Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Vulgar Creativity

“Companies constantly tell us about their commitment to excellence, implying that this means they will make only top-shelf products. Words like quality and excellence are misapplied so relentlessly that they border on meaningless….To ensure quality, then, excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves.”
                                                --Ed Catmull (with Amy Wallace) in Creativity, Inc.

Catmull and Wallace’s recent account of Pixar’s decades-long journey is an impassioned call for individuals and organizations not just to speak their core beliefs and values but to act on them consistently and imaginatively.  Many of these beliefs, from quality and excellence to “trust the process” and “story is king” are familiar invocations of business intent and purpose.  Yet running through Creativity, Inc. is the crucial insight that repeating such words and phrases can actually provide false confidence and be counter-productive if they ring hollow and are not put into practice.   

Probably the word with the most potential to mislead is “creativity” itself and Catmull and Wallace’s book can be read as a 368-page illustration of how an ongoing, collective, and enacted focus can make the commitment to that value real and dynamic.  At a time when “creativity” and “innovation” appear everywhere in corporate pronouncements, doing more than parroting the words is a consistent challenge for leaders and organizations.  I have written about this elsewhere, as have others, like Shane Snow, who goes so far as assert, “If you have tocall yourself innovative, you’re probably not.” 

Beyond taking care with one’s own usage of these basic terms, a question arises about the recognition by others of a given individual’s or firm’s creativity or innovation.  These are enormously slippery concepts, varying across cultures and industries and markets.  The novelty, freshness or utility celebrated in one situation or context can be viewed as familiar or even clich├ęd in another.  As a result, we might reasonably ask, How can creativity become an “earned word, attributed by others to us”?

One answer is to consider what I call “vulgar creativity” in assessing and practicing imaginative activities and production.  The qualifying word, “vulgar,” has several meanings and historical resonances that are vital to approaching that process.  While not one-dimensional, the term can nevertheless help to orient our thinking and actions around creativity in businesses and elsewhere. 

“Vulgar” derives from the Latin word for “common people” and originally was used to describe their ordinary, everyday uses of things or ideas.  A “vulgar tongue” in the Middle Ages thus meant the actual or vernacular language of a people as opposed to an official or elite one.  Over the last century, sophisticated social and cultural theorists from Walter Benjamin to Terry Eagleton have criticized “vulgar Marxism” for reductionist readings of Marx and Engels that claim ideology (including art and creative work) is simply determined by economic structures.  There’s irony, for some, in such bemoaning of a common people’s understanding of Marx, who, after all, sought to empower them.  More importantly, though, the example casts in relief two distinct (if often overlapping) meanings conveyed by the term, vulgar – namely, of being of the people and ordinary and of oversimplification, edginess, and even crudeness.   

That everyone is, or has the potential to be, (more) creative has become an article of faith for many in the twenty-first century.  Sir Ken Robinson is a persuasive and much-admired exponent of this view.  He concentrates on how schools “kill creativity” in order to illuminate alternative ways that they, and other organizations including businesses, can cultivate and liberate individual imagination.  By helping unlearn the standardized “command and control” approaches to learning that predominate in education, he calls instead for a diverse, individualized and organic approach to encouraging students to thrive.  Rather than a select, chosen creative few, Robinson’s presumption is that these changes will foster the curiosity and unleash the ability to experiment existing in us all.

It is here, however, that the second meaning of vulgar can re-emerge and complicate our celebration of universal creativity.  Conventionally, creative activity involves plunging into the unknown, engaging unorthodox thinking, experimenting continuously, and incorporating a bit of irreverence (to use advertising legend Sir John Hegarty’s term).  Yet those drives, particularly in business, are often reduced to simplistic taglines or formulaic processes.  Even worse, the admirable goal of nurturing greater creativity too often turns merely on unfettering individual free thinking or expression.  Supporting creativity, in other words, becomes about removing as many filters, structures or other constraints as possible rather than building a diverse, stimulating, and organic environment that cultivates individual and group learning and imagination.     

Simply unfiltering individual expression or behavior may have individual value in terms of personal fulfillment or happiness (or other indirect benefits to organizations or groups), but it does not necessarily provide the makings of a wider and more sustainable creative culture.  The British scholar of creativity, Margaret Boden, once distinguished personal from historical creativity by observing that what is novel to one individual at any given moment is often not to the wider society or across history.  While that personal creative expressiveness should be nurtured, it also needs to be differentiated from what is new, surprising or useful for larger communities, markets or societies. 

