In the light of Corona – Part 20: Creativity and disruption, 2/2

In the previous post I wrote about creativity, organizational creativity and creative individuals. To recapitulate, based on the insights of Csikszentmihalyi, I define creativity as the ability to stretch the existing either by introducing novelties or by assembling the old elements into novel constellations. Creativity can exist in any domain, not as a sole property of the creative industries – even plumbing can be creative. In turn, organizational creativity is target oriented, aimed at realizing innovations, novelties that can be commercialized to boost the performance of the innovating organization. 

In both, the wider context of creativity, and the narrower context of organizational creativity, the source of creativity are the creative individuals. They come up with domain-specific new things, which are then validated by the experts in the field. In organizational creativity the validation concerns the commercialization part of the innovation, whereas in the wider context, the gatekeepers of arts, law (or why not plumbing) assess whether what is introduced is genuinely something novel (and whether the novelty is desired or undesired in the field). 

Creative individuals are complex and independent, which makes managing them irksome in corporative settings. They require a sense of belonging (psychological safety), sense of mastery (domain-specific expertise) and sense of autonomy (the freedom to pursue the goals they want). Creativity can also emerge on a group level, as a joint effort of a group of creative individuals, and the collective level social forces can support or hinder it. 

In this blog I’ll look at how the corona disruption influences the three essential ‘senses’ underpinning the creative abilities of an individual – and conclude with a word of caution. 

Sense of belonging and disruption

One of the key pillars of creativity is the sense of belonging, which refers to psychological safety – essential not only in creativity but for all humans. It is a social level construct, emerging out of our nature as herd animals: we all crave the support of others, albeit in notably different scale and scope. In a recent book, Timothy Clark summarizes ample research and crystallizes the concept into four requirements.

  • Inclusion safety. Our need to be accepted into a group is literally hardwired into us: if we feel ostracized, they very same brain receptors that are responsible for physical pain, activate. It literally hurts to feel left out. 
  • Learning safety. Mistakes and errors are a part of the learning process, and if an individual does not feel safe to do them, no learning happens.
  • Contribution safety. We all want our lives to mean something. Contribution safety refers to feeling that what I do matters and is accepted by my social group. 
  • Challenging safety. This is essential in creativity, which is about challenging the old by extending or reassembling it. This requires maturity both from the group and the individual; the dissenting voices need to be heard as constructive not as destructive. A psychologically safe environment embraces dynamism as a sign of health (of both the group and its individuals), and does not stagnate into a monolith. 

Interestingly, all of these bedrocks of psychological safety are driven by mechanisms internal to a group. In other words, they are not at the mercy of exogenous shocks. A group that can provide psychological safety absorbs the external shockwaves and supports its individuals’ psychological wellbeing even in the face of a calamity. Spelling it out, the groups that provide their members psychological safety are a huge source of resilience in times of disruption.

However, groups are different, and most of us are a part of many diverse groups. We have the groups we’re born into, the groups we’ve married into, the groups we have chosen based on our interests and aptitudes, the groups formed by unlikely friendships and shared experiences. Then we have the groups we’ve been thrown into as side products of choosing a certain profession, certain job, certain ambition. 

The reason why there is a lot of talk about psychological safety in organizational creativity is the fact that when a group has formed as haphazardly as they tend to when people are thrown together in organizational structures, the glue of ‘we’ness is difficult to come by. And without the ‘we’ness, the psychological safety is difficult – if not impossible – to seed and nurture. 

While it is possible to create a workplace of ‘we’ness, and conjure and cherish a work environment of psychological safety, it is not an easy task even when the cohesion is supported by daily physical interactions, corridor bumping-into’s, coffee table chats, lunch break serendipities. It takes a very strong group cohesion for the sense of belonging to survive prolonged physical distance. It is not impossible for the sense of belonging to survive the lack of physical contact, but it requires a group constitution that is already at the onset based on something else than being thrown into the same physical setting. The “we”:ness must originate from deeper connections than a same workplace. 

The very serious impact of the social distancing measures we’ve been experiencing this spring have directly eroded the groupness of such workplaces where the glue has depended on physical and professional proximity. Even if psychological safety existed in such work places before the corona onset, the erosion of the group cohesion has simultaneously been hammering away the sense of belonging, the psychological safety. 

While we all need inclusion, learning, contribution and challenging safety, the removal of these safety nets is devastating to creativity. Individuals are hurting from feeling left out, and afraid of mistakes they make in novel digital working environments. Many managers have expressed their insecurity by engaging in micromanaging (“how can I otherwise know they are doing their jobs!”), which eats the contribution safety. These accumulate into fear of rocking the boat – “I’ll just muddle along and hope that they’ll still like me”. 

