Setting the Stage for Creativity

What is the best template for creativity? Is it a tortured solitary genius focused on the personal struggle for inspiration, or a group of ad men flinging ideas onto a board in a flurry of brainstorming? Is it a chamber orchestra performing Bach together, or is it a five-year-old child with a brush and paints? We know the most significant trend in human creativity in recent years has been the shift from individuals to teams. The modern workplace has been designed to move away from a traditional ‘hive’ set up to the more teamwork driven ‘den’, where free communication supports cross-functional, connected, silo-free work. We use tools such as Slack and Basecamp to connect our workflows, and working together on big projects has become the rule rather than the exception. But even though we are working together, is the work better?

The answer lies in the way the teams are working together. There is a tendency to look at the output of a team that is generating a lot of ideas in a non-judgmental, uncritical way — no idea is a bad idea — as being very productive. And it’s true that a team that is cooperating in this way will deliver an abundance of possibilities and possibly finish the project quicker than a single person working alone. However, a team that is debating, challenging, building upon one another’s work and questioning the ideas presented will produce more creative ideas of higher quality because critique allows people to dig beneath the surface and come up with ideas that aren’t predictable. Creativity is ignited when diverse ideas are united, or when ideas from one domain influence those of another, which is the true meaning of collaboration. We said in a previous post that creativity is the process of eliminating options; through collaboration this is not achieved with voting but with hard-won convergence. A team cooperating will make light work of solving a problem. But a team that argues, influences on another, inspires and connects—collaborates—will achieve a more satisfying result.

So, what is the perfect template for a collaborating group? Many years ago, I worked in the theatre, as an actor, designer, and artistic director of a theatre company, and believe one of the best models of group collaboration comes from the Broadway stage (stay with me here). I can tell you that no matter how ambitious you are, no single person can create a Broadway show—there are simply too many different kinds of talent required: a composer has to work with a librettist and a lyricist, a choreographer has to work with a director who is probably getting notes from the producer; there must be actors, an orchestra to play the tunes, and a small army of designers and craftsmen who bring the world of the play to life. And the most important collaborator of all, the audience, whose reception of the work can change the entire course of a production.

Setting all the razzamatazz of Broadway to one side, play-making at its core is an important collaboration between the actor and the text and music. The playscript sets out the words and the score sets the music, but neither is meant to live on the page—it is the actor’s voice which brings them to life. And when both are put before an audience, who receives it in a certain way—boom! Something new is created. Not completely of the playwright, not completely of the actor, not completely of the audience, but something wholly of each. To add further complication, a successful production must be financially viable as well as artistically creative, and each party involved in the making of it has his artistic reputation riding on the outcome of every performance, so the stakes are high. A forgotten line, a missing prop, a door that doesn’t open, or a wardrobe malfunction can stop a show, and that is a risk no one is willing to take.

Successful collaboration in the theatre also relies on the interconnected webs of people in the relatively small universe in which that world revolves—there aren’t many degrees of separation between Kevin Bacon and anybody, or between the librettist of “Guys and Dolls” and the choreographer of “Cabaret.” In my experience, certain directors often chose to partner with an artistic team they had worked with before, a pattern often repeated in theatrical collaborations, as producers view “incumbent teams” as a safe financial bet (Elton John and Tim Rice, I’m looking at you). However, intimacy with an artistic collaborator doesn’t always guarantee success, because knowing each other too well could mean that ways of working become stale. The opportunity for real magic happens when a new variable is injected into an already established collaborative relationship—a new set designer or an unknown actor, or possibly even when an old team works on a debuting play—when fresh thinking challenged already established ways of working. A famous example of this collaborative alchemy is the creative team behind “West Side Story,” one of the most commercially and artistically successful Broadway musicals of all time. The concept of a musical based on “Romeo and Juliet” was the brainchild of composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Laurents and choreographer Jerome Robbins—all Broadway legends—but the project, in 1957 a departure from theatrical conventions both for its focus on social problems and its extended dance scenes, made history thanks to the fresh talents of 24-year-old Stephen Sondheim, a then unknown lyricist who had never worked on a Broadway musical before.

Can collaboration work with other types of team work the same way it works in the theatre? Of course, because on any given project the high stakes are the same—it must be completed, the reputations of the people working on it depend on its success, and each person involved will have a view on the best way to deliver it. Assemble a team with strong opinions and a defined amount of time, stimulate conversation, criticism and conflict and fruitful interactions will happen. And do this in a communal space—large and open so that any one person can talk to another, but not too precious that it can’t be altered as necessary. From the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, the National Theatre, Building 20 at M.I.T. to the public spaces at Pixar, the most creative environments provide opportunities for one idea to bump up against another.

