“We are all made of stardust, the same particles that make up the stars.”
– Richard Feynman, Nobel prize-wining physicist
Creativity and innovation are critical to corporations if they are going to react successfully to the economic downturn and craft a new future of expansion and opportunity. This is as true of a corporation’s strategy development as much as it is true for its product development. This is as true for how a company thinks about itself and its internal environment as much as how it conceives of the world in which it sells its wares. Now is the time to bring conventional wisdoms about business, brands, and consumers under conscious review. Recognizing and rewarding creativity is the only way forward.
Content aside, the cognitive processes creative people engage in to create their own brand of meaning are common across culture, hierarchy and situational circumstance. Story-making and metaphor-making are among the most critical processes attendant to how creative people interpret, make decisions and are moved to action.
Some bakers, bankers, candlestick makers, cosmologists, prime ministers and presidents, scientists and salespeople, dishwashers and drummers, policy-makers and painters have creativity in their minds and in their blood. Some don’t. An important responsibility of corporate executives is to identify, encourage and reward the “corporate creative.”
WHAT UNDERLIES CREATIVITY?
Creativity is living at that burning point of ‘becoming’ where what one does and who one is merge into a single intention of curiosity, exploration and discovery. The quest is perhaps best defined by Plato’s definition of an idea: to find the underlying pattern behind the surface manifestation of things. Whether the medium is a painter’s canvas or a corporate strategist’s spreadsheet, creativity functions to move others to experience the world and their world in a new way. That is art.
Curiosity implies a certain respect for how things really are, not just standing pat on what one hopes things to be or assumes they are. The gist, the cliché, the stereotype, the business-as-usual stance is the enemy of curiosity. Creativity is where particularities reign over generalities. Creatives in industry or the arts have the persistence (and this persistence requires courage) to make the time to bore into “the real” and wait for it to reveal its authenticity. Creatives in industry and the arts are like surgeons without surgical gloves, who have to “touch” the guts and blood of human feeling and longing and plotting.
Vaclav Havel, the playwright and politician, provides an instructive example. Speaking to a joint session of Congress after he became the Czech president, Havel reflected on what the world needs. He described it as “understanding over explanation.” He suggested we cease seeing the world as governed by finite laws that humankind can direct through rational thinking. His was a rejection of the idea that all things can be grasped objectively by successive approximation. Havel was advocating a need to comprehend meaning from the inside out, in its specific unfolding.
Curiosity, exploration and discovery, of course, presume some prerequisites.
The blossoming of creativity and curiosity in a commercial environment requires a person who has found a place in the world of work that enables him (or her) to pursue in a business context that which is his true nature and true interest. This (potential) employee with self-knowledge must then meet: (1) a corporate hiring practice that attends to selecting people (and assessing people) for how their self-story fits with and evolves along with the corporate story, and (2) an executive cadre that encourages and rewards creativity. When all of this occurs, success and loyalty will follow, while monetary reward is a different (although still important) consideration for longevity.
3. Interdisciplinary Experience
To be applied creatively, self-knowledge and domain expertise requires having many experiences and many different kinds of experiences. In addition to expertise in one area, familiarity with two disciplines is better than one. Ease with two cultures is better than one. Of course, reading the works of great writers is also one of the many ways people can immerse themselves in alternative worlds. Cross-fertilization between various fields/worlds of experience, for example, allows one to abstract differences and commonalities, to know better when a difference is a difference that makes a difference. Experiences in different domains also provide greater acuity to see the boundaries of one’s own vision. And when creative people with diverse interdisciplinary expertise are brought together, collaboration in pursuit of innovative futures always holds a special promise.
THE COGNITIVE FOUNDATIONS OF CREATIVITY
Apart from self- and domain-knowledge, Corporations can look for creative thinkers who possess certain cognitive proclivities:
Creativity requires having access to your own experience of your own experience, not numbing-out or skimming over the top of one’s experience. This demands a sensitivity to what one experiences through their senses, from moment-to-moment. A creative person is not a flat-liner, but rather lives life on an emotional roller-coaster, and likes it that way. They want to be aroused.
