Peer Review, Spring, 2006

Spring 
2006, 
Vol. 8, 
No. 2
Peer Review

Creativity in the World of Work

The high prize of life, the crowning glory . . . is to be born with a bias to some pursuit which finds him in employment and happiness—whether it be to make baskets, or broadswords, or canals, or statues, or songs. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Like many of my fellow travelers, I have seen enormous and ever-accelerating changes in how we work and perceive our future. My particular perspective has been as a "creative"—that strange breed lurking at the fringes of corporate America that is a necessary but hardly integrated part of the business tribe. From that unique vantage point, I have formed a few thoughts and opinions about the essential role of creativity in the workplace, and more than a few questions about the future of that workplace. There appear to be no clear answers to these questions—only exciting possibilities.

Describing the Elephant

My years in the workplace have caused me to reflect more than once upon those delicate strands that form the strongest, most rewarding, and most enduring work environments (like silk, seemingly fragile but incredibly strong). The slender thread that has held together the most successful project teams and bound together the most dynamic corporate environments is the recognition that creative ideas are the most precious commodity, and that those who stimulate and create and manage to nurture those ideas are to be valued, no matter what their official job description or title, no matter what their level in the workplace.

Conversely, I have worked in environments where creative input or ideas were regarded as a challenge to the prevailing way of working—a breach of the "command and control" hierarchy. Those who put forward creative ideas were regarded with suspicion, at best, and at worst were ostracized.

Creativity Defined and Described

The ability to make or otherwise bring into existence something new, whether a new solution to a problem, a new method or device, or a new artistic method or form. —Definition of "creativity" in Encyclopedia Britannica Online

I'm always thinking about creating. My future starts when I wake up every morning. Every day I find something creative to do with my life. —Miles Davis

I've noticed an interesting bit of word play during my career that I'd like to share in hopes of lending clarity to one part of the divide between the creative folks and the rest of the world . The fork in the road might begin with the word "creativity" itself. In the workplace, creativity often has a pejorative meaning stemming, I think, from the popular notion that it equates to "arty," which for many corporate managers or lead foremen conjures up images of berets and feathers and dissolute, impulsive, and irresponsible behavior. There are certain jobs where, admittedly, the word carries other unwanted connotations. The proximity of "creative" and "accounting" and "Enron," for instance, or "creative" and "brake repair," spring to mind.

Change the word from creativity to innovation, however, and managerial shoulders might begin to relax considerably around the workplace. No matter what the term, I believe that creativity in the workplace is here to stay and I believe wholeheartedly that, as Jan Kilby (2001) stated in the San Antonio Business Journal, "In globally competitive organizations, creativity occurs in every department at every level."

The Creative Workplace—What It Ain't (or, In the Valley of the Hats)

Early in my working life I took a job in a mid-sized steel foundry (long since shut down and moved offshore) that made giant cast-steel pulleys used in industrial elevators and drawbridges. My job was to shovel burning hot sand back into the casting molds in between pours. It was as close to the vision of Dante as I ever hope to come. I bring this up here as an example of the workplace at its least productive.

The workers were organized into castes according to job and rank and identified by the color of their hard hats (Gold Hats were executives, White Hats floor managers, Red Hats foundry men, Green Hats machinists, and so on down the food chain to my group—Blue Hats cleanup crewmembers and laborers). It was a classic top-down management structure with the added onus of a caste system created by hat color. Not only did the Red Hats not talk to or socialize with the Green Hats (and so on), but all color hats would scuttle away at the sight of a Gold or White Hat. Not just "them and us" but them and them and them . . . and us. God knows what the productivity rate was in our workplace, but I can assure you that it stunk.

I have not seen a more divisive workplace since, but I have often detected faint wisps of that "hat" behavior permeating the workplace—whether on a shop floor or in a well-carpeted office space. As the workplace changes, the worker caste system becomes less and less of an effective option in running a company.

There is a discernable change a-coming. The Workplace (as It Just Was)

It seems moments ago that the college graduate stepped forward into the cadre known, thanks to Peter Drucker, as "knowledge workers." This modern workforce, the dream of middle-class parents everywhere, was composed of doctors, lawyers, accountants, software engineers, aerospace engineers, and the omnipresent MBA graduates. The distinguishing characteristic of this group was, according to Drucker, their "ability to acquire and to apply theoretical and analytic knowledge". These sorts of talents, asserts Daniel H. Pink, "were the sorts of linear, logical, analytical talents measured by SATs and deployed by CPAs" (Pink 2005).

The workplace of a few moments ago, and to a large degree right now, is dominated by this process in service to product. Pink goes on to say that "today, those capabilities are still necessary. But they're no longer sufficient." I agree. I also agree with the view held by economist and urban planner Richard Florida that the days of the "knowledge worker" are numbered (due to outsourcing). A new way of working is forthcoming, but the path there will be steep and heavy going.

The Workplace as It Often Is (Right Now)

In the course of my career, I have seen a slow shift from ghettoizing creative talent (those hats again) to integrating creative thinkers into the mainstream of corporate culture. Moving creative departments, media production, and creative directors more closely to the corporate bosom, or at least inviting their input and extending inclusion earlier in the decision-making processes, is the next step needed to fully realize the value added by the creative thinkers in the workplace.

All my previous discussion serves as a prologue to the question at hand—why is a creative workplace important? It's about us, our self esteem, part of our internal weave, the Emersonian individual in all of us. We don't willingly train at university to enter an unhappy, unrewarding, unfulfilling career. We aspire. It is our nature. We are creative beings, after all.

