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