To be mindful of vulgar creativity is to recognize both the ordinary, democratic potential of creativity and, in business, particularly, its social or organizational reality and dynamics.  The point is not to judge worthy those efforts at fostering creativity affirmed by crowds or markets and dismiss others.  However, it is to acknowledge that, too often in business, attention to creativity and innovation is reduced to celebrating novelty without value or facilitating individual expression without wider purpose.

In 1982, film and cultural commentator J. Hoberman published “Vulgar Modernism,” an article in which he argued that many popular, even apparently tasteless productions like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedies, Tex Avery cartoons and Mad magazine, engaged some of the same mid-twentieth century aesthetic, institutional and social questions as the Modernist art of Picasso, Manet, and bebop.  Hoberman was seeking to make sense of the post-World War II years in which a fraught relationship between popular and “high” cultures was being renegotiated.  Invoking the “vulgar” became a way to approach the rich and productive tensions marking the practices of mainstream media and audiences.

Only a few years later, pioneering adman Bill Bernbach observed, “Is creativity some obscure, esoteric art form? Not on your life. It’s the most practical thing a businessman can employ.”  For Bernbach then, and continuing in business today, the successful approach to creativity should be similarly broad and shaped by productive tensions – between espoused beliefs and substantive actions, customer needs and firm purpose, and organizational processes and individual imagination.  In its embrace of such crucial tensions, “vulgar creativity” can provide another reminder to leaders of the value of empowering more universal creativity while always grounding that effort in the world they see and aspire to change.     

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Is Leaders' Talk Cheap?

Earlier this year, two sociologists provoked a probing debate about the integrity and value of interviewing as a research method.  Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan, respectively of New York University and Columbia University & Berlin School of Creative Leadership (Steinbeis University), launched their broadside in the May 2014 issue of Sociological Methods & Research.  While this methodological deep dive and accompanying critical discussion were made in the context of a specific discipline, the challenges mounted have relevance for research in all fields where interviews are widely used.  For management and business studies, in particular, in which interviews of leaders are often central to substantiating and defending accounts and insights of organizational and industry practice, such questioning has potentially far-reaching implications.

Though Jerolmack and Khan’s argument is dense and sophisticated, one of their major concerns is captured in what they call the ‘Attitudinal Fallacy,’ which claims that correlations of reported attitudes with situated behavior are never high enough to presume equivalence. ‘Attitudes are poor predictors of action’, they contend, and since interviews are shaped by and convey subjects’ attitudes, they constitute an inherently unreliable approach to researching the reality of these individuals’ actions. 

Respondents to the original piece closely engaged this issue of ‘ABC’, or Attitude-Behavior Consistency.  For instance, Karen Cerulo, a researcher of cognition and culture at Rutgers, acknowledged the longstanding discrepancy or word and action while nevertheless urging that critics don’t overstate the problem.  Sometimes what people think or say does inform what they do, she notes, and so we should still value, if with more circumspection, the content of interviews.  Moreover, even if words and actions are sometimes specifically inconsistent, individual level data can sometimes illustrate more general patterns of action worth highlighting.

To their credit, Jerolmack and Khan don’t reject interviews entirely but instead call for greater methodological pluralism in research.  Rather than relying entirely or disproportionately on interviews, in other words, they urge increased deployment of ethnographies, deep or participant observation, qualitative data gathering, little or big data, and holistic analysis.  In research on business and leadership, especially, questioning the integrity of interviews and calling for multiple research methods compounds the challenge of gathering data and insights about individuals and organizations. 

This is not only an issue for researchers of business and management research and analysis but for readers and practitioners.  Ask yourself: How many recent books or articles on leadership or effective business practice have you read that rely on interviews, typically of successful leaders about their beliefs and experiences, to advance a distinctive insight or approach?  Content drawn from interviews or other first-person sourcing of business leaders’ viewpoints is especially common, indeed is a major selling point, in popular business writing and journalism.  