The Workplace as It Can Be (or, In the Bosom of the Mouse)

I can attest to the excitement of working in a creative workplace. Walt Disney Imagineering was like that when I worked there from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s—the environment was electric for designers and managers alike. People at all levels of the project team (in this case, the $3 billion Tokyo Disney Seas project) were immersed in the process of generating ideas. No relevant idea went unexplored, regardless of its origin. No team member was excluded from developing ideas, regardless of his or her job description. Respect for one's fellows was the unspoken code under which we all worked. The result was a spectacular park for the company and a profound sense of achievement for the team.

What occurred, I believe, was a working model of Richard Florida's "creative class," where the creativity of both "key players" and "bit players" was maximized by, in his words, "the cultivation of distinct patterns of thought and behavior in an environment that broadly supports it." The six-year project met the three criteria of Florida's theory of the three T's, technology, talent, and tolerance:

  • Technology: The technology base available to the park creators ran the gamut from aerospace to Silicon Valley to the resources of a world-famous in-house research and development department.
  • Talent: The company was able to assemble the team from the deep talent pool nationwide, drawing architects from New York, engineers from CalTech, artists from all over, and the best designers in the Hollywood entertainment community. The junior staff represented some of the best and brightest graduates of dozens of colleges and universities around the country.
  • Tolerance: Lastly, the team was a mini UN, with members from over thirty countries represented. Tolerance was not something anyone worked at; it just was part of the fiber of our workplace.

I have seen a micro-version of Florida's creative new world and it works. It is exciting to ponder the possibilities expanding outward as the new model emerges. If, in fact, the workplace becomes a place of mutual understanding and respect—where creative thinking is regarded less as a necessary evil and more as an essential part of strategic planning, where the ideas of MFAs and MBAs and, yes, GEDs are equally regarded—what sort of person will occupy the catbird chairs in the future, and how will they be trained?

How the Disney team was selected may give some insight into the preparation necessary to enter the creative class described by Florida. Given the universally high level of skills available to the company, what were the distinguishing characteristics of the individuals chosen for the project team?

First, without exception team members had a strong sense of the world around them, had interests far beyond the scope of their work, and displayed a real desire to know more about a wide range of subjects. They also had the ability and need to see something through and keep making it better as it evolved. They respected the goals of the project and respected their colleagues in the workplace. They were able to work unsupervised and efficiently, but sought help when it was needed. They also had poise and were able to remain calm in a crisis. Lastly, and most importantly, they had a sense of humor.

Lessons from the Workplace

Things are not difficult to make. What is difficult is putting ourselves in the state of mind to make them. —Constantine Brancusi

How these "distinct patterns of thought and behavior" are developed remains the baseline of a successful educational experience at the college and university level. Higher education is the strongest tool for preparing the creative workforce of the (very) near future. I believe that there are some important lessons to be drawn from the workplace environments described above that might be applied to the training of students who are about to enter the changing world of work.

Lose the hats. Challenge hierarchies of certainty and caste. By that I mean do not let students assume a fixed pattern of thought. Ask for opinions, not just answers. Lose the internal hat culture within the faculty ranks. Treat each other "collegially," if you will. Seek and give help to one another. Yes, the academic rank divide does trickle down to the students, believe me. Create an atmosphere where open discourse on all levels is encouraged and respectful challenge is the norm. It will be pure oxygen for students and faculty alike.

Keep digging. Create learning situations that have more than one outcome and require multiple approaches to solutions.

Work in groups. In my experience, some of the most successful and creative workers were performing arts majors in college. I have come to believe that there are several reasons for their success. The performing arts major's training involves intense individual study (role memorization, dance steps, music memorization, and solo practice) combined with the interdependence of rehearsal and performance as part of an ensemble effort—in other words, training in self-sufficiency and group dynamics. Forming small groups to solve complex problems is the best "real-world" training you can give.

Be a mentor. Working with a mentor can be a critical fulcrum in a student's life. This is the point where self-esteem is nurtured and where the "life stuff" that absorbs so much of the student's time and energy can get an airing. It is the time when the professor steps off Mt. Olympus and assumes human garb. It is just not the professor that mentors. In a healthy climate, advanced students can play a critical role in guiding those who are less far along in their college careers. Again, this breaks down the hierarchy and invites participation by all.

Show your respect. Aretha got it right, baby. Respect is the drive wheel of the creative engine. Respect of self and respect for others are the heart and soul of the creative workplace. Respect can and must be taught. Insist upon respectful behavior from all parties, faculty, staff, and students, and higher education will be well on its way to becoming the cornerstone of the creative workplace.

And a final quote from Florida:

Creativity is not a tangible asset like mineral deposits, something that can be hoarded or fought over or even bought or sold. We must begin to think of creativity as a common good like liberty or security. It's something essential that belongs to all of us, and that must always be nourished, renewed, and maintained—or else it will slip away.

.. and the choir says, "Amen."

References

Florida, R. 2005. The flight of the creative class. New York: Collins.
Kilby, J. 2001. Creativity is one of the greatest assets in the workplace. San Antonio Business Journal 15 (July 13): 25.

Pink, D. H. 2005. Revenge of the right brain. WIRED, 13 (February): 70–72.


Michael Devine is the owner of Devine Designs in Savannah, Georgia.

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