In the light of Corona – Part 19: Creativity and disruption, 1/2

The fun part (or one of them) in being an academic is what it does to our ability to use any word. Outside academia words are primarily just that, words, but within they become concepts. A concept consists of two (if we believe De Saussure) or three (if we heed Peirce) parts: the thing we mean when we use a certain word (like the contents in a jar), and the word itself (a label attached to the jar). The third part is our personal interpretation of the contents in a jar; depending on how we personally feel about, say e.g. lingonberry jam, when we hear the label-word and connect it to the jar-content-thing, we either think about a treat, remember all the hours our mom made us roam the woods berry picking, or recoil from the idea of needing to put it in our mouth. 

In practice this means that when being an academic, we try to be quite precise in attaching a certain word to a certain thing, and can, if so inclined, write volumes about what a specific word-label actually captures (from our perspective). Uncertainty is an example of a word I used to be able to use quite fluently in my pre-academic years, but cannot now utter without immediately feeling the urge of trying to explain and list all the different contents given to it in academic contexts. 

Another word that I struggle with as an academic is creativity. Considering that I spent a hefty portion of my youth and early adulthood as a member of the creative sector (I do believe that symphony orchestras are a part of it), the current befuddlement I experience when using the word is somewhat uncanny. However, as I do believe that in the jar labelled creativity there is something noteworthy, especially in our time of disruption, in this blog (I ended up in dividing into two parts) I’ll try opening it. 

Opening the jar labelled organizational creativity

First, creativity and organizational creativity are two different concepts. The latter crept into the management research and practice sometime late last century, as it started to look like as if the companies, thanks to technological advances, had exhausted the business benefits gleanable from the efficiency seek, and instead needed people and processes that resulted in something new, innovations. Innovation in turn consists of two components: creativity meaning the ability to come up with something novel, and commercialization, meaning the ability to turn that novelty into an offering that enables profits. The last part is the one that validates the first one – coming up with things from thin air is by itself not valued.

In sum, organizational creativity refers to such capabilities within an organization that enable coming up with innovations that result in competitive advantage for the firm. That particular jar has been explored through zooming in to the psychological features and processes of the individuals, and the group and organizational level forces and processes supporting or hindering the realization of an innovation process. There are a handful of models that capture the whole, the most notable being Amabile’s componential model and Woodman’s multilevel model.

The Woodman’s model views creativity on the level of individual, groups and organizations. It highlights how the group level social and contextual forces and processes influence the individual level features such as antecedents, cognitive capabilities, personality and motivation. In addition, it views how the organizational outcomes emerge from the constellation of these elements, furthermore impacted by organizational level themes such as organizational structure and communications.

Amabile’s model distinguishes between individual and collective components, exploring both in themselves and their interactions and bi-directional influences. The individual creativity is an amalgam of expertise, task motivation and creativity skills, whereas the organizational innovation resides in the nexus of management practices, organizational motivation and resources. 

To sum, creativity within the organizational creativity context is bounded, narrowly focused and rigidly harnessed in the aim of producing lucrative innovations. The individual level creativity is interesting only when a part of the organizational innovation process. Having stated the limits of the perspective, there are nonetheless relevant insights as to the nature of individual creativity that have emerged from the organizational creativity literature. 

Creativity is underpinned by intrinsic motivation, in turn consisting of three requirements: sense of belonging, sense of autonomy and sense of mastery. The necessity of intrinsic motivation is a dilemma in organizations used to dealing with sticks and carrots as research shows that both diminish it. Individuals engaged in ‘creative’ work in the hope of reaching the carrot, actually focus on the carrot, not the work, which results in non-creative, ‘ticking-the-boxes’ outcomes. Individuals afraid of the stick inhabit such a state of mind that is not conducive to creativity. However, this is but one of the ingrained incompatibilities of creativity and corporative aspirations (more about this later).

Father of flow

The three senses of belonging, autonomy and mastery play a notable role also in wider approaches to creativity, however addressed with different words and from different perspectives. I’ll get back to them shortly, but first I introduce the father of flow. 

One of the most notable creativity researchers is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (in this blog later MC because I cannot be bothered to respell his name…), who started out as a psychologist interested in the creative individuals, made a wide detour in ascribing creativity as actually a social phenomenon, to subsequently return to the level of individual in accommodating neuroscientific approaches in his scrutiny. 

Best known as the father of ‘flow’, a state of being most conducive to high-level (creative) accomplishments, MC has introduced a systemic model of creativity. There is a specific domain, in which the creativity is at any given moment expressed (like music, visual arts, business, sports, law), a field constituting of the experts, gatekeepers of what is good and bad in the given domain, and the creative individuals.

