Editor’s note: Eric Jackson, a technology consultant and developer, is a regular contributor to Local Tech Wire. His column appears on Tuesdays.
BLACK MOUNTAIN,To many, creativity has an aura of the out-of-control and uncontrollable: the wild-eyed artist, the wild-haired scientist. Creative people are the types who are unable to properly match their socks, let alone successfully execute a business strategy.
There is indeed a wild side to creativity, one that is critical to the creation of the truly novel, the discovery of new paths, and the scaling of new heights. This wildness is vital to creative endeavors in every area, be it painting or product development, science or marketing.
Too often, however, our conception of creativity is limited to this one side of the creative spirit and so it becomes possible to argue about whether creativity or execution is the more important, as if the choice really were between wildness and discipline. In fact, this is a false dichotomy.
Let’s consider what creative really means. I like the definition of Robert Sternberg at Yale: “Creativity is the ability to produce work that is both novel (i.e., original, unexpected) and appropriate (i.e., useful, adaptive concerning task constraints).” Certainly, creativity that wins our interest and respect is never entirely purposeless, although its purpose can easily transcend its utility. But an easily missed, absolutely vital part of this definition is the word “produce.” As Theodore Levitt said, creativity is not just about thinking things up, it is about doing things: creativity is as much about execution as it is about ideas.
Consider the most obviously creative fields, art and science: in both, discipline is central. This is probably most obvious in science. The successful scientist must combine a strong ability to make creative intuitive leaps with the discipline to track down and test assumptions, to work out consequences of a new idea and to test whether they match reality, to continue working in the face of possibly years of failures in pursuit of an important success, and to productively engage in conversation and debate through articles and talks with the rest of her community
But consider the arts as well. What does it take to write song after song, or book after book. What is required in order to be more than a one-hit wonder, to build an actual career writing novels or music. Ask any successful professional artist (something I will do in a future column) — doing this year after year, keeping it fresh and interesting, both for the artist and for his audience, requires tremendous discipline.
Creativity and discipline
The fact is, creativity and discipline are not only not incompatible, they actually are inseparable, whether in art, science, or the business world.
The question remains, though: where is creativity appropriate in business?
The obvious answers are, of course, new product development and marketing communication. The need for innovation in product development, for new ideas and effective realization of those ideas, is well known and well discussed. Advertising and other forms of marketing communication are also widely seen as legitimately creative activities.
The better answer, though, is that creativity belongs and is needed absolutely everywhere. Limiting the place of creative thinking to the obviously “inventive” side of business is a mistake — more often than not, the introduction of innovative products is only one factor in companies that excel, sometimes not even remotely the most important one. The fact is that creativity is vital to every aspect of business, even those that seem least creative, even inimical to creativity.
Leadership and management
I would certainly start with leadership and people management. While originality in behavior may not be vital for leaders, the act of eliciting high performance out of a team, whether large or small, requires creative talents like those of the composer and conductor. Other forms of business leadership are also creative — certainly strategic thinking and leadership fall into this category.
These may not be surprising, but what about project management? The basic principles of project management are important to know, and software tools like Microsoft Project can be very useful. But, in the end, effective project planning and management is very like a design or engineering problem, determining how to use the tools and resources available to accomplish a task under some set of restrictions. This is little different in principle from the work of, say, an architect, very much a creative professional, notwithstanding the fact that he must work within the constraints of physics, building codes, engineering principles, cost considerations, etc.
In fact, the design and management of any kind of process is a creative task. Dell and Netflix offer examples of companies whose innovation is as much around a process as in a product. In fact, I would venture that effective execution itself is a creative task. In another context, Marcel Proust said, “If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time.” Perhaps this is a useful prescription for businesses as well. Is there any area of your business in which the creative spirit is dormant? Perhaps it is time to revive it.
Ideas? Suggestions? Contact Eric at email@example.com
Eric Jackson is the founder of DeepWeave. He has built his career pioneering software solutions to particularly large and difficult problems. In 2000, Eric co-founded Ibrix, Inc. He is the inventor of the Ibrix distributed file system, a parallel file storage system able to scale in size and performance to millions of terabytes.