Where’s the Creativity?


1, Nov 2019. 22:39pm

“An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending upon the talent that rubs against it.” — Bill Bernbach

“What I saw in business school was the scientific paradigm taking over everything else,” says Mr. Ray, Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Productivity, efficiency, and profits have stifled creativity.  In many arenas, creativity is just not out there, and that’s because unpredictable results are inherent in the development of creativity. The irony of this quandary is that those who are heavily invested in a project are the ones who need creativity the most, yet they also the very ones who prefer predictable results instead. Consequently, when push comes to shove the stakeholders opt for predictable results rather than risky creativity. And all of this has lead to today’s media ad campaigns lacking a sophisticated degree of new and refreshing ideas.

Deficiency in Creativity

But business isn’t the only sector in society that is feeling the ill effects of a deficiency in creativity. Our pop culture, from movies and music to TV and food, the diet of mainstream American creativity is bland, mass produced, and predictable. Cute teen bands are manufactured and proliferated just like lite beer and Domino’s pizza. And though we are a broadband culture with instant download capabilities and 80 gig hard drives on our personal PCs, nothing substantial or creative fills these powerful machines of technology. Our ability to distribute massive amounts of information far outweighs our ability to creatively develop quality information.

All of this “creativity stuff” is much easier said than done.

So let’s take a closer look at this illusive, yet crucial notion of “creativity.” Often we hear from business speakers and CEOs that all successful businesses take risks. And part of risk taking is the creative manifestation of certain ideas. But many of us know this already because we hear it time and time again. So how is it that creativity in our modern American business environment has declined to such a degree that it draws attention to some of the top business insiders? The reply to this question is rather simple. All of this “creativity stuff” is much easier said than done. One can verbally espouse entrepreneurship, but routinely employing creativity in one’s daily business practices, from the top CEO to the receptionist, is entirely a different matter.

First, understanding exactly what “creativity” means is part of the challenge. Before a business or ad agency can effectively incorporate creativity, it must first decide how to define creativity. This isn’t always easy, as Bob Kuperman, president and CEO of the Americas, TBWA Worldwide, attests. “Creativity, the buzzword in our business for the last 30 years, has not only been used inaccurately but irresponsibly. Creativity has been worshiped blindly. It has been attacked. It has been maligned. It has been exploited by the unscrupulous. It has been deliberately misrepresented by the dishonest promoter. But perhaps most damaging of all, it has been misunderstood by good, honest, principled businesspeople.”

Drowning in a sea of iterations on imitations

This misunderstanding makes it particularly difficult because everyone wants it, but only a few can actually define it, develop it, and proliferate it. The result of inaccurately applying a “creativity” curriculum to one’s business is readily evident. Watts Wacker writes, “Creativity has become the most universally endangered species in the Twenty First Century. Never has the need for creativity been so compelling and never has genuine creativity been in such short supply. From boy bands to barbecue sauces the problem is the same – instead of experiencing the refreshing spray of authentic originals we risk drowning in a sea of iterations on imitations. We have built a broadband culture but not the creative content to supply it.

Our ability to communicate the potentially creative far outstrips actual creative input. In the absence of creativity, life becomes predictable, repetitious and boring.” Both Kuperman and Wacker have accurately assessed the lack of creativity in our contemporary business world. Misunderstanding and misdefining creativity creates problems because the potential for failure is high, and yet the solutions are ambiguous. Every business venture has it’s own unique circumstances and in-house dynamics. Consequently, every project team must define for itself how creativity is developed and applied.  No cookie cutter or one size fits all approach will work.

Part of the problem of defining “creativity” for one’s individual business practices lies in the inherent dilemma, that in order to foster creativity, one must take risks. The risk-taking deficit may be one of the most dangerous dilemmas in American business today. It leaves both employers and employees alike discouraged and unsatisfied, and it can easily send a well-managed company into Chapter 11. The “let’s-play-it-safe” attitude only produces unconvincing and insincere marketing and advertising. One CEO went so far as to say, “Safe advertising is the riskiest advertising you can do.”

