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The Two Faces of Creativity

An article in the International Herald Tribune from 2012 – Innovation Isn’t Easy, Especially Midstream – captured an interesting dichotomy that many organisations face in terms of continuous improvement. (The link may require a subscription.)

Author Nick Bilton talks about how large organizations – unlilke start-ups – often struggle to create innovative products.

“Why was a small start-up with 13 employees able to build up Instagram, while a company like Eastman Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy protection, was not?”

His reasons:

  • An inability to break out of internal culture patterns,
  • An attitude of being held captive by existing customers to current technologies, and a
  • Reluctance to adapt and change, particularly if experimentation may cannibalize existing sales.

In other words, an organisation needs to act in two different ways at the same time.

Push us forward without upsetting the current situation.

I’ve been part of many teams selling ideas to a client. More often than not, it was my role – as the creative lead – to have a dual mindset. That was never the case of the client leader. Their job was to keep (or win) the business, and we wouldn’t win if we scared the client. At the same time, we wouldn’t win the business unless we pushed the client in new directions. That means 

This aspect of a split-mind perspective is not new. Perhaps you’ve read the articles that outline how creative people are paradox

  ambiguous, malleable and two-faced – as if they’re negative qualities. In truth, they’re necessary qualities because to create and then sell a new idea requires two opposite ways of thinking, that often need to happen at the same time.

 … the individual brainstormer has several balancing acts to master if they’re going to successfully sell their Big Idea to the decision maker.

Here are three ‘balancing acts’.

Exploration vs. Production

To imagine a new product/service or new alternatives/options requires exploration. The individual brainstormer needs to search and discover from:

  • Yesterday (good ideas of the past, such as Instagram’s nod to the Polaroid camera)
  • Today (current events, attitudes and behaviours, as well as the societal and competitive environment), and
  • Tomorrow (emerging trends, technologies and patterns).

This discovery phase often looks like unproductive work. How do you justify activity whose ultimate value may not be immediately clear, if ever? Business practices, structures and procedures are based on and enforce linear thinking (digging the hole deeper), whereas the chaos, disorganization and serendipity required for creative thinking is lateral thinking (digging the hole somewhere else).  In other words, the successful brainstormer has to ground themselves in the prevailing business culture to remain employed while, at the same time, flying directly in the face of those same business processes to discover a new, more efficient solution. (Check out )

Big Ideas vs. Safe Ideas

Once the Big Idea is found through exploration, it must be packaged and approved by the decision maker to extract its value. The problem with Big Ideas is that – by their very nature – they are not safe.  Big Ideas require significant change of the company and demand a new mindset, both internally and externally.  However, that openness for embracing ‘something different’ also means that the decision maker will be exposed to criticism and, potentially, failure.

It’s easy to say that genuine disruption is necessary for real creativity, but it’s also a strong pill to take for even the most liberal decision maker.  So, the successful brainstormer will tick the boxes of disruption and impossibility, but at the same time, moving forward with an issues management plan to manage this risk – both of the idea, but more so, for the company’s reputation. (Check out )

Visionary vs. Practical

Something happens when the Big Idea moves from the visionary, free-flowing brainstorm to the practical, day-to-day implementation. The temperature of the idea drops, sometimes to the point of freezing to death. Not surprising, it’s the difference between the man in the crow’s nest and the ship’s oarsman. The man with the spy-glass on high sees enticing new lands. The man with his raw bloody hands knows it’s going to be hard work to eventually reach those new continents. Imagine the difficulty in trying to play both roles.

To engage the decision maker, the brainstormer must be professionally schizophrenic. They balance the necessary opposites to win approval from the decision maker of the Big Idea. At the same time, when selling the idea (either to the decision maker or to the end user), the individual brainstormer needs to be visionary and realistic, starry-eyed and practical, and daring and cautious.

Now you might see why I’ve always said the Roman god Janus – a familiar symbol of the theatre – might also make a perfect god of creativity.

What other ‘balancing acts’ have you managed to sell an idea to a decision maker?  Please add your thoughts and comments below.

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The Two Faces of Creativity