In many ways, our currently typical efforts to understand all the talk about creativity are immediately stifled by the starting point of view — by which here I mean specifically the motivation to discuss it. So right away let’s call out some prevalent motivations as they “ought to be”:
- Education: presumably, enriching life through learning about something important
- Empowerment: boosting the probability of self-realization or self-improvement
- Evolution: strengthening the prospect of the future being better by becoming desirably different
But with shockingly high regularity, those noble beginnings are each “spun for business” by the same thing — namely, competition — a giant, magnetic force silently pulling everything in its direction. By the time we notice, as with the bending of light and gravity, competition leaves things appearing to be something or someplace other than what they really are.
The goal-orientation of competition converts the three “motives” above into these three respective counterparts:
- Training: primarily for upping the likelihood of “good production”
- Thought Marketing: primarily for fortifying personal reputations
- Consulting / Counseling: primarily for monetizing knowledge as assets
Now, admitting those “ulteriors”, we should also look at the “bright” side outputs of those competitive modes. Respectively:
- Inclusion! What could be more likely than competency to make you deserving of inclusion?
- Inspiration! Isn’t being the first with the idea or answer totally better than just following along like everyone else?
- Innovation! This is a great trick, and by the way, it’s MY trick.
But the darker output is lurking nearby too, even if in disguise, due to the “premiums” usually imposed on those supposedly bright outputs. This imposition completes the repurposing of education, empowerment and evolution into business-grade interests. Again respectively:
- Exceptionalism: not just being a member of… but being the best among…
- Authority: ultimately, having the most followers, voluntary or not, for whatever reason
- Advantage: having more of something than the other guy, to be more sure of getting what you finally really want
Those premiums become frankly political currency within targeted “markets” (audiences) where the deliverable is literally the hot topic of “creativity”.
As the “product”, creativity gets packaged and repackaged in those “values” of exceptionalism, authority and advantage. That gets followed up with the now familiar campaign messaging, “This is not an option! If you take your business seriously, creativity is a necessity!”
So, let’s say we understand, for sure, the enthusiasm for talking about creativity.
But why is it that talking about creativity is so often myopic, gestural, or befuddled in the communications between business talkers and business listeners?
Given what we usually see there, one would think that creativity is a relatively new discovery in business circles, like a rare earth element in its territory, previously ignored but now believed to be the key to some entire industry. Moreso, the mood of the talk is that creativity is something discovered by business and needing to be further defined by business. This is a ridiculous notion.
Given that children, scientists and artists are constantly making things that weren’t “there” beforehand in their own experience, and that there are 2000+ years of evidence of that happening, what is it that business talkers think occurred in the 21st century that suddenly revealed “true” creativity, mostly if not only to business people? If creativity needed defining to business people, why don’t they spend most of their time asking profoundly experienced makers like children, scientists, and artists what it is?
Answer: the fascination with the unprecedented velocity of 21st-century business is a culture. The presumption is that you have to understand it on its own terms… and that its own terms are what makes anything else important or not…
It might be mainly an American thing to celebrate a lack of rigor in language combined with high energy. After all, American English is infamous for appropriating words from other languages and for supporting whatever effective utility comes to predominate with nearly any word, native or not.
Fast-n-loose talking has its attractions, regardless of whether the thinking behind it is fast-n-loose too. But in so much of offered discussion, the actual language provided is appreciated (important?) more as an indicator of intention than as an actual conveyor of reliable literal meaning — kind of like flag-waving, generic loyalty of association, a why without a how. Used as placeholders, the words just have to point at interests, not account for them. Precision is not important. But the appearance of precision (a simulation of relevance) is a good “look”.
Synonyms, even vague ones, are perfectly fine flags, in environments where taxonomy is not really important. They’re hot-swappable, without much consequence. It’s like being at a high school where you can dress in any styleyou like as long as its a vehicle for wearing the (right) school colors. If anyone copies your style, it probably doesn’t matter.
Unless, they wind up for some reason getting called into the Principal’s office. Whatever. They should have known better. Not your problem.
It’s a well known “fact” that the cause of fashion disasters is not the provider of the fashion but the cluelessness of the user of the fashion.
If only they had the advice of “experts” on how to wear what they saw.
Back to Basics
Business chatter about creativity is available in overwhelming volume now because, of course, The Web. But usually the approach to that content starts by going to “business” first and then to “creativity” as a subheading.
Actual experts on creativity would naturally do it the other way around, because, well, they’re actual experts.
Regardless, since you’ve come this far, let’s assume, for the rest of this, that I am not an expert, and that I am talking “business to business” (making me a suspect for all atrocities flagged above).
Even with those drawbacks, it isn’t hard to bring up something like the following, which also doesn’t seem to be dangerous to anyone. All it takes is assuming that if a bunch of words seem similar but are different, there’s a good reason why there are actually different words.