Don’t play it safe

The predictability of playing it safe is always at the expense of new and innovative ideas. Unfortunately, stakeholders don’t always like risk. So these stakeholders inadvertently obstruct new and innovative ideas. Peter Drucker writes, “I advocate to my clients that they take measured risks in an attempt to achieve authentic creative communications, environments and experiences for the people whom they work with and for their companies so that people do not just hear the message, but rather they experience it.” It is precisely this kind of creative risk taking that companies need to nourish most and it’s simply this kind of risk-taking that no business can do without.

Clients will spend millions of dollars to have their problem researched, but do not or cannot take the time to read the solutions

With daunting dilemmas, ambiguous definitions, and the seemingly high costs of risk-taking, it’s no wonder that employers and employees alike avoid straying from the norm, taking a leap, rocking the boat, fixing what’s not broken, or thinking out of the box. It’s just easier not to. But unfortunately for business, this “why should I?” approach only produces one thing: complacency. And complacency, when it comes to implementing a successful curriculum of creativity, can turn a bright idea into a “coulda-been,” deleted with last week’s spam e-mail.

Howard Gossage sees this scenario played out all of the time.  “Clients will spend millions of dollars to have their problem researched, but do not or cannot take the time to read the solutions. Everyone wants bullet points, sound bites and executive summaries. They are too busy or too complacent to listen or to completely investigate thorough analysis.” Although “idea development” is often part of a manager’s job description, more often than not, those managers responsible for harnessing their employees’ creative juices passively accept an indirect approach to fostering their employee’s “creativity.”

Creativity must be enshrined in the way a business operates

Management’s complacency trickles down to the employees, which ultimately hampers the advancement of all creative ideas throughout the company. Creativity must be enshrined in the way a business operates if it is to have any chance of success. But it is difficult to encourage a creative culture when the daily diet of business procedures revolves around faxes, phone calls, e-mail responses, computer use, and data entry. Complacency toward creativity is almost inevitable under these regular business conditions. Therefore, combating complacency toward creativity should be a top concern for all senior managers.

Ironically, another major culprit to “downsizing” creativity has been technology itself. Watts Wacker says that as a society we want “greater and greater band width, but yet the quality of the information coming down the conduit is decreasing.” One of the solutions, posed by a few independent consultants, is to reject technology. It is technology that makes us look busy and productive, but at the same time conditions us to be complacent toward creativity.

Does software allow for creativity

Annette Moser-Wellman poignantly highlights this problem. “A trend with some highly creative folks is to be “unplugged.” It’s cool if you don’t have a cell phone, e-mail or a palm computer. These toys bind you to the tasks of administration, not creation. E-mail, voice-mail and composing at the computer are abstractions from reality. Software is based on linear logic and doesn’t allow for sparks of imagination. Technology does not always feed the creative process.

Computer logic forces an emphasis on execution too early and detracts from the power of the raw idea.” Moser-Wellman makes a very valid point. In many respects, technology only provides us with a crutch on which to lean. Our creativity processes are stifled with instantaneous calculations, clip art, and spell checking. The irony then lies in running a technologically modernized business in today’s international market, but yet nourishing creativity at the same time. And this is a feat that only a few can accomplish successfully.

To combat the difficulty of defining creativity, taking risks, overcoming complacency, and working harmoniously with technology, one study found that five distinct objectives help develop creativity. The dimensions of creativity are providing time and rewards for creativity, stimulating risk taking, diversity of thinking, cooperation, and questioning of assumptions. But of course, all of this is easier said than done.

Currently some senior managers are trying to incorporate these dimensions into their business in a variety of different ways and doing so requires a variety of different measurements. Dr. Pierre Jungels, CEO of Enterprise Oil, writes, “We need inspiration and creativity in order to attain our business goals. If we look for oil in the same places as everybody else, we’re not going to be successful. We need to be creative and to encourage people to look at problems in different ways.” Looking at problems in different ways will help open the channels of communication, which in turn will ultimately nourish in-house creativity. And perhaps, in the not so distant future massed produced teen pop bands will be a thing of the past.