).

The course wasn't like anything I had ever taken. We met as a class and it had an ending date... no other similarities to academia (I'm not sure what I even got for a grade as there were no grades handed out). For me, it has become a part of my professional life; how I strategize and process thoughts. That sums up the power, influence, and brilliance of his 10 week program. There was one class that I was inspired enough to almost walk out. With my sketch pad in hand, I am sure Professor Vogel would have welcomed it.

Like you Edward, I don't want to reveal anything new outside what you have already written about his research, but it is safe to say that he is not trying to define creativity and the book will be successful.

Great post Edward.

-Dan

@adscientist

edward boches
edward boches

Jeff:
Not at all. In fact I got a dm from Thomas last night saying he loved your comment. Challenging. Re this note: really like the "disagree and commit," not unlike what Pixar talks about re its culture. Also, the hone thing. It was always my weakness as I am Type A and like to get it done and move on. But my new ECD Mark Wenneker is a fanatic about every last tiny little detail. It's why, despite the fact he drives everyone crazy, Mullen's work will get better and better this year and in years to come. Based on your list above, you should write a book.

Jeff Shattuck
Jeff Shattuck

Edward,

Thanks for your reply. I was in a sullen mood last night when I wrote my comment. I feel better this morning, so let me first say that I applaud Thomas. Go for it, dude! Truly, and I hope his discoveries are great and help people get to creativity faster and with even better results.

On further reflection, I think his book will be somewhat like the BRILLIANT Songwriters on Songwriting, by Paul Zollo. Thomas' book will seek to draw conclusions, while Zollo's does not, but both will end up shedding light on the creative process.

For what it's worth, here's what I think creativity demands in an agency (I was an ECD before my brain injury, so my conclusions are based mainly on that experience).

Great Input that establishes a clear goal with limits (a lack of limits/boundaries kills creativity)
Open Debate that drives toward a deeper understanding of what's at stake and must be accomplished
Fierce, but healthy, competition
Ruthless Selection of the Best Ideas
THE BIG SHIFT (once the winning ideas are selected, everyone needs to support them and work to make them better, even if they disagree. Intel called this "disagree and commit". Love that phrase!
Hone... until you just can't hone no more (in other words, until you're out of time)
SELL (People forget this one all the time. For the most part, the greatest ideas don't meet with universal praise. You have to SELL people on them, make them believe, stand tall even as the naysayers seek to cut you down)

Throughout the above: keep your sense of humor intact, assume positive intent (if someone criticizes you, assume they're trying to help, not hurt) and try to relax every now and then (this is when your best ideas will hit you like a freight train)

Again, apologies for my cantankerous previous comment. This blog is way too great for my petty remarks!

Jeff
.-= Jeff Shattuck´s last blog ..Stasis kills. =-.

James
James

I'd add the ability to see and create new connections where none existed previously -- to reinvent an existing approach / technique / story in a new context.
.-= James´s last blog ..Olympic Brand Highlights: Panasonic =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Talent
A comfort with risk taking
Fearlessness
Willingness to fail
Keen powers of observation
Trust in instinct
Standards
Mutually agreed to definition of greatness
Workplace that encourages play
Diversity of thinking
Willingness to embrace change
Culture

There will be characteristics of great creative companies (we are talking mostly about agencies and related kinds of companies) that Thomas will be able to identify. No doubt if he interviews say 30 accomplished creative directors or directors across advertising, film, production, digital, he will uncover similarities and significant differences. He will find, and perhaps reveal, processes for identifying talent, inspiring it, getting it work together, setting it free. He will, perhaps, determine whether Mother's kitchen table is a gimmick or a true catalyst. He might even be able to answer the question of why it is that some people are able to achieve brilliance inside one company and not inside another. I agree with you on the competition comment, especially if it doesn't get destructive. Thomas has worked in the business -- for large and small and great agencies -- and has also built his own. I'm sure he gets that. And from what I know about academia, it's quite competitive. As my friend Scott Karambis used to say: "Why is academia so political and cutthroat? There's so little at stake."

Thanks for your comment. More to come, no doubt.

Cindi Thomas
Cindi Thomas

The ongoing debate of creativity and how to achieve it organizationally has been a fascinating dialog that I have personally watched unfold during my career. I have only worked in the digital field—more specifically, the digital agency world. I have only known the intricacies of overlapping disciplines... visual, technology, etc. Layer in the work I have done to introduce and establish digital strategy and UX to 3 different agencies, and my view of “creativity” in organizations that hang their hat on that term has been eye opening. In my experience, identifying, cultivating, and evaluating creativity boils down to a few simple things; lack of ego, embracing and finding a way to be ok with being uncomfortable, and an insatiable love of leading rather than managing.

I very much look forward to reading the output of this research. It is always energizing to learn from others and glean from their experience. My only fear in such works is the tendency of organizations to use them as a textbook or manual. Checklists to implement some predetermined, prethought-out plan. It never works that way. The key is to walk away from a read of that nature and use it as a spark of an idea. But hey, I guess that could be an organization's first real test of creativity, right?

edward boches
edward boches

Cindi:
Good thoughts. However we should also remember that while the word organization conjures up institution, rules and processes, it's still made up of individuals. If the right ones do as you suggest:

--In my experience, identifying, cultivating, and evaluating creativity boils down to a few simple things; lack of ego, embracing and finding a way to be ok with being uncomfortable, and an insatiable love of leading rather than managing.--

Perhaps they'll succeed.

Thanks for stopping by.

Bruce DeBoer
Bruce DeBoer

Every effort is welcome - let's hope we can also use the research to help change the schooling of our talented kids.
.-= Bruce DeBoer´s last blog ..How Long Did That Take You? =-.