The ones faring best are the ones belonging to a diversity of groups formed along other lines than pure work. As the work easily consumes such a large part of our lives, it is typical that the work group becomes the one we most associate with. This spring has shown the importance of other groups, the ones built on something more durable than the physical colocation of the coworkers. If you haven’t yet, now is a good time to call all your old friends. They may be able to offer you the psychological safety you need to pursue your creative aspirations. And even if you don’t have such, the sense of belonging is still invaluable.

Sense of mastery and disruption

As explained in the previous post, creativity is built on expertise. Expertise in turn is built on innate aptitudes and inclinations (sometimes referred to as ‘talents’) that drive an individual to engage in an activity in the first place, and to practice it rigorously and painstakingly enough to build the requisite expertise. A creative individual is never ready, but finds joy in digging deeper or climbing higher in the pursuit of the ever-evasive next stage. 

This driver of creativity, sense of mastery, is built on work. This type of work contains both the joy of inching forward in mastery, and iron-clad self-discipline harnessed in focused repetition. The requirements are both internal and external – expertise building requires will, endurance and enjoyment; time, room and peace. Historical narratives are filled with lone (male) artists that have shut out the rest of the world to remain cloistered in their chambers where they perfect their art. This laser focus is also the state of being that enables the famous state of flow – an existence where all else but the thing engaged in loses its meaning, where the mind stills to focus on the pure execution of the thing the execution of which brings deep fulfillment. 

This part of creativity is the one most threatened by our current hectic way of life. Few are even the men who can today shut out the rest of the world to pursue their passions, and for the women, while it is not as impossible as in the times where the role of a woman in a society was nigh purely domestic, the balancing of all expectations we often cannot help but carry is still not conducive to finding the time, physical and mental room, or peace required. 

Our current age poses also another threat to this part of creativity: we’re becoming lazy. Yes, this sounds contradictory to what I just wrote in the previous paragraph – how can we be both too busy and too lazy at the same time? Let me explain. Our brain is the most efficient energy saving machine ever invented, and the more we have technology to aid us in the more boring and routine tasks, the less do we develop the stamina required in actually engaging in developing mastery. We while our hours away doing busywork we want to believe is expected of us, but shy away from actually making the effort of developing ourselves towards areas where we might become experts. We’ve lost our ability to concentrate on anything for prolonged times, become addicted to quick stimuli easily accessed, afraid of boredom, repetition or stillness. 

The corona disruption has both positive and negative impacts on sense of mastery component of creativity. Its most beneficial aspect is the abrupt making of room: for some, this spring has brought time to pursue mastery. Many of my musician friends have been making quirky remarks about how they are in the best playing condition in ages for having for once enough time for practice, but without any concerts where those fruits could be offered for others. I also know academics who have been able to engage in reflective writing, having finally time to focus on writing. Additionally, there are people who have utilized the moment of stillness to finally pick up such hobbies where they can pursue passions long left untended.

For others, the disruption has had a completely reverse impact. As I’ve written as the closet feminist, the few women who might have managed balancing the needs of pursuing mastery with the requirements of life external in more normal times, are being pushed back into the role we women so easily fall into, to managing the ones near and dear to us who need managing. However, it is not only women who have been afflicted with an increased non-creativity-inducing workload. It seems that this spring I know only two types of people – ones with ‘nothing’ to do, and ones being crushed by the weight of work and other responsibilities exceeding dramatically the load of more normal times. 

Expertise requires freedom of clutter where the time and focus consuming repetition can take place. The corona disruption has been a lucky break for some, and a sledge hammer to others. If you’re on the side where your possibilities for using your time and energy in creative pursuits have been hammered down, I wish with all my heart that you can use the summer to regain the control needed for remaking that room.

Sense of autonomy and disruption

This requirement of creativity is the one most difficult to handle in organizational creativity. While people can make creative contributions in many domains, with many types of creative outcomes, the domain and the aspired outcomes pursued are guided by an internal compass. Creativity is dependent on the ability of the creative individual to pursue what they feel worth pursuing – in other words, having the self-discipline necessary for building mastery depends on wanting that specific mastery, on finding that specific mastery personally rewarding. Creativity requires freedom of setting one’s own goals. 

