Ari on Business, ZingLife

Creating Creativity pt. 3

This is an excerpt from Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 3: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Managing Ourselves. Available now at Zingerman’s businesses or through the Zingerman’s Press website!

How Hierarchal Thinking Hurts Creativity

It seems reasonable to assume that experience and education would make for better-rounded, more effective individuals. But when it comes to creativity, the data is that advanced degrees, seniority, and impressive titles make no difference whatsoever. Steven Johnson shows statistically that there’s absolutely no correlation between creativity quotients and any of the usual credentials that earn people social and organizational status. Moving up the org chart, growing older, having a bigger office or a fancier car may matter to some, but they count for naught when it comes to being creative.

ari_journaling_scratchboardTo the contrary, if we’re not careful, creativity levels can actually decrease as we mature and move up the corporate ladder. Old-school organizations still tend to confine creative activity to a certain department, or to owners and managers; everyone else is instructed to just implement the ideas the elites initiate. Since so much is filtered out and lost as it moves up through the hierarchy, there’s actually limited access to real-life information from the front lines. As people grow more attached to the status quo, it becomes harder to bust out and break down barriers everyone has accepted for so long. If you sketched out a creativity pyramid, it would probably work in reverse to the way the hierarchical organization operates. Decisions are mostly made at the top, but the potential for innovation and insight are more readily found at the wider base.

Jonah Lehrer, in his book Imagine, makes a comparable case. “The people deep inside a domain often suffer from a kind of intellectual handicap. As a result, the impossible problem stays impossible. It’s not until the challenge is shared with motivated outsiders that the solution can be found.” In the old model, the people “inside the domain” are those at the top of the organization. The “outsiders” are all around them—the front line folks they employ but rarely engage with. Instead, upper level execs hire high-end firms and spend big bucks to gain innovative insight. I’d suggest at least experimenting with a lower cost option: creating a constructive framework in which everyone in the organization is involved. As Whyte writes, “Companies need the contributing vitality of all the individuals who work for them in order to stay alive in the sea of changeability in which they find themselves. They must find a real way of asking people to bring these hidden, heartfelt qualities into the workplace.” Or, as Pablo Picasso famously said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

What all of this comes down to is bad organizational algebra— if all of the insights are supposed to come from the top of an organization (small or large, for- or not-for-profit), then by definition we’re missing out on the majority of our collective creative ability. As Sir Kenneth Robinson says, “The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas; it’s to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and feel that they’re valued.” Business writer Steven Johnson (sounding very much like an anarchist) maintains, “Hierarchical filtering of ideas constricts creativity…. No matter how smart the ‘authorities’ may be, if they are outnumbered a thousand to one…there will be more good ideas lurking in the market than in the feudal castle.” And anarchist Colin Ward warns, “the knowledge and wisdom of the people at the bottom of the pyramid finds no place in the decision making leadership hierarchy of the institution. If ideas are your business, you cannot afford to condemn most of the people in the organization to being merely machines programmed by somebody else.”

Conclusion: A Quick Look at Leaders and Creativity

Personally I’ve started to focus particular attention on how we attempt to spread our creative mindset, optimistic outlook, and openness to ideas to people we’ve newly hired into our organization. The way we welcome them into the organization makes an enormous difference. Many will unknowingly have been taught that they have no influence over anything in their organization. In which case, why get creative?

This helpless feeling is, unfortunately, endemic. It feels more and more to me then that the most important creative work we can undertake is an effort to encourage those who are new to our organizations, our social circles, or our families, to undo that difficult state of mind. We can teach people that rather than wait for their bosses to make things better, they’d do better to think boldly, to go for greatness, to wonder why, and to release a bit of their natural wildness into the world. Whether your organization employs five people or fifty, five hundred or five thousand, think of what amazing things might happen if we could unleash all of their naturally occurring creative abilities.

Pulling a couple of my favorite themes together, maybe I’ll leave you with this thought from Basque performance artist Esther Ferrer. Writing to composer John Cage, she articulated that anarchism, like creativity, is “choice, which engages only yourself and which you decided to practice. . . .  One can practice it alone, even if others are not at all interested. . . .  These ideas, John, at bottom, are simply natural creations of free thought . . . capable of inventing imaginative and joyful solutions.”

So, I say, let’s get to work and have some fun while we’re at it. Go wild, read books, connect all the dots you can, and “embrace the anarchist.” Whatever you do, don’t worry—the creativity will come, and when it does it’s sure to raise our spirits, our effectiveness and our enjoyment of life. At the least we’ll breathe better. As Julia Cameron says, “Creativity is oxygen for our souls.”