Connecting Individual Attitudes with Organizational Behaviors
The words of leaders are typically taken by readers and listeners as reliable expressions of their behaviors – past, present, or future.  The credibility of those words, and those speaking or writing them, is crucial, of course, and turns back to the fundamental challenge of ABC.  While we may debate whether Marissa Mayer’s online strategy for Yahoo! is the right one, for example, we accept that her words capture what she and the company are actually doing.

Yet the matters of credibility and consistency are further tested by the break between individual claims or characterizations and the often widely disparate actions of organizations.  Even as leaders speak, the connection to collective behavior – as summary, explanation, cause, plan – remains opaque amidst so many possible causes.  As much as we want to ground our understanding of corporate and collective reality in personal attitudes, explaining corporate or organizational behavior demands wider attention to persons, situations and the actual interactions between them.

Research and Access in Business and Organizations
Jerolmack and Khan identify another shortcoming, the ‘Accounting Fallacy’, to emphasize the fallibility of individual accounts and self-reporting and how they cannot accurately stand in for analyses of actual behavior.  To generate wider explanations of the situations and interactions in organizational life requires multiple research approaches.  Yet in most corporate settings, these are impossible for outside researchers and analysts to pursue.  Confidentiality, distraction, and the priorities of time and other resource allocation typically limit or preclude more robust access to people and situations.   

The usual response to this lack of access is to judge leaders’ words by specific indicators of their organizations’ performance.  Rather than methodological pluralism in research about corporate actions, particular outcomes – like products, services, and financial, innovation or creative results – become the basis for assessing those words.  This makes certain sense.  After all, we invest in some firms, say Alibaba, because of the value they can deliver or promise to customers and in the marketplace.  Yet even in a world of inevitably incomplete information, attributing the successful or failed results of complex organizational behavior to individual words is a poor substitute for ascertaining more robust and varied understanding of the actual collective situations producing the results. 

Interviews as Public and Professional Performances
Another source of uncertainty in trying to connect the words of leaders to their organizations’ actions is the recognition that many interviews, whether public or ostensibly not, are performances.  Both the carefully crafted pronouncements of leaders and their closely managed professional personae affect whatever claims researchers and others may be able to make about them.  Even when the words may not correspond to actual behaviors of the organization, present or past, they may nevertheless be presented in the interests of the company, its brand management, and public relations.

Ultimately, an ethical aspect emerges here: do we trust what leaders say?  And even if we recognize that some words may be exaggerated (recall Steve Jobs’ ‘reality distortion field’), do we justify that hyperbole in terms of other ends, like increasing shareholder or market value or hyping and delivering new products?  While the trust issue exists in all interviews, where we can question the correlation of self-reports of behavior, the test of consistency between words and actions becomes all the more complicated when leaders may be trying to achieve multiple ends and speak to multiple audiences in the same interview.

Authorities, Elites, and Celebrities
If the interview responses of leaders are shaped by a range of organizational interests, the interactions with researchers and others that prompt these responses can be strongly impacted by the status or reputation of the leader himself or herself.  We choose to interview or otherwise solicit the perspectives of leaders in the first place because of their experience or position, expertise or accomplishment.  Yet that very appeal to authority can limit the thoroughness of the interview and consequently the integrity of the verbal data emerging from it.

At a practical and human level, interacting with very senior or elite leaders involves unequal power relations that can be difficult to navigate.  Consider the prospect of interviewing Richard Branson or Sheryl Sandberg or Martin Sorrell.  Establishing the kind of access, trust and rapport so important for substantive exchanges and then producing meaningful data is particularly challenging with the involvement of subjects like these who possess great seniority, reputation, and even celebrity.

Caveat Lector
Taken together, these considerations suggest that interviews with leaders, since they typically concern collective or corporate behaviors as well as those leaders’ reports of their own individual actions, would benefit from more multidimensional analysis and layered understanding of their accounts.  While this call resonates with Jerolmack and Khan’s general imperative to expand the range and integration of methods employed in researching social or corporate action, it takes on special significance in a field of research where leaders’ words are accorded such value and prominence.  For external researchers of organizations, gaining meaningful access and developing robust contextual understanding of the special situations (and constraints) of organizational life are ongoing challenges.  For readers of business and management research as well as more popular analyses reliant upon the words of leaders, the methodological debate should prompt us to question, constructively but more diligently, the accuracy of the claims leaders make about their own actions as well as those of their organizations.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Move Fast (Together) and Fix Things: Some Lessons of Crisis Leadership