Bit by bit, putting it together, diverse teams trust each other to work in parallel, the only way to make a collaborative work of art. Whilst in the theatre the entities are all answerable to a director with a vision for how best to serve the play (and who in turn is answerable to the opening night audience), at work we look toward project owners and visionary leaders to provide clarity on objectives and help guide us toward success. Having just a vision is no solution, everything depends on execution, and in both worlds, failure is not an option.

The lesson we can take from the theatre is that when there are enough people with different perspectives and skills influencing one another in unpredictable ways, the group dynamic will inspire excellence from each person working to put the show on the road. In this creative process, every moment makes a contribution, every little detail plays a part. All those hundreds of micro-interactions add up…but don’t expect them to be without friction. In fact, the challenging conversations you’ve been avoiding so long could well be the most important part of the process. They might be confrontational and not always pleasant, but it doesn’t mean they can be avoided: collaboration is not about getting along, it is about getting it right.

Innovation Arts is a hybrid strategy consultancy and design agency. Innovation Arts brings a fresh and highly effective approach to stimulating ‘group genius’ through design practices that stretch people’s thinking and initiate ideas. 
Described by GQ as the ‘management consultant of the future’, the Innovation Arts team is a mixture of strategists, management consultants, designers, advertisers, branding and communications experts and artists, all skilled in helping organisations make change happen. It’s a unique blend that helps an organisation think differently about the challenges it’s facing, as well as address them.
Based on their experience of working repeatedly with some of the leading FTSE100 and Fortune 100 companies, governments and civil society organisations, their clients engage them because they deliver systemic, high-quality, sustainable outcomes with less risk, more certainty and in a fraction of the time compared to conventional approaches.

What is a model?


‘Model’ can mean different things to different people, but in the context of our work, we mean a representation of reality intended to foster understanding.

Human beings use models all the time. Our observations, reflections and interpretations are all about creating mental models. Words themselves are models – a representation of reality. Just as the word apple is not the apple itself, a word, any word, is a concept we understand through agreement. Models provide a basis for conversation.

Friends at the Sente Corporation have put it this way:

“Depending on how you look at it, anything can be a model. Even reality – from one vantage point – is merely our own electro-chemical processing of narrow bandwidths taken from a sea of information”.

Why do we create models? Good models simplify our complex world, enabling us to communicate and appropriate complex ideas, notions, theories, and so on effectively and efficiently. We make our models to a scale where what they represent becomes understandable on an intuitive level. They enable us to develop the comprehension and insight from which we can begin to experiment. And through this, we learn.

In the context of enterprise, models enable us to examine a situation, analyse it and then draw out plans. Many of the concepts we grapple with in today’s organisations are so complex they are beyond the limits of our intuitive comprehension. Through modelling we attempt to strip away these layers of complexity in order for us to understand the context of the enterprise, the components within it and their relationships to each other and the external eco-system.

They do have their limitations. Models are fundamentally ‘reductionist’ in nature and there’s a balance to be struck between making the model sufficiently abstract that it can be understood intuitively whilst avoiding over-simplification. For example, in breaking processes down to constituent parts, the nature of the whole – the systemic dimension of the organisation – is all too often left neglected. The decomposition omits many of the complex interactions around a process, which is just a logical, linear sequence of activities. To document all such interactions would involve a mammoth effort of analysis, so the trick is to find the right mixture of reductionism and ‘holism’ or ‘systems thinking’. Cybernetics helps our understanding too, and I’ll come back to these points in later posts.

There is one fundamental pitfall to avoid when working with models: we must never forget that all our models – be they process maps, mind maps, spread-sheets, stories, physical or conceptual models – are abstractions. Therefore it is vitally important we remain vigilant in revisiting and revising them regularly, cognisant of the fact that, as George Box put it: “All models are wrong. Some models are useful”.

We must learn to be constantly critical and questioning, otherwise the very models we have constructed can be our own downfall as we cling on to them, attached to the comfort of a reality we perceive that may not, in fact, be appropriate. The only way of achieving a shift in our own perspective is through conversation. An intervention in our self-perpetuating thought processes can – if we are open to it – change our view of the world. Or our business.