For a revealing example of this we need to look no further than to one of the greatest scientific minds in human history: Albert Einstein. At a 1945 lecture at Princeton, Einstein described his way of coming to insight: “Words or data as they are logically written or spoken do not seem to play any role in my primary mechanism of thought. The psychical entities that seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and images that nonetheless can be voluntarily reproduced and combined. There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. But these elements themselves are visual and muscular in type, originating from the intuition of the body. It is clear to me that the desire to arrive logically connected concepts can only be a secondary stage, when the associative and emotional play of images is sufficiently established. (my italics added.)
Creativity tacitly assumes that inspirational experiences can come from anywhere at any time and from anyone. Tunnel vision is limiting, as are preconceived notions of where one’s attention should be paid. Growth is limited when one exists in a cocoon of the familiar and habitual. Voices, places and situations other than your own are critical grist for the innovation mill. The creative person “goes with” the currents suggested by this openness. He is also the first to immediately present to colleagues an inkling of an idea, even before it has been fully worked out. He is excited and wants feedback.
6. Directed Serendipity
Creativity is a process, not an end result. You might have an initial stance, worldview or plan to begin, but it’s not written in concrete and demands flexibility. The creative person is like a billiard ball in the universe, having one’s own mass and velocity, but depending on what he bumps into, careens off in different directions in a way that he contributes to but does not wholly define. Then, after some iterations, he meets the next something and his reaction is, ‘That makes me think of….’ Now he is on to something. Paul McCartney talking about song writing says, “It’ll be bad three times, but the fourth time a little bit of inspiration will come and that one little thing will make it good. Then you try another chord and it pulls it all in.”
This freedom and flexibility is also seen in how creatives can turn crisis into opportunity. A wonderful example is how during World War II, the famous shoemaker, Salvatore Ferragamo, having incurred a shortage in critical supplies and materials, created a method to increase heel strength from old candy wrappers. In other words, a critical part of the creative state of mind is the end is not known at the beginning. (This is in sharp contrast to the typical business meeting where everyone knows where they stand, what they want, what the political possibilities are, and what business-as-usual will dictate.)
7. Blank Sheets
Creatives are intrinsically inclined to put aside dogma, convention, and tradition. They like first to start with the basics, as if never having heard the present problem before. The least creative is the one who thinks, I’ve met this problem before and I dealt with it in such-and-such way, so we’ll do that again, today. Blank sheets essentially means that all assumptions and definitions are “on the table.”
8. Problem Structuring (Before Problem Solving)
Creatives give themselves leeway to bound and segment a problem. They also respect the creative process and do not succumb to external, arbitrary pressures. They do not worry about being wrong (yet), and want to get it RIGHT! Problem structuring entails having more questions than answers and being playful when framing approaches to problems.
9. Subjectivity (Over Objectivity)
Creatives know that objectivity is a false ideal. It’s not that they have an agenda. In fact, their only agenda is discovery. Oliver Sachs, the eminent neuroscientist and author reflects this idea in the context of considering a medical diagnosis. “A clinical diagnosis indicates only a confluence of certain characteristic symptoms or signs or behaviors – a syndrome – but not the actual disease process that causes the syndrome, nor apprehends the experience of the disease by a patient.” Put another way, one can say that what creatives do is live the experience they are focusing on and in doing so, turn data (description and classification) into memory, and memory into blood (see Rilke’s poem, Blood Memory). Corporations should not try to squelch this drama, but harness it in the service of the company. Corporate Creatives transform information by passing it through the sieve of their accumulated experience and recognition of current circumstance to generate an enlightened situation assessment or idea.
Creatives thrive on being in flow – they like to let the creative process “cook,” and go with it: they don’t try to control it. They also exist in the “middle” of it. Mark Morris, considered by many to be the most creative modern dance choreographer living, likes being in the middle. He is said to have a habit of standing inside a dance as he creates it. This is different from what most choreographers do. They devise the steps from the front, facing the dancers. When steps are made from the inside, the primary concern will be for how they feel on the body. When they are created from outside, the main care will be for the picture they make — how they will look to an audience. Morris is famous for the visceral quality of his dances — the fact that they are fleshy, muscular, you can feel them on your own body — which is surely due in part to his habit of choreographing from inside.
Creatives think in story form. Stories have a relational structure that connects plot, character, circumstance, and progress or change. Creatives don’t relate to data as points, but rather look at relationships between data points. This helps them deal with complexity. Creatives with domain knowledge and self knowledge can structure a problem into multi-dimensions with the attendant relations between dimensions such that ideas arise regarding underlying patterns and principles, as well as inferences about non-linear causality. People with less constitutional and cognitive wherewithal attend to isolated data points while adhering to isolated rules.