In order for an individual to express creativity, he/she needs to have internalized the status quo of a domain into which he/she can bring something new. In order to be acknowledged as creative, they have to have access to the field and to have the field gatekeepers to acknowledge the novelty they introduce as valid in the domain.  The scribblings of a child may well be novel, but unless the scribblings are grounded on profound understanding of the domain of visual arts and the intentional going against or expanding what counts as art further validated by field experts, they are not an expression of such creativity that constitutes creativity in MC’s definition. The ability to produce new things is not by itself creative, but creativity must always be accompanied by expertise. 

While one act of creativity is domain specific, it is quite typical of creative individuals to be able to master also other domains – and actually combine insights and established wisdoms from many domains into something new. Naturally, coming up with new domains is accompanied by the problem of lacking the field experts to validate the new domains. However, if that problem can be bypassed, these boundary breaking fruits of creativity are often the ones making the biggest impacts. 

Digging deeper into the jar of creativity

This tenet of creativity resonates with the sense of mastery as described in the context of organizational creativity. In order to come up with new things, it is essential to know what is new, not just unfamiliar to the one coming up with something. Humans have achieved a lot, and while we adhere to also stupid rules and conventions, and are often blinded by ‘the way things are here done’, without knowing and mastering the existing foundations of the domain specific creations, coming up with new things does not count as creativity.

Creativity is the ability to stretch the existing to new directions either through introducing new elements to the melee, or by connecting existing elements into constellations never seen before. 

Therefore, creativity is underpinned by expertise. Expertise in turn requires hard work, practice, honing the skills, rigorous repetition and meticulousness. Interestingly, in lay parlance and views, one often sees creativity being linked to freedom from hard work and repetitive routines, general laissez-faire attitude and laxness. This results from misguided notions of creativity, which does in fact include an element of freedom, but not in terms of escaping the effort and self-control necessary in developing expertise. 

According to MC, there are two dominant traits in creative individuals: autonomy and complexity. While the individuals are not ‘free’ from effort, they are highly independent and require autonomy over what they focus on and what not. This sense of autonomy, as captured in organizational creativity research, means that the aim of the creative work must arise from within the individual – he/she must be able to pursue exactly what he/she wants to pursue with his/her creativity. This is a bitter pill to swallow in organizations that would like to be able to point the creativity towards the collective aims of the organization. However, doing that, in the case of the innate aims of the creative individual and the collective aims of the organization being less than aligned, means that the creativity is turned off. Sure, needs often must, and often being an expert in something is by itself sufficient to satisfy the organizational needs in exchange for making a living, but genuine creativity blossoms only in autonomy of aims. 

While the personalities, capabilities and preferences of creative individuals encompass the whole spectrum encountered in our race in general, the trait of complexity is typical to the creative individuals. In psychology, it is generally accepted that our personalities can be positioned into five dimensions: introversion-extroversion, organized-careless, energetic-reserved, compassionate-callous, sensitive-resilient. While most people tend to inhabit one position per continuum, the complexity in creative individuals means that they inhabit several positions in each continuum, both depending on circumstances and simultaneously. A creative individual can be at the same time highly organized and highly careless, strongly introverted and vigorously extroverted, be extremely compassionate yet mind-blowingly callous. Their personalities are flux, making them difficult to pin down for organizational purposes.

The sense of belonging identified in the organizational side refers to the psychological safety vital for creativity. Creativity cannot live in an environment where the primary energy hog is the psychological insecurity. Again, this poses big problems to the organizations wishing to employ creative individuals: they are difficult to categorize, and while they may be nice and friendly at times, they may not be so at other times. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, especially when it concerns the fruits of their labor, but can be utterly cold when shutting out the rest of the world to pursue whatever they at a given moment find worth pursuing.

The problematic nature of this fluxness of the creative individuals demands a lot from the environment, and poses its own set of problems to collectives of the creative individuals. A quick peek to any orchestra, artist commune, theater or the like proves the point – it takes something extra to create such a collective of creative individuals where they all can experience psychological safety. The solutions differ notably from the regular job satisfaction endeavours encountered in corporate organizations. If the corporations genuinely wish to increase the number of creative individuals in their ranks, the current HR mechanisms are utterly unprepared for these dark sides of creativity.

Creativity and disruption, to be continued…

Looking back the text mass produced so far, I decided to break this post into two parts. So, stay tuned for the second part where I’ll be looking at the bright and dark sides of creativity in a disruption. 


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