Volume 3, Issue 38
Waves booming, the expletives of gulls as they glide like white boomerangs buzzing us, scouting for handouts. I’m sitting with Lalita at breakfast on the terrace at the Malibu Beach Inn, reading The New York Times and I come across a book review reprinted from the Financial Times of London of the new book The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas by David Burkus.
According to Burkus, taking the review at face value, Plato and the other dons of antiquity were deluded and superstitious in believing that creativity was conferred only on certain humans and that moments of inspiration were given to them by the gods; that even today the popular notion that an “Aha!” moment exists is foolishness, and that creativity really comes down to hard work by large numbers of people working together to generate “creative ideas”. To which my first thought is “Why does it have to be one way and not the other, why can’t there be some truth in all of these ideas?”
The author reportedly goes on to point out that the efforts by organizations to instill increased creativity often backfire, instead causing people to conform so as to belong to a new groupthink where they hold back ideas that they fear would rile the comfort of the tribe and thus cause themselves to become treated like outsiders. This part also has the ring of some truth in it, as I’ve been in such situations, though found myself and a few others quite willing to bear the risk of contrarian creativity.
The book deserves to be read before coming to any conclusions about it, and it surely provokes useful thought if even its review does so. Yet all books that take seeming black and white positions from the title forward would in my estimation have low likelihood of portraying the complexity of the real world as it exists. I will apologize in this space if after reading it I must eat those words, for the review is not the book, the map is not the territory, as S.I. Hayakawa liked to say.
In my practice both at Bill Harvey Consulting and at The Human Effectiveness Institute I’ve often been asked to lead workshops aimed at increasing individual and group creativity and performance. My book Mind Magic is specifically tasked at doing that, and one edition of the book was even experimentally titled Freeing Creative Effectiveness. So as you can see I have a dog in this race, and a potential axe to grind. 😀
Can I prove that I’ve ever induced creativity by a book or workshop or any other means? Alas, no scientific proof yet (we’ll do A/B testing at some point), although anecdotal circumstantial evidence abounds in thousands of letters from readers, including this review from Dan Goleman:
“Highly recommended… will loosen your moorings and open you to creative vistas.” — Dr. Daniel Goleman
Science of course considers individual reports subject to placebo effect and various other biases including the desire to be nice.
In group work, there have been similarly non-definitive measurements. When Richard Zackon and I did an ARF creativity workshop last year it got good scores from the participants and many nice emails. Several people even followed up with telephone consultations. And beyond kind words there has been evidence that one day’s worth of a creativity-inducing workshop has had major positive effect on the directions that leaders of major companies took soon afterward.
I was amazed at the creativity I found in high-ranking officers of two different military branches during workshops I led. In one war game I created, a female officer in charge of a powerful group of units took the bait of my scenario to find a solution even more creative than the one I was going to reveal at the end had nobody thought of it.
The placebo effect and its counterpart in groups, the Hawthorne Effect, suggest that false effects can be caused simply by paying special attention to people. And yet why call these effects “false”? If one can remove pain with salt water and the powers of the subconscious why not use it? If one can cause creative behavior with hand waving, why not take all you can get?
Coming back to the Myth of Creativity book, one of its conclusions ascribed by the review is that creativity is best fostered in organizations where it is challenged. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and compressing a spring or irritating an oyster analogies do apply to inducing creativity. I used to tell my team at a certain large agency that the repressive conduct of my boss at the time was an opportunity to be “creative within constraints”.
At the aforementioned ARF creativity workshop, we had the participants anonymously hand in ratings of their own organization on a ten-point scale of creativity repressiveness and siloed confusion. The range of scores we received covered practically the entire range from zero to ten. Take a look at your own organization and see what score you would give it.
Other than distributing our book and video to your team or doing our workshop, or doing similarly with other interveners from outside the organization, what else can you do? Guard against simulated creativity-inducing exercises, which can backfire. Give people autonomy within the bounds you feel each is equipped to handle and then give a bit more. Give people permission to try new things even if they might fail. When someone screws up, be kind yet honest. Don’t just simulate that, be authentic. Check the effect on target to be sure you’re not kidding yourself to make yourself feel good when you might have actually crushed them.
One way I found it easy to get bollixed organizations to be more creative is to interview the employees and get their creative ideas and then feed those ideas to the top person who can then take credit. That person was always the bottleneck and would only act on creative ideas if he/she could take credit for them. Before the intervention, good ideas had come up in meetings and been shot down, and months had passed until the top person was able to forget that the idea had been mentioned before, then putting it in new garb and “inventing” it as his/her idea. Thus the organization lurched forward, driven by organizational creativity with a delay cycle equal to how long it took the top person’s ego to forget and reinvent.
The notion that the “Aha!” moment is a fiction strikes me as funny. I have had this experience all my life, of ideas putting themselves together in a flash. Carl Jung and William James and many others define the intuition as the mind’s way of suddenly making logical connections among bits of information lying around. Saying that this process does not exist is amusing. Daniel Goleman’s description of the way the brain works at these moments would seem to add further veracity to the existence of “Aha!” moments in fact.
As to Plato’s being superstitious in considering that inspiration can come from levels above human consciousness, please see my new book when it comes out, You Are The Universe: Imagine That, which postulates that all observed phenomena including the paranormal and religious can be accounted for by my Theory of the Conscious Universe, in which we are all one Self living through many avatars, one biocomputer server networked to many clients. In that picture of reality, Plato could easily have been right.
Best to all,
Follow my regular blog contribution at Jack Myers Media Network: In Terms of ROI. It is in the free section of the website at Bill Harvey at MediaBizBloggers.com.