Dig into business journalism and you’ll find a celebration of creativity that’s always in full swing. But as you’ll discover, corporate America’s idea of creativity is a grotesque piece of ideological taxidermy.
Instead of the real thing, you’ll find a lifeless homunculus, stuffed with mantras that mistake terseness for truth. Predictably, these mantras, as delivered by WebEx gurus, offer a showy variation on the brainstorming session—that hilariously misnamed ritual at which the brain always fails to appear.
The problem lies in the assumption that a topic as complex as human creativity can be reduced to bullet points. Sure, get together and encourage each other to follow your creative instincts. Just don’t expect to find them on an inspirational Web page promising 10 steps to boost your creativity.
Where the value might lie.
That’s not to say a seminar couldn’t offer a useful service, if only it helped your staff recognize the roadblocks they install to real creativity. Each session of such a seminar would start with a heartfelt Pledge of Non-obstruction
I believe the value of my input is delimited
by my talent, expertise and experience
I honor the difference between personal preference
and objective evaluation
I affirm and avow the crucial distinction between
a tactic, a strategy and a creative concept
And before the altar of my own conscience,
I promise never to invoke rigid, ideology-derived models
in defense of politically expedient solutions
Stop chasing unicorns.
In the real world, however, creativity seminars offer an array of techniques under the mistaken assumption that creativity is as simple as “breaking out into groups” with a handful of Flair pens and a stack of multi-colored post-it notes. I don’t know where this philosophy of unrealistic over-empowerment comes from, but it’s as delusional as the quest for a magical horse.
For example, there’s no way to find creative solutions to something you know nothing about. In my case, when it comes to repairing a leaky faucet, I could brainstorm and walk away from negative thinking all I want. But if I dared to take a monkey wrench to the pipes, the only thing I’d create would be a flooded apartment.
That’s because creativity only exists at the crossroads of training, expertise, experience and innate ability. It can’t be coaxed, jump-started, trained, or motivated. Instead, it arises spontaneously in the minds of people who have worked hard to earn it—through the constant application of skill and talent to the knottiest problems.
In that sense, American corporations would save oceans of time and money if they A.) improved hiring practices so they ensured that only people with creative abilities end up on the payroll, B.) fostered a corporate culture that encouraged calculated risk-taking and C.) worked actively with local and regional communities to revitalize our education system.
Take positive action.
Can’t find employees with a grasp of the creative process? Take a look at the stilted, budget-starved curriculum your kids are stuck with. Yes, even if they do have iPads in every classroom, the chances are, your state hasn’t spent a dime on real arts education in 50 years. Trust me, the annual staging of Oklahoma or Cats doesn’t count.
But if that level of social responsibility is too rich for your blood, there’s still a better use for your tiny staff development budget than investing in a New Age pseudo-psychologist. Far better you should pay for art, creative writing, music or dance classes for your staff—and make them mandatory.
These experiences, repeated regularly, will put your people in direct contact with the confluence of abstract thinking, instinct, intuition and the restraints of the medium that are the essence of the creative process. The goal is not to turn the head of the Accounts Receivable team into Georgia O’Keefe, Phillip Roth, Steve Reich or Twyla Tharp.
Instead, the long-term payoff will be an increased sensitivity to nuance and the real version of “critical thinking” that our overwhelmed public schools have no idea how to teach. And before anyone asks, upgrading their iPads won’t help.
In other words, if you want to foster creative thinking, there’s no substitute for involvement in real creative work. Yes, the vast majority of your staff-members’ endeavors will never reach the walls of the Met or the main stage at Carnegie Hall. What they will do is turn on the lights in a few dozen tired brains, most of which have been switched off by the dull routine of our meeting-drenched, inbred-political, hurry-up-and-wait corporate culture.