Early this summer in Tokyo, I had the opportunity to hear an insightful presentation on the media and social responses to the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor meltdown.  The session was part of a Berlin School of Creative Leadership Executive MBA module in Asia and the presenter was an alumnus of that program, Yukio Nakayama, who serves as Executive Creative Director at the Dentsu advertising agency.  After providing general background on the events, Yukio’s account focused on how Dentsu adapted the Internavi system, which provided everyday on-demand traffic information to individual drivers in Honda vehicles, to generate public mapping of road usage and access through Twitter and Google in the early days of the crisis. Extending the Internavi system and data on 311 is an inspiring example of how creative solutions to crises can emerge with the right leadership.

Before sketching out possible broader leadership lessons of the episode, we should be clear about what we mean by “crisis.”  Helpful here is Herman “Dutch” Leonard’s call to distinguish routine from novelty.  We can’t, Harvard professor Leonard believes, treat a true crisis as simply an “overgrown routine situation.”  This problem of misperception occurs even in conscientious crisis preparation and planning efforts, when the underlying approach is to deploy more of the same kinds of resources (like police, medical, and food, reconstruction, data management) as during normal, non-crisis times.   

We need also to take care to differentiate crises of the order of what happened in Japan in 2011 from crises faced by many organizational and business leaders.  As important, even existential, as the latter may be for some firms, their crises lack the social, cultural and economic scale and sweeping life-and-death risks of 311.  That said, in assessing such an immense event, we might nevertheless extract some principles that bear on the still complex decision-making and communications challenges faced by business leaders.  

Explaining how Dentsu adapted Internavi’s capabilities within 20 hours for public benefit, Yukio illuminated several key tenets of successful leadership.  These began with a situational awareness that enabled his colleagues to recognize the difference between the exceptional character of 311 and routine accidents or congestion.  Also necessary was an understanding of how to build sudden collaborative structures across diverse institutions and constituencies.  Preparation was essential, but, again, had to be of the appropriate type: while simulations and scenarios were fine, developing and testing capabilities for cooperation across organizations and with the public proved more helpful once the nuclear disaster occurred.  Those capabilities, more specifically, included how to enable improvisation and, in this case, address and communicate quickly the problem of producing accurate traffic and road information. 

The development of Internavi is a great example of decentralized intelligent adaptation at a societal level.  Structurally, that decentralization involved non-hierarchical or top-down relationships among multiple public and private institutions enabled by technology.  The intelligent adaptation was likewise marked by an ongoing and effective process of inquiry that facilitated collaborative problem-solving and communications.

Such tenets and tendencies are hardly unique to the Japanese experience, of course.  In the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing Response [MBR], analysts found the successes of a variety of responders benefited from similar values of situational, collaborative, improvisational and inquiring leadership.  In fact, the preliminary findings of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, released in April 2014, identified five foundations of the intelligence and leadership that shaped the Boston MBR:

1) An overriding objective that: forges unity of mission and connectivity of action; is compelling enough to override standard practices as needed; and obviates bureaucratic obstructions, distractions or bickering.
2) A spirit of generosity that rallies groups and individuals to assist one another and overcome constraints of resources, know-how or tools to achieve the paramount mission, expressed as “Whaddya got? Whaddaya need?”
3) Respect for the responsibilities and authorities of others, described as “staying in one’s lane” while assisting others to succeed in their lane to accomplish mission-critical duties and tasks.
4) Neither taking undue credit nor pointing blame among key players, oftentimes portrayed as “checking your ego at the door.”
5) Genuine inter-personal trust and respect developed well before the event so that existing and dependable leadership relationships, integrity, and camaraderie can be leveraged during the event, often described as “don’t wait for an emergency to exchange business cards.

The preliminary report discussed these findings as a positive instance of “swarm intelligence,” which is more generally understood as the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems.  The concept initially arose with efforts to analyze and explain complexity in multi-agent systems, from bacterial growth, ant colonies and fish schooling to robot interactions and artificial intelligence.  Among the usual precepts of swarm intelligence are diversity, independence and decentralization.  In contrast to other approaches to group interactions and behavior, the concept also recognizes that too much internal communication can make the group as a whole less intelligent. 

