You may employ someone – or a few people – who you might use some of the following phrases to describe to someone else:

  • Fond of asking dumb questions, despite their intelligence
  • Arrogant when they know they know something, humble when they know they don’t
  • Highly self-critical
  • Often markedly introverted, but sometimes quite the opposite
  • Very honest about their own shortcomings or knowledge/skills gaps
  • Tend to see situations and issues in more complex terms than their colleagues.

You might be blunter, and throw in some other phrases: “hard work”, “difficult to handle”, “no business sense”. Or just plain “trouble”. Yet these traits are some of the characteristics of the highly creative, as identified by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Davidson Professor of Management at the Claremont Graduate University, California.

Mr. Csikszentmihalyi is probably best known for the concept of ‘flow’ as a description of human creativity, which he has described as:

… being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

This is territory that we’ve touched on before at Don’t Compromise, of course (as a jazz musician, it was probably unavoidable!). Peter Cook’s book ‘Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll’ (see our Q&A session with Peter) uses an analogy with different forms of music to look at innovation in a business context, using the following correspondences:

Music Business
Improvisation Creativity
Score Structure
The audience The customer context


As Peter goes on to write:

Too much creativity without structure and nothing ever gets finished!

Here we have the basic reasons for so many first-wave dotcom failures, i.e. a business full of creatives but no structured people able to channel that creativity towards a market need. {…} Unfettered creativity accounts for a lot of product failures in this era.”

Which is true up to a point, but if we want to seriously address the role of creativity (and therefore how to mange creative talent), a couple of further points need to be considered. Having worked in internet development consultancies at the time of the first ‘wave’, it’s fair to say that creativity wasn’t the only reason for the high attrition rate. Indeed, I doubt it was the most significant factor. Looking around me at the time, I saw a number of over-ambitious business managers blinded by the promise of a large pot of gold at the end of a very short rainbow, and an investment market that was acting to encourage their myopia. Most of the actual web design wasn’t that bad, but the business planning and market research was woeful.

The second point is that ‘creativity’ is an essential component of success: structure alone just leads to rigidity. No matter how successful an organisation, the world isn’t (touching wood) about to stop turning, and your products, services, branding, market, competitive environment and more will change over time. To sustain your position – or improve it – you must change into something new and … be a little creative. Even to stand still, you must be on the move, no matter how counter-intuitive that seems.

This isn’t necessarily a matter of perpetually bringing into being something startling different and new. Twitter has carried a lot of tweet over the last few days about ‘innovation’ vs ‘quality’, many probably triggered by a Scott Berkun article at Businessweek, ‘Good’ Beats ‘Innovative’ Nearly Every Time. It’s a thought-provoking read, although it was what it made me think that I want to focus on:

  • ‘innovative’ is just a label, and a word that is hugely abused by businesses (in the same way as ‘dynamic’, ‘pioneering’, ‘unique’)
  • A ‘good’ innovation is an innovation, but a bad one is a ‘gimmick’
  • Everyone has an angle to sell, including public speakers and authors of books on innovation and creativity (like, with all due respect, Scott Berkun).

Here’s an extract from his article that particularly left me wanting to be the troublesome boy at the back of the class wanting to ask a ‘dumb question’:

Innovation, in the simplest definition, means new or novel, to take an approach others have not seen before. But by this definition, the iPod and Firefox barely qualify. Even the iPad is late in the game of tablet computers, as Microsoft’s Tablet PC and Amazon’s Kindle have been aiming at this market for years. In all cases, these are entrants into fields of established players. Their creators borrowed parts and ideas from other products and even from other companies. Their success or failure is driven less by revolutionary ideas or radical disruptive breakthrough thinking and more by a focus on making solid, reliable, simple, good products that solve real needs people have.”

While all these examples are ‘tech products’, I don’t have a problem with that per se – technology roughly equates with innovation for a lot of people nowadays. (Although you might want to see our review of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget if you have any misgivings about that state of affairs.) The point I think Scott Berkun is in danger of losing – albeit that he is encouraging business managers to focus on quality (of service as well as product) – is that designing and developing a good product requires as much, if nor more, creativity than a mediocre one. Jonathan Ive, designer of the iPod, is no less a creative genius than the designers of previous MP3 players (indeed, back in 1994, the BBC reported him being named as “the most influential person on British culture”).

The trick, I suspect, lies in how well companies manage and deploy the creative talents of their staff, and how much ‘creativity’ – which can but does not have to mean ‘problem solving’ – is valued in a company’s culture. Jean V. Dickson’s article, Creativity and the HR Department, highlights just some of the negative attitudes that abound in some organisation’s approach to the apparent eccentricities that Csikszentmihalyi has identified as powerful indicators of exceptional creativity. Depressingly, these seem to boil down to either not hiring them in the first place, or in trying suppress creative instincts in those creatives that do manage to ‘sneak under the radar’.

From my own experience as a creative (having worked as a writer, musician and visual artist), there is also another important element here, and those managers who perform least well at managing the processes (and personalities) of creative staff might benefit from reflecting on it. Csikszentmihalyi has shown us that ‘creatives’ tend to view ‘problems’ in a more complex way, exploring their subtleties and nuances. But if, in serving the success and sustainability of their organisations, creatives are to evolve not just ‘innovative’ but high quality solutions, the managers charged with their supervision should perhaps ponder an old truism – the time-cost-quality triangle. I’ve looked at it from several angles, but I can’t unearth further layers of complexity: the equation is really fairly straightforward – give the creatives less time to reduce the ‘cost’, and what falls? Answer: the quality. (And if we’re wanting not just new ideas, but high quality ones, then – like anyone in any area of a business – the creative team need time to evaluate the quality and appropriateness of ideas.)

There’s an irony here, of course. The commercial urge for speed contrasts with the creative need for analysis, thought, review and contemplation in the same way as the tortoise and the hare. But despite the common myths of the creative genius, they are not necessarily the ones being ‘hare-brained’.

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