At Innovation Arts, when we work with clients facing complex issues, we apply a rigorous approach to modelling. Dialogue and iteration are key to our approach, both during the Architecting and Building phases of solution design, but also when the new model is put to Use.

Enterprises as Functions


We are all familiar with the concept of functions – the departments within an enterprise into which work is generally divided. We have a Finance function, a Marketing function, a Human Resources function and so on. But have you ever asked yourself why?

Even for those of us in the habit of asking curious questions, this one may seem to have an obvious answer: Taking a functional view can provide economies of scale due to the encouragement of and access to specialisation. Similarly, the functional view can facilitate increased skill development and is easier to supervise as there are generally clearly defined activities associated with each role – with specialists not having to be responsible for administrative work. A functional approach may also lead to higher morale as it engenders similar norms and values within each department.

You will have heard tell, though – perhaps you even have stories of your own – of times when working in an organisation with functions becomes dysfunctional. When functions become silos, and it is difficult to co-ordinate work across them, for example. At the very least this can result in bottlenecks and the sub-optimal use of resources. It may also lead to an increased need for the co-ordination of activities within the organisation, where manager decisions tend to pile up at the top. In the same way that managers become functionally focused, it has also been argued that this tends to distract from a greater understanding of the business as a whole which can in turn lead to a narrow, short-term focus on functional goals.

So, would you describe you or your organisation as functional or dysfunctional? Is there a middle ground? Functionally dysfunctional (and vice-versa)? What box would we put ourselves in if it was a 2×2 matrix (apologies, I was once a proper Management Consultant) and would we agree which was the best box?

I think where we can agree is that a functional view is going to be useful in understanding how an enterprise…functions. Or doesn’t function. It’s just not the whole picture. As an approach it has its limitations.

Through our bespoke Design & Decide approach, we can help you to bring the best of the functions within your own organization together to tackle the complex issues you face. We can help you look at things in non-functional ways too. By breaking down preconceptions and old habits within the system, functions can behave as fully integrated parts of a team committed to working in the same direction to achieve shared objectives.

Why are we here?

Why_Are_We_Here_imageGood question. Since you find yourself here, it is likely that, like me, you are curious. Curiosity is an interesting characteristic and one most often associated with children. It implies not just a thirst for knowledge, but a seeking out of questions.

Why does curiosity diminish as we get older? Perhaps because we augment it with experience.

We all have experience that guides our intuition about how the world works. How many of your day-to-day decisions are guided by your personal experiences? I know many of mine tend to be. I form opinions based on my most recent experiences working with the many organisations we serve, facing today’s complex challenges. But also from timeless lessons I have learned during my long and on-going apprenticeship in enterprise. I can trace some back as far as my first real venture into earning money and understanding its value: my first paper-round. Some of today’s issues seem modern and unique, but others are timeless. I first learned about customer service, for example, and the importance of face-to-face interactions, when I grew too big for my paper round (marginally, some would argue) and began working in restaurants. The lesson that you should always treat everyone and everything along the way with respect is applicable whether you’re dealing with a half-million-pound consulting contract or a fifty-pound restaurant bill.

We all learn and grow through our experiences. However, as I remind myself every day, this is never enough. Our experience, and that of the experts we turn to in need, is a double-edged sword, showing us the way and yet sometimes blinding us to the obvious. Experience gives us business texts, articles and opinions, but most (if not all) of those I’ve read over the years seek only to peddle solutions, sometimes solutions to a problem that is ill-defined or misunderstood.

It has never been more evident to me that there is no clear recipe for success. Sometimes, even when all the right ingredients appear to be in place, something might fail – or, more puzzling still – when it feels like we’re missing something, astounding results are achieved. Why can’t we predict these unexpected failures and successes? The future is rational only in hindsight (as the axiom goes).

This is why – although now CEO of my own business with my years of studying business and management a long way behind me – I consider myself to be an eternal, curious student. It’s an approach that never ceases to intrigue, surprise, sometimes delight and (often) dumbfound me.

Our constantly changing world means that the experience and knowledge we have gathered along the way has a shelf life, and I believe it is not those with the right answers who will survive, embrace and drive change, but those with the right questions.

That’s where we come in. At Innovation Arts, our commitment is to help you develop your own solutions to the complex challenges you face, but we never start by looking for answers. First, we help you decipher the right questions. While the process is tough, it works. And it delivers outcomes that you may never have expected.