Analyses of responses to 311 in Japan and the Boston Marathon bombing offer valuable insights for leaders about how to work effectively in complex, decentralized systems dealing with novel and fast-changing situations.  Yet their lessons, important as they are, tend to focus on the macro-level of institutional relationships or group dynamics and on the resulting decision-making, action and communications.  While they recognize how essential are collaborative and trusting interpersonal relationships, in other words, it was beyond the scope of the analyses to examine more closely how individual leaders should behave to ensure the best collective decision-making and actions.   

That research is ongoing elsewhere, perhaps most notably at the Center for Collective Intelligence at the MIT Sloan School of Management.  Among the key factors of collective intelligence that have been identified there thus far is “social perception,” that is, the ability to discern someone else’s thinking and emotions.  “When it comes to the effectiveness of groups,” said Thomas Malone, head of CCI, in a recent interview, “we are what we see in each other.”  Beyond empathy, this social perceptiveness involves discernment of others as well as a kind of ongoing awareness of, and commitment to, the versatility of thinking and equality of contributions across the group.

A final level of leadership to be addressed in coping with crises involves the leader himself or herself.  Not surprisingly, perhaps the best guidance in this regard comes from Bill George, the former Medtronic CEO and current Harvard Business School professor of management practice who wrote Seven Lessons for Leading in Crisis in 2009.  While much of the book addresses larger aspects of crises, it does so from the leader’s perspective (e.g., “dig deep for the root cause” or “blending internal and external communications”).  However, at least two of George’s lessons, including the first, concern the leader’s own self-understanding: “Face reality, starting with yourself” and “You’re in the spotlight; Follow True North.”

Recognizing one’s strengths and weaknesses and remaining true to one’s values and purpose are enablers of leadership success in all situations.  However, in crises, such self-understanding and authenticity in decisions and actions are vital.  George goes on to ask, “Will you stay focused on your True North or will you succumb to pressure?”  The pressure and stress of crises derives from many causes, notably the novelty, complexity, and urgency of the dynamic situations they present.  Retaining the presence of mind to think, act and work with others according to one’s own values while responding to those situations is a consummate leadership challenge.

Whether they are at the scale of 311 and the Boston Marathon Bombing or of a single organization whose local world has been turned upside down, crises are crucible experiences that define leaders.  Yet perhaps counter-intuitively, an abiding lesson of the responses to these massive events is that more effective leadership resulted from individuals ceding control, sharing responsibilities, and openly collaborating and communicating with others.  Rather than relying on a single authoritative leader taking unilateral actions and decisions, success emerged from individuals humbly willing to contribute to decentralized leadership and decision-making, to work collectively with a common purpose, and to learn together to solve novel problems.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Recommended Readings for Creative Leaders for Fall 2014

Thus far in 2014, we have seen at least two additions to the short bookshelf of essential readings for creative leaders: Pixar CEO Ed Catmull’s account (with Amy Wallace) of building and sustaining a successful creative culture, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration; and Harvard Business School Professor Linda A. Hill’s masterful guide to leading successful innovation across organizations, Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation (written with Greg Brandeau, Kent Lineback, and Emily Truelove). Other recent highlights included Connected by Design: Seven Principles for Business Transformation through Functional Integration, the outstanding work about new ways to create value through brand ecosystems, by Barry Wacksman and Chris Stutzman of the legendary creative agency, R/GA; Stanford professors Robert I. Sutton and Huggy Rao’s major study of how to build up businesses successfully, Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less; and Arianna Huffington’s manifesto for re-defining well-being, work and success, revisionist study of talent and creativity, ThriveThe Third Metric and Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-being, Wisdom, and Wonder.

The fall book season is now upon us and promises further new and relevant titles. These will include analyses of marketing, China, and Google, a handful of titles on innovation, ranging from practical implementation guides to a longer history, and, perhaps most far-reaching, reflections on the changes wrought by digital technologies to individuals and society. All contain insights valuable to the work and lives of creative leaders.

1) Ulrich Boser, The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why It Matters (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/New Harvest, September 16)
Traveling from rural Rwanda to corporate America, and from paying taxes to using technology, Boser argues that individuals are hard-wired for trust and trustworthiness and that emphasizing and restoring trust can benefit us as humans as well as our institutions and communities.

