Creativity is a Balancing Act

What are the characteristics of a creative workplace in our modern environment?

Tero Autio, PhD, is Professor of Curriculum Theory, and a thinker on education and creativity. He spoke to Ensto Today about creativity in the workplace.

Defining creativity might be compared to defining obscenity – US Supreme Court Justice Stewart’s famous test: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it”. Is creativity like that?

I would be reluctant to give a straight-forward definition of creativity. At best, we can describe it and we recognize it when it happens. The similar difficulty in definition is often the case with some other fundamental human phenomena. For example, we cannot exhaustively define love or time but we still “know” what they are.

Concerning people, are there “creative people” or just “people who have tapped into their creativity”?

Creativity is a human mystery. We just don’t know where it comes from. Interestingly, the most creative people-regardless of whether in the arts, business, sciences – often have a troubled social or family background stunningly similar to that of criminals: The same fire that melts butter also hardens the steel. Many top performers have suffered some real diffi-culties in their lives. We can say that our school systems socialize us – removing the individualism that leads to creativity.

So creativity is literally beaten out of us by the system?

Yes. We have lots of data about Finland, for example. In our schools at least equal emphasis is put on control as is placed on learning itself. School is one of the most successful institutions in human history, by which I mean as a device for transmitting values, knowledge, and skills which have proven successful. But there are still problems with the system. It’s a tough balance to strike: how to socialize without suffocating creative talent.

Is it up to the employer then to re-inspire? To give back what school took away?

It’s difficult to liberate people. Sociality is a coercive power or force, and there’s always tension present between coercion and liberation. Some political scientists talk about “equiliberty” – the needed balance of egalitarianism and elitism. As far as the employer is concerned it’s a balancing act.

Scandinavian countries have highly prioritized equality – the positive outcome from this is that a basic level of good is guaranteed. But there’s a price for that.

In manufacturing situations how does an employer strike a healthy and productive balance?

The interplay between routines and novelty is critical. Communication is the key to keep an organization flexible and open. It’s perhaps banal to say, but com munication and community share a root.

For an employer, it’s not enough to understand the manufacturing process. A manager’s success is related to psycho logical and interpersonal intelligence. What kind of leaders does an organization have? How psychologically perceptive are they?

Some organizations simply fail to appoint the right people to leadership positions. Steve Jobs was inventive  and insightful, but he wasn’t the greatest leader.

In another conversation you called Jobs’ products “perfect.” Would you agree that his management style – what we might call “Jobsian tyranny” – produced results?

We all have to find our own paths to follow. Jobs’ solution worked for him, but if you’re a manager then be careful about imitation. Imitation leads to socialization. Be informed by Jobs, but don’t imitate. You can hate your teachers but still love learning. Do what is necessary to maintain your curiosity and enthusiasm.

Are we in danger as a society of losing those?

It takes different forms, but in many environments having the right answers is more important than learning. “Teaching for the test” is very socializing not just for students but for teachers, as well.

Life is about transformation, but many want to get their lives stable, fixed, and finished in some sense. Leaders must understand and accept these basic dynamics of life, that we’re constantly in the process of becoming, that things never stop changing. Great leaders accept this, and maintain curiosity.

Another good example is our schools. For all the problems they have, we may also find great examples. Good school rectors seem to have a gift for maintaining a child-like mentality and curiosity. It’s managed chaos, really.

Author: Scott Diel