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.