2) Richard Branson, The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership (Penguin/Portfolio, September 9)
The iconic CEO and entrepreneur, already author of a best-selling autobiography and books on business, here describes his key leadership principles like good listening, keeping things simple, remaining iconoclastic, motivating people, and having fun along the way.

3) Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (Norton, September 29)
Carr, the consistently trenchant analyst of technological change who wrote The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, here offers a thoughtful and sometimes disturbing account, grounded in science and poetry alike, of the ways that our increasing reliance on technology is affecting our happiness and re-shaping our humanity.

4) Lawrence A. Cunningham, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values (Columbia Business School Publishing, October 21)
An extraordinary portrait of the fifty direct subsidiaries of Berkshire Hathaway, investment guru Warren Buffett’s $300 billion conglomerate, told through the companies’ distinct stories and the vital values like integrity, autonomy, entrepreneurship and a sense of permanence that they, and Buffett, share.

5) Tom Doctoroff, Twitter Is Not a Strategy: Remastering the Art of Brand Marketing (Palgrave MacMillan, November 11)
The Asia CEO of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, Doctoroff uses characteristic wit and decades of experience to take on the twin hypes of digital media and the China market and to offer insightful principles for successful customer engagement and integrated brand marketing.

6) Stewart D. Friedman, Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life (Harvard Business Review Press, October 7)
Wharton professor Friedman, building on his excellent study, Total Leadership, uses examples ranging from Sheryl Sandberg to Bruce Springsteen to move from familiar calls to balance competing work and life commitments toward taking steps, instead, to integrate our passions and values across the domains of work, home, community, and the private self.

7) Nathan Furr and Jeff Dyer, The Innovator’s Method: Bringing the Lean Startup into Your Organization (Harvard Business Review Press, September 9)
How can business leaders better manage the uncertainty intrinsic to prototyping and experimentation? Picking up from Dyer’s bestselling guide to generating ideas, The Innovator’s DNA (written with Hal Gregersen and Clay Christensen), this new volume focuses on proven techniques that allow start-ups and established firms to commercialize ideas successfully.

8) Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon & Schuster, October 7)
Isaacson, the biographer of Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein, and most recently, Steve Jobs, has penned a sweeping history of digital technologies, the computer and internet, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, with Lord Byron’s daughter, and tracing the innovative thinking, creative leadership and energetic collaboration to the present day.  

9) Langdon Morris, Moses Ma and Po Chi Wu, Agile Innovation: The Revolutionary Approach to Accelerate Success, Inspire Engagement, and Ignite Creativity Hardcover (Wiley, September 22)
Two leading innovation thinkers and consultants (Morris and Ma) and an engineering professor (Wu) have written an excellent (and overdue) guide to how agile techniques, like process acceleration, risk management, and fuller team engagement, have fostered successful innovation for leading businesses and can be put into practice elsewhere.

10) Alexander Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur, Gregory Bernarda, Alan Smith, Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want (Wiley, October 20)
Using the same engaging visual approach as their groundbreaking Business Model Generation, which pioneered the business model canvas, Osterwalder et al focus on the most important of the canvas’ building blocks, the value proposition, and enable readers to work through seven key principles for better designing what matters to customers. 

11) Shaun Rein, The End of Copycat China: The Rise of Creativity, Innovation and Individualism in China (Wiley, October 20)
A leading consultant and commentator on the Chinese society and economy, and the author of The End of Cheap China, Rein analyzes current large-scale shifts in China from investment toward consumption, and from copying to innovation, that require a strategic re-thinking by investors and creative leaders doing (or wanting to do) business there.

12) Paul Roberts, The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification (Bloomsbury, September 2)
A troubling, cross-disciplinary account of how individual pursuits of consumption, pleasure, and immediate rewards, advanced by new technologies and compromised ethics, have evolved in a new and pervasive ‘culture of narcissism’ — that journalist Roberts nevertheless closes on a hopeful note of how we can pull back and change.

13) Jonathan Rosenberg and Eric Schmidt, How Google Works (Grand Central/Business Plus, September 23).
Google’s former SVP of Products and ex-CEO reveal how the global tech company has grown by doing things differently, like hiring multitalented ‘smart creatives’ and leading with the recognition that ‘consensus requires dissension,’ in order to continually create new products and serve consumers in a fast-changing environment.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Dave Trott and the Challenge of Creative Thinking (While Still Learning)

Dave Trott is a British advertising legend.  He’s written two books and keeps a lively and provocative blog.  He also regularly speaks to industry audiences, including a talk to EMBA participants at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership I was privileged to hear.  I am a regular reader and admirer of his work.