It is not impossible to align the collective goals and the individual level goals of a creative person. When that happens in a collective where the creative contributions of each individual complement each other, the collective level outcomes may surpass mightily the outcomes possible for a lone creative creature. An example of a structure that has for centuries been dependent on drawing from the expertise and passion of highly diverse creative individuals, is the opera. Think about the hours of expertise that go into one single performance: the hundred musicians in the orchestra have each been practicing since young age to deliver the music born out of the sweat and tears of a composer; the cognitive and creative achievements required of a conductor result only from work rarely achievable without life choices that to some may seem even sacrifices; the all-encompassing focus on taking care of and perfecting the instrument that is the voice of the singers is something few see when listening to the fruits of that care; the creativity gone into the design of the stage, the outfits, the theatrical part essential to opera is no less valuable for all its invisibility; the creativity in realizing a building in which music carries at its most beautiful; the technological creativity in light, sound and visual effect engineering – in opera, all of these diverse domains of creativity come together. Regardless of whether you like opera or not, it must be valued as an example of what collective level creativity can at best achieve. 

However, few of the creative individuals are internally driven to pursue the aims set by a corporation. Making profit does not quite stimulate the same passion as making music. This is the fundamental problem of organizational creativity: how can the personal passions be harnessed in ways that result in innovations, which consist half of creativity and half of commercialization. As evident examples show, that is, however, not impossible. It requires understanding what actually drives the creative individuals and framing the organizational goals in ways that the individuals can relate to. In most cases it means allowing the creative individuals a certain playroom where they can pursue whatever they want, and having another set of individuals at hand assessing whatever comes up from the viewpoint of its commercialization potential. It also means sheltering the creative individuals from what goes on outside that playroom – the marketableness, the profit expectations, the traditional control mechanisms, they all serve as distractions from the creative pursuits oriented purely at realizing what the creative individual internally wants to create. 

This requisite autonomy is a hard pill to swallow in organizations still functioning under the basic assumption of humans as fundamentally lazy, selfish and untrustworthy beings that need to be controlled by the carrot of wages and the stick of KPIs. Nothing kills creativity better than micromanaging. 

As already discussed, one of the impacts of the social distancing measures brought on by the corona disruption, is the increased appeal of micromanaging. If the basic notion of a human is already tilted towards considering us as fundamentally lazy and untrustworthy, not having the underlings in physical sight is frightening. This is fertile grounds for micromanaging, for inserting and implementing diverse types of digital monitoring mechanisms amply available for purposes of following the employees. Amplified by the urge to control at least something in the suddenly perceivably more uncontrollable world, many of the managers find themselves wondering whether their people are really doing what they should, and worrying about the impacts of the envisioned laziness on the already threatened firm performance.

Subsequently, giving in to these impulses and doubts in ways that intensify micromanaging results in dampening, if not altogether destroying creativity. So, if you are a manager, the impact of the corona disruption on creativity in your organization is up to you: do you trust the people or not?

Creativity and disruptions

Resource scarcity, general sentiments of unease, surprises, material insecurity, physical ailments and other external elements have surprisingly little impact on creativity. History is filled with stories of astonishing creative achievements realized in the most difficult circumstances, like the concerts held and books written in the concentration camps. This is explained by the very same reason why the carrots and sticks don’t work in commanding creativity: creativity is a complex internal process where the external signals can penetrate only through the complex mechanisms explicated above. While creative individuals are often sensitive and not immune to the goings-on in the external world, they are however primarily driven by their internal processes that often are strong enough to enable shutting out the rest of the world. There’s a little autist living in each creative individual. 

Creativity is often touted as a purely beneficial and desirable human feature and resource. However, as was thinly scratched in the previous part of this blog, it actually has also notable dark sides. It is purely selfish – the fruits are produced for the joy of producing them, and while each creative outcome is cherished like a baby by its creator, the actual potential role of that outcome in the wider social context matters little to the creator. I know many musicians who are just as happy playing for an empty hall as to an audience – I myself was one. It is up to others to make those fruits available for the greater good of the society. 

Creative individuals are difficult to live with. They tend to couple their self-worth on what they achieve in their internally driven creative processes, they are what they do – criticizing someone’s book means to the author criticizing them as a human being. Likewise, commending a book boosts the view the author has of him/herself. This coupling results often in notable mood shifts, as depending on the reception of the fruits of labor, the self-esteem of the creative individual fluctuates profoundly. Ups and downs are routine to them.

Creative individuals are difficult to understand or manage. They are often unhappy and lonely even in social settings. Simultaneously they can experience violent joy and be utterly satisfied in solitude. They present the two faces of one coin at the same time, being compassionate and callous, outgoing and shut off, notoriously messy and obsessively organised; difficult to categorise, impossible to control with any external means.

To sum, creativity would be a great thing but for the creative individuals.

Having stated the disclaimers, creativity is indeed one of the few human qualities that can never be replaced by advanced technologies. Creativity is sorely needed in solving the wicked problems we’re now facing. Like with everything that originates in us humans, creativity is a force for good and bad. We need creativity, and should be aware of the impacts of the corona disruption on it – however at the same time, we should also acknowledge the costs of creativity to the individual and to the social collectives. After all, few things worth having come for free.

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