True creatives move from models of operation to narratives that provide for context sensitivity and themes with variations, and then, finally, to meta-stories (stories about stories). This transformation of data into narrative is critical for creatives. Remember, Peter Pan’s desire to go back to Never-Never Land was motivated to help the “Lost Boys” – the boys who had no stories.
12. Metaphorical Thinking
Gregory Bateson, biologist and systems theorist, said, “Logic is a very elegant tool, but logic alone won’t quite do… because that whole fabric of living things is not put together by logic…. Metaphor is right at the bottom of being alive. ” Metaphor-making is one of the foremost capabilities of the human mind and forms a critical basis of creative thinking. Metaphor literally means “to transport.”
In terms of thinking, metaphor allows one to play a kind of cognitive trick on oneself. I know “Thing 1” and I don’t know “Thing 2” very well, so I’ll “move” Thing 2 over to Thing 1 and call it Thing 1. This transport instigates a cognitive leap from what is to what can be. This frees one from the confines of the literal here-and-now so metaphor can be deployed in the service of future scenarios. Metaphor gives the creative a kind of elbow room to play with ideas and to put things together that usually don’t go together. Moreover, what’s admissible as input to the metaphor-making process is often itself seemingly off-topic information. I recently heard a story about an astrophysicist who, being stuck at an impasse with a certain problem freed himself from it, when, having dinner out with his wife, as he filleted his own grilled branzino and seeing that perfect skeleton extracted from the flesh of the fish, had an insight about symmetry and anti-symmetry. The mind is indeed a wondrous thing.
When creatives are creating they are living in a childlike (not childish) sense of delight, and their vitality is contagious. Daniel Libeskind, the renowned architect said, “You can’t construct a building – or anything for that matter – without optimism.” Creatives are without cynicism. It’s fun when your “doing” equals your “being”, when you are in full career of expressing and exploring the authenticity of human nature, your own nature, and the nature of things. It’s grand. As Wynton Marsalis said, “The world is perfect when you’re playing.” For the corporation who recognizes and cultivates the Corporate Creative, more good things happen.
(One thing the reader has probably already noticed is that many of the aforementioned qualities mutually support each other. Subjectivity, Flow, and Stories help each other out, as does metaphor-making, openness, and sensuality. These qualities are all in creative interaction, operating like a hologram — from any part you can reconstruct the whole. That’s the nature of creativity itself.)
THE ART OF BUSINESS
A subtext of this writing has been to show an affinity between art and business, or more to the point, to show that art and business – as reflected in creativity — stem from the same cognitive root.
Business is part of the stream of culture, and does not just run astride of culture. The question also arises, for example, is a performer a product or a producer of a product, or both? Is, say, Sting, a product or a producer of songs? And do not art and commerce share the same goal: to go beyond the familiar, to “cure” people of the status quo? The continuum is circular and seamless: fine art, art, the arts, pop culture, business, culture.
Perhaps it is fitting to end with a quote from a world-class artist, Mikhail Baryshnikov:
“When a dancer comes onstage, he is not just a blank slate that the choreographer has written on. Behind him he has all the decisions he has made in life…Each time, he has chosen, and in what he is onstage you see the result of those choices. You are looking at the person he is, the person who, at that point, he cannot help be. The soloist is a person with an attitude towards life, a kind of quest, and an internal quality. They know who they are, and they show this to you, willingly.”
That knowledge of Self, and the power to make it register, is what, like the solo performer, should set the corporate creative – and his corporation – apart.
Creatives don’t settle for the way things are. Instead, they…
- Have the creative expertise to find what is “true” and to give voice to that truth.
- Then know how to proceed forward.
- Have a commitment to that path (because sometimes the world will organize against “the new”).
- Have the courage to fight the battle (when they think the battle is worth fighting).
- Keep listening. Recalibrate the familiar. Go on to the next “true.”
This is what all corporations should be in the business of producing: Corporate Creatives, who compose expert blends of reasoning, planning and imagination. Then everyone will prosper, company and citizenry alike.
Dr. Bob Deutsch is a cognitive anthropologist who has worked in the primeval forest studying pre-literate tribal leaders, as well as operating as a participant-observer in “war rooms” on Pennsylvania and Madison Avenues. He is president and founder of the consulting firm, Brain Sells.