Trott’s writings tend to be anecdotal and provocative.  He doesn’t offer recommendation lists or how-to guides for doing better creative work or building creative organizations, preferring to share observations, stories and occasional advice on generating original work in an increasingly fraught brand marketing landscape.  A recurrent priority is celebrating the creative muse while also defending it against the ever-growing onslaught of business demands, formulaic processes, and formal education.

His August 12 blogpost on ‘How “Learnings” Prevents Thinking’ captured this priority nicely.  As the title conveys, the post discusses how learning can impede and constrain creative thinking.  In particular, Trott discusses learning a ‘terminology’, that is, a set of terms that serve as agreed-upon ‘metaphors’ or shorthand for different activities.  The problem with such learning for him is that once learned, the meaning of the terms can become ‘impenetrable’ and ‘accepted as fact’.  Learnings here lead to the adoption of terms and meanings that ‘no one ever questions’.  The result is that the questioning so fundamental to original thinking is foreclosed.

As an educator, I found myself both agreeing with Trott’s pragmatic argument but also being professionally unsettled by it.  After all, I’ve spent years striving to impart or, at least, enable creatives and other leaders to achieve learning in the belief that it will improve them and their creative work.   Pausing over the blogpost, and returning to his two books, Creative Mischief (2011) and Predatory Thinking: A Masterclass in Out-Thinking the Competition (2013), I asked myself whether the education or training or ‘formal’ inputs I provide were possibly hindering the thinking of my creatives and executives.

Trott’s provocation is hardly the first of its kind, of course.  Others have rightly questioned the influence, often negative, of educational processes and systems on creativity and imagination.  Perhaps most familiarly, and cogently, Sir Ken Robinson has called for reforms in education and training to unleash and encourage rather than repress and inhibit imagination and creative thinking. 

While Robinson’s primary focus has been on the schooling of children, his broader insights have great relevance to adults and, particularly, their organizations, like the corporation.  The systems, specializations, and processes that shape and define businesses and many other organizations appear to constrain original thinking and creativity in ways similar to rote learning and memorization in schools.  Longstanding has been the perceived discrepancy between the imperatives of business efficiency, productivity, and the bottom line and the possibilities of more open-ended innovation, risk-taking, and creative thinking.

Recently, however, more and more businesses have begun to recognize that some systems or processes can be necessary and even contribute positively to creative thinking and original outputs.  Adaptable and human-centered approaches, like agile or design thinking, for example, seem to support both organizational and individual needs for sustained performance and growth.  Such processes form less a discordant constraint than a productive tension enabling people to reflect and question as a basis of their own creative work and contribution to a larger, collective endeavor. 

In the words of Trott’s post, the processes allow individuals precisely to question the terminology they use together.  It is worth observing that many of the terms he mentions are trendy and deserve not only to be questioned but potentially cast aside entirely for overuse.  The list is (sadly) long: ‘Brand audit, cluster groups, segmentation, penetration, CRM, SEO, CSR, ROI, KPI, UGC, integrated, transactional, native-advertising, value-added, differentials, core-competency, ideation, hygiene-factors, demographics, psychographics, profile-testing, deliverables, storytelling, narrow-casting, acquisition, content, data-capture, rate card, deep-dive’.

In my own work with creatives and other leaders, a core belief is indeed to question the basic terms of business whose deeper and more complex meanings are discussed too infrequently in individual settings, situations, and contexts.  Among these are talent, business model, strategy, culture, technology, operations, and finance.  Particularly at a time when being successful creatively often means having the capabilities to generate creative business solutions for clients and customers, such fundamental terms should not only be engaged but interrogated as a source of potential advantage.

So perhaps, as an educator, I stand closer to Dave Trott than I had initially imagined upon reading his post.  Rather than simply assigning or parroting fixed meanings, the ‘learning’ we should strive for is open-ended, adaptive, and committed to the ongoing interrogation of ‘terminology’ and the possibilities of any situation.  That process also seems a promising one to encourage more consistently unconstrained creative thinking in business and beyond.