Being strategic doesn’t mean creativity by numbers
This post was reproduced as an article in Broadcast on 13 March 2015
Far from killing ideas, strategic thinking and carefully-chosen stimulus can generate the conditions which allow creativity to flourish. And stay human.
In his recent acceptance speech for a BAFTA Fellowship, maverick film director Mike Leigh expounded the virtues of truly independent film-making.
Proud and fiercely defensive of this “offbeat, alternative, original, idiosyncratic, personal kind of popular cinema”, he talked of the importance of making films “free from all censorship or interference by government, backers, producers, script editors or committees of any kind.” The thinly-veiled critique of the alternative route to market taken by Hollywood blockbusters was clear for all to see. This latter kind of film-making he called “interfered with”.
Meanwhile, the BBC announced plans last week to provide producers and commissioners with more detailed daily ratings reports, which include colour-coded illustrations of how programmes are performing with under-served audiences (the young, ethnically diverse groups and the less well-off), as well as reporting on how a programme is consumed across 7 days of its lifecycle after broadcast, including the performance of on-demand and repeats. The ambition is to embed this new way of measuring success in regular creative conversations, to stimulate better editorial decision-making. Having spent so long within the organisation working with data like this, I am pretty sure this kind of input will be a relief to some - but an anathema to others.
But can and should the magic of creativity can be shaped by rational thinking and objective information? Or does it make Mike Leigh’s nightmares come true, only helping to encourage creativity by committee and creative vision to be “interfered with”?
Nelly Ben Hayoun, the award-winning designer of experiences dubbed the Willy Wonka of Design and Science, would seem to side with him. She recently said of the difference between art and design: as an artist, you don’t have a need to be responsible towards fact. Equally, when poet Frances Leviston (author of Disinformation and my latest creative hero) was a contributor to a Radio 4 discussion, she categorically said in regards to how she goes about her art form: “I can't be inhibited by the truth”.
Does that mean the artist is free to create in a vacuum? And is that any good for them anyway? I don’t believe so.
I am a great believer in what I’ve termed in another blog post ‘transactional creativity’ – the concept that our ideas are not our own but are only really valid when they reach an audience and tell a story. An exchange has to happen for our ideas to reach their full potential. It’s the tree in the forest argument: if you create something worthy of a lifetime achievement award in your relevant artistic industry, but nobody experiences it….
As with everything, there is a balance. Being strategic about creativity doesn’t mean abandoning innate creative instinct or well-crafted skill. If you become too robotic about the creative process and let it be determined by big data algorithms coming up with a formula for the perfect show (allegedly the genesis for Netfix’s House of Cards, though…), you are totally missing the point. Creativity is a human instinct and a great human mystery, so it needs to stay human. And it certainly can’t be forced.
But having ideas is hard. Surely we need all the help we can get? Back to Frances Leviston. In this same radio discussion, she likened the creative process to “a kind of primordial soup of thoughts where various ideas and impulses and feelings are bumping up against each other and being thrown into new configurations." She explained that eventually "you find there's something that emerges as being imaginatively urgent. It will start to gather other ideas to it. It hangs there like a catalyst and other ideas start to collect and the sentences start to form".
For me the balance between total creative freedom, which TS Elliot warned means artistic work is “likely to sprawl”, and ‘creating by numbers’ is in generating the right environment and providing some carefully-chosen prompts to give creativity its best chance – be it via numbers on a ratings report, or using other methods. It is in bringing together some carefully-chosen ingredients to form the base of that primordial soup, if you like. Or, at least, the utensils and receptacle for that soup to be held in and stirred by.
As has been said about planning in advertising by American academic Henry Mintzberg, strategic thinking is at its best when it prepares conditions for creative accidents to happen. It can and should be seen as another tool in the toolkit to prompt, direct and challenge inspiration. It can provide a framework in which creativity can safely flourish, in the same way that the best football matches are those which are well refereed and kept within the rules – rules that have been established for a reason, precisely to allow the beautiful game to thrive.
I’ve seen it happen first hand. Flashes of inspiration, existing ideas brought together in new ways, giant leaps made or a slight twist of perspective on a story or concept, brought about by an understanding of the audience, an honest evaluation of the market, or a structured way of thinking that disciplines and stimulates the creative muscles in the brain and gives them something to bounce off. But as well as ‘in the moment’ creative momentum, strategic thinking helps slowly evolve what author Steven Johnson calls in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, the “long slow hunch”. Another culinary metaphor now: strategic thinking and objective information become the hob on which creativity can bubble and stew.
Let’s face it, we’ve all been in slightly ropey brainstorms where completely random stimulus has been expected to deliver the next big thing – from closing your eyes and pointing at a word in a book, to using the names of the runners in the 2.15 at Plumpton that day, or mining the contents of some unsuspecting participants’ handbag. Why not use something more considered and less subjective to get the creative juices going?
So, have no fear. Art doesn’t have to be responsible towards, or limited by, fact - but ideas can resonate with their audience all the more if they are rooted in truth. And the publically-funded BBC with its responsibility to make the highest quality content for the broadest range of audiences is to be applauded for its attempts not to leave creative genius entirely to chance, but to provide input so that ideas can be prompted and nurtured.
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