Creativity is not merely nor only a “natural born talent”. It is a mode of doing something that mostly enjoys the liberty of trying out ways of doing things to see how they can make sense. It can be taught, coached, and managed. But discovery is the goal, and there is no other necessary “product” of creativity. Exploratory and experimental construction is the single important qualifying behavior, and this includes the construction of ideas, whether any output is retained at all. That said, it might be, in a given circumstance, that the creative mode offers a solution where other modes did not or could not.
Originality is not a status that primarily means “uniqueness”. It is conferred to mean “authorship”. The most common misrepresentation of the idea of originality is that if something is found existing elsewhere and/or already, then the newly made thing here is not “original”. This is a stupid idea everywhere except in one perspective: in which the compliance to defined “value” requires being unprecedented.
Invention is not necessarily a finished, formed result for practical use. It does not need to be relevant to anything other than demonstrating its own coherence, and being recognized as an invention requires no other context than the place and resources committed to its creation. (History has proved many times over that the same invention has occurred in multiple unrelated places at multiple different times.) Beyond that, classification is the only other useful distinction normally needed. The ability to point out something else that “does the same thing” in no way makes the thing made here not an invention. Particular business stakeholders may be mainly concerned about whether an invention within their grasp is proprietary or not.
The Who Cares Test
Indulging the descriptions above, why does so much business talk talk so much about creativity?
To date, the major reason is found in the grip of the virulent mythology of innovation. In this mythology, creativity is the spark for achieving unprecedented proprietary solutions, no longer optional but rather necessary to success. And let’s face it, being mythological doesn’t mean it isn’t correct some of the times.
But along with the other terms, “innovation” deserves a reality check, too.
The signature property of an innovation (noun) is that it is something that is (a.) in a given context, (b.) a viable influence, in (c.) an unprecedented way. There is a lot that an innovation does not have to be. For example, it does not have to be an invention on its own terms (i.e., regardless of context), nor does it have to be proprietary. It does not have to be original.
Innovation (verb) also merits disambiguation.
As an activity, innovation is normally presumed to involve creativity, but most often in business the creativity itself is not even given recognition as “innovation” unless its impact meets certain criteria. Having impact criteria generally means that multiple innovations can exist but not all of them will be adopted. In reality, however, not being adopted does not terminate the status of being an innovation (noun). It might be adopted elsewhere. And adoption means that the adopter has taken an “innovated” stance.
Additionally, the object or method that is the instrument of innovation need not be an innovation itself, because the use of it may be “innovative”.
Yet another arbitrary (i.e., false) requirement for recognition as an “innovation” is the presumption that once proved it will become the next normal. This is a stupid idea because normality adheres to opportunity, and changing circumstances modify opportunity. An innovation can be highly inappropriate, and obviously a good manager would avoid an inappropriate innovation when it became inappropriate.
There are surely occasions where an innovation or being innovative is so influential that it makes other approaches effectively obsolete, but obviously the value of having that happen comes only from that influence being necessary to a goal that already supersedes other possible goals.
Some business talk presumes that in an environment with unlimited volumes of information, the two most likely problems in getting value from it are that (a.) it is improbable for one party to discover something that other parties cannot also discover, and that (b.) generating notable benefit through differentiation requires becoming different faster and sooner than others can.
Because of that , a premium is placed on techniques that offer advantages in discovery efforts. The two most trusted paths to advantaged discovery are insights and imagination.
Stripped of hype, insight and imagination are complementary, and both trace back to perspective. Meanwhile, all perspective is a result of a point of view that offers visibility.
In one dynamic, a given point of view is imagined (hypothesized) and tested, in order to make discoveries through the resulting available observations. Those discoveries are typically called insights when they seem to reveal useful facts previously evident only “inside” the boundary of typical observation.
In another dynamic, a presented insight (known observation) is taken as a rationale for a model, composition, or configuration of other observed facts. The resulting arrangement is referred to as being imagined with a subsequent possibility of being demonstrated “proven”.
Logically, it makes sense to say that insights inspire imagination, and it makes sense to say that imagination is part of pursuing insights.
The business of creativity
There is no reason to presume that imagination is in short supply, nor insight. A business can cultivate or inhibit the availability of either simply by the way it solicits and tolerates either of them.
What doesn’t make sense is to impose the economics and performance metrics of process efficiency on creativity. And creativity is not a simple synonym for innovation.
Ultimately, business innovation is about prioritization and selection in adoption.
- Creativity in business is about freedom of discovery.
- Originality in business is about empowering sources as resources.
- And Invention in business is about testing designs as problem solutions.
Talking about creativity to business does not mean having business define creativity, rather having creativity define business.
Taking creativity seriously as a success factor of business means investing in developing and maintaining a culture that sustains where it comes from and where it is allowed to have impact.
Talking about creativity to business means talking about what business should do about itself to make that happen.
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Originally published at Medium on January 26, 2018.