What two years of Ideally has taught me about creativity (and creative people).
Creativity is notoriously hard to pin down. In fact its mysterious, ethereal nature is the very thing that drives it and makes it valuable. But for those of us in the business of ideas it sometimes helps to have a framework by which to try to understand creativity (even if it fully evades totally logical rationale), so that we can get the best out of it.
I’ve been in the media business my whole professional life. Now two years of running a creativity strategy consultancy, working with a clients across broadcasting, production, digital sectors and beyond has brought my understanding of the creative process into sharp relief.
I think there are 5 useful analogies we can apply to creativity which might help us get some kind of handle on it and encourage ourselves that we’re getting it as right as we possibly can. Of course, these are just my observations and not based on empirical evidence, but lived experience.
1. Creativity is a team sport.
Yes, there are lone geniuses, creative pioneers, who create their best ideas in isolation. But in my experience they are the exception rather than the rule. Creativity flourishes when there is collective intelligence at play and relationships that foster creative freedom and a space to play with ideas. Because of that, in all the workshops I run I consistently notice that ideas simply don’t flow when team dynamics are bad and in particular when there is a sense of hierarchy among the participants. Creativity is nothing if not meritocratic. So should creative teams be when it comes to idea generation.
2. Creativity is a journey.
It comes out of a process over time, not a moment in time. For my clients there is very rarely a eureka moment that hasn’t actually had lots of build-up and thinking behind it. This is what author Stephen Johnson calls the “slow hunch”. The clichés about the inspiration/perspiration ratio for genius and about failing to prepare vs preparing to fail all apply here. Creativity requires effort and investment. That’s why I always say it is so important to follow up on ideas, to regularly sense-check them, and not to dismiss them immediately when they first come to us. The other truth about creativity caught up in this analogy is that is never really finished; creativity finds resting places along the way but there are always more destinations to explore…
3. Creativity is a great cup of tea.
Related to the fact that happen across a process not in a moment, creativity also needs time to brew and infuse. A 2015 study by University College London and the British Science Association reported in The Telegraph revealed that tea must be allowed to steep for up to five minutes, far longer than the two minutes allowed by most British drinkers. Likewise, creativity needs space to breathe. It needs to build and intensify. Of course this means that we have to be patient - not click our fingers and demand our teams have ideas on the spot. The human brain doesn’t work like that. In fact, creative breakthroughs often come when we’re distracted and our brain is taking a conscious rest from the creative challenge at hand. I like to tell my clients that I see ideas as unfurling rather than bursting out. Phil Collins famously said you can’t hurry love, no you’ve just got to wait. I say you can’t hurry great ideas. Or a great cup of tea, for that matter.
4. Creativity is an unruly toddler.
It is tempting to let creativity run wild, but it actually benefits from structure and discipline. This is particularly the case among my clients, all of whom are looking for ideas for business rather than pleasure. In other words, they are in the game of what I call transactional creativity, having ideas which they want and need others to respond to. Now, I’m no parenting expert, even despite the most challenging clients. But, much like children, I believe that creativity should never be forced to comply. As we all know, you can’t pin it down. Instead, creativity is much more likely to behave itself if it is treated positively and playfully, with enthusiasm and encouragement.
This, by the way, is also true of the people we are expecting to exercise creativity for us. This attitude, I’ve seen with my own eyes, breeds genuine willingness and coaxes creativity out of itself. But, again, this happens best within boundaries. We are still the creative parents here; ideas can never take over control. Instead, they are exist to serve my clients’ business purposes and in turn their audience’s genuine needs and appetites. Not the other way around. Again, insert well-worn phrases about the dangers of creativity for creativity’s sake here. That said, just like raising children, we should always be ready to expect the unexpected and let our ideas surprise and delight us. That is, after all, how we know they are good.
5. Creativity is a tightrope walk.
It is a series of balances, tensions, judgments and compromises. But when we get it right, it’s an awe-inspiring spectacle. No idea comes to us fully formed (see the journey and tea analogies above), but it’s also true that if we’re going to apply the ‘unruly toddler needs structure and discipline’ model, not all ideas can or should be kept and nurtured. It’s difficult to take a big quantity of ideas and take reduce them to a smaller number with quality. It’s hard to say no to some things.
Throughout the creative process there are constantly judgments to make. And yet however experienced my clients are, they often find it so tricky to make that call and so painful to prioritise, mainly because ideas are so horribly subjective that we can’t see our own ideas with any objective clarity, we take criticism personally and we do all we can to avoid offending others. But as I almost always find myself saying to clients, I believe that whilst no idea is a bad idea, some ideas are the wrong ideas – at least, for now. Creativity is a balancing act between rationality and emotion, logic and possibility, head and heart. And you can never really know if you were right until it’s too late, until your idea is out there in execution. But, like tightrope walking across two bricks on a wide plank, if it comes too easy I’d suggest that is the greatest warning sign of all that it’s not going to be as spectacular as you need it to be.
It’s no coincidence that these five analogies of creativity have one striking thing in common. They are difficult. Even brewing the perfect cup of tea, it would seem. They all need persistence, open-mindedness and self-awareness. Something the human condition doesn’t always deliver to us easily. Much like standing on an inch-thick wire, thousands of feet above a natural wonder of the world or an unsuspecting urban street scene, we can all agree that creativity sure as hell doesn’t come easy. Embracing this truth is sometimes the most difficult part of a creative strategy project, mainly because it is uncomfortable. I have to remind myself of this every time a project meets an inevitable bump in the road, or that brilliantly insightful “This is shit. I am shit” part of the creative process as brilliantly articulated by Marcus Romer.
But it’s so worth it in the end. And in as much as the creative process is worth doing, I believe it is also worth understanding. So bring on the next two years and beyond of exciting projects, inspiring clients and creative challenges.