I took the day off on Friday. A spur of the moment decision, really. My daughter was finishing a summer camp near Asheville, NC and I decided to go up with the family and spend the weekend there. If you haven’t visited Asheville, I’d highly recommend it. Asheville sits in the Blue Ridge mountains in Western North Carolina and is in a beautiful setting. Moreover, Asheville is an interesting city because of the barons of the Gilded Age who built a good portion of the downtown, and Vanderbilt, who built the Biltmore. However, in the last twenty years or so Asheville has become a real draw for artists, including pottery and ceramics, glass blowers and painters.
We went on a short walk through the River Arts district, watching a number of artists ply their trades – potters and ceramics makers, glass blowers, furniture makers and a few painters. One that struck me in particular was Jonas Gerard. I’d not heard of Gerard before Saturday, and I’m not sure his work is to my “taste”, but we had an opportunity to watch him paint, and it was fascinating.
Watching an artist create something is amazing for someone like me with little skills in the graphic arts. When I draw something I try to imagine what it “should” look like and then re-create it on paper. Jonas spoke after he had finished his piece and said that the painting “wanted to be flowers”. It was his job to bring those flowers out of the painting. Jonas worked rapidly, almost without contemplation. He rushed up, dabbed paint on the canvas, then turned away for another color or another brush, and did it again. His work seemed a jumble until it was finished.
His art was distributed throughout the gallery, and so were a number of quotes. One that struck me as being exceptionally true was the statement by Matisse that “creativity takes courage”. It takes courage to be an artist – to create a piece of art that will inevitably be judged by others. It takes courage to suggest that a painting can be an impression of a scene, rather than a perfect reproduction of the scene. It takes courage to create entirely new forms of painting as Pollock and Johns and others did. These artists have the courage of their vision to create their art. We in business need to learn from their example. We need to have the courage of creativity. Many people think that courage is the ability to face some terrible threat, such as a solider in wartime. Simple courage is much more basic than that – the ability to create an idea that differs from the status quo, or to follow a passion, even in the face of possible skepticism from your friends and colleagues.
Creativity requires courage in business because any suggestion other than the most efficient or most reasonable is usually met with a snort of derision or scorn. Varying even slightly from the accepted orthodoxy is tantamount to mental deviance in many firms. Look at so many large financial services firms today. Rather than find new ways to interact with their customers after the financial meltdown, the only consistent response is to offer more of the same, only with higher fees. Not one financial services firm has explored a truly different or creative approach to addressing the financial needs of customers. That’s because they are limited by the expectations of Wall Street. Their creativity is constrained and thus every bank and every bank product looks exactly like every other bank and bank product.
A firm either encourages and embraces the creativity of its people or it conforms and rejects those creative impulses. These actions also create virtuous circles (when reinforcing creativity) or vicious circles (when rejecting creativity). Business firms that reject creativity from their employees will eventually work themselves into a dead end where they recognize the need for creativity but can’t “find” it in their teams. That’s because they’ve reinforced the notion that creativity is for creative firms, not for real businesses. Until the day its really needed and everyone exclaims that “we aren’t creative”. Firms that encourage and reinforce creativity in their staff create a virtuous circle. They become firms that attract talent and grow talent more effectively. They are more interesting places to work, where people can express their interests and passions. They’ll never run out of ideas. Yet to create such a place requires courage – the courage of the executives to embrace innovation, and the courage of the staff to sustain innovation everyday.
Creativity takes courage, whether you are an artist, a teacher, a business person or a government official. If you are worried about what other people will think, or how your boss will assess you, then you’ve put the brakes on your own creativity, and eventually on your own growth. Take courage, and introduce some creativity in your work today. You’ll be the spark that ignites the rest of the business.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.