Managing Different Creative Styles

Connecting ideas is the fundamental creative act of innovation. Trying to harness this creativity within ourselves and our organisations is the first step in managing innovation as a process. Of course, this is a step that resists systematisation – as Simon Bostock points out, innovation is a cloud not a clock. In that post he quotes Jonah Lehrer:

Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, once divided the world into two categories: clocks and clouds. Clocks are neat, orderly systems that can be solved through reduction; clouds are an epistemic mess, “highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable.” The mistake of modern science is to pretend that everything is a clock, which is why we get seduced again and again by the false promises of brain scanners and gene sequencers. We want to believe we will understand nature if we find the exact right tool to cut its joints. But that approach is doomed to failure. We live in a universe not of clocks but of clouds.

Malcolm Gladwell shows why this process might be hard to manage in his story called Late Bloomers (originally in the New Yorker, then in his book What the Dog Saw). One problem is that there are radically different styles of creativity.

Gladwell talks about several examples of people that came into their own creatively later in life. One comparison that he makes is between Picasso and Cézanne. Picasso was precocious – his genius was apparent from pretty much the first painting he showed in public in his early 20s. On the other hand, Cézanne took much longer to develop. The consensus now is that his early work was for the most part terrible (in part because he was not technically skilled when he began) – his string of masterpieces didn’t start until he was in his 50s. In addition to differences in when their artistic talent emerged, there were also substantial differences in the ways that they thought about creativity:

Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues, rarely engage in that kind of open-ended exploration. They tend to be “conceptual,” Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. “I can hardly understand the importance given to the word ‘research,’ ” Picasso once said in an interview with the artist Marius de Zayas. “In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing.” He continued, “The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting. . . . I have never made trials or experiments.”

But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental. “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental,” Galenson writes in “Old Masters and Young Geniuses,” and he goes on:

“The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trial and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goal.”

Where Picasso wanted to find, not search, Cézanne said the opposite: “I seek in painting.”

I think that there are parallels in innovation. There are innovations that seem to spring straight out of the heads of their young creators, like the search algorithm upon which Larry Page and Sergei Brin founded Google in their mid-20s. That’s Picasso-style creativity.

And then there ideas that take a while to germinate, and many iterations, like the Dyson Vacuum. James Dyson took over five years and hundreds of prototypes to get his bagless system to work. This invention, launched while he was in his late-30s, represented a major leap forward in terms of technical sophistication and accomplishment relative to his earlier inventions. This is Cézanne-style creativity.

This has a couple of implications for innovation management:

  1. At a personal level, we need to know which approach works best for us – the intuitive, broad, big picture, jump-straight-to-the-answer Picasso-style method, or the deliberate, slow, iterative Cézanne style.
  2. As managers, we need to avoid using ideas like this to support stereotypical thinking. Picasso worked in the same way all the way through his career. His creative style was established early and persisted. So it is not an issue where young people are creative one way, and older people are creative in another.
  3. If we are working with groups of people that are not experienced thinking creatively, we might need to set up innovation systems organised more around seeking, iteration, and Cézanne-style creativity.

There are many challenges in trying to manage innovation as a process. Accounting for different styles of creative thinking is another factor that we must consider in doing this.

On the other hand, all this might just be trying to turn a cloud into a clock…

(picture from flickr/Odalaigh under a Creative Commons license)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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