Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Is Creativity Possible?

(As unlikely as it may seem, this is a true story.)

Is there any hope?

I was forced, once again, to examine this question on my way to the Austin airport. I was traveling to IBM Japan in Yamoto, Tokyo, and Yasu to lecture on creativity, innovation, and professionalism.

The taxi driver, reminiscent of those in large, northeastern seaboard cities, knew everything. He asked me who I worked for and what I did. After I told him that one of the things I did was to teach creativity and innovation, he told me that he thought what I was trying to do wasn't possible.

He said that creativity within a corporation wasn't needed and certainly wasn't wanted; that creativity and control were mutually exclusive capabilities. Numerous cases have proven, he thought, that the creative person can't exist within the bureaucratic structure of a large company. "Steve Jobs, Steinmetz, and Edison," he expounded," would not have been able to create the things they did in a large successful company. Look, even Jobs couldn't exist in his own company after he created it!"

I had been rushing for several days, perhaps even weeks, trying to juggle a hectic travel schedule and many assignments in Austin to complete. Travel for two weeks to Japan, at least for me, is a stressful event, even as pleasant as the lectures may be. There are many things to consider before dropping into an Asian culture 8,400 miles from Austin, even if it has been westernized. The last thing I wanted to do on my way to the airport was to defend my life's work.

"Big businesses thrive in times of stability," the taxi driver continued. "Government has loosened the controls now so that more change is possible. Big companies can't respond to the change! Look at the top one hundred companies of a hundred years ago", he continued, "how many of them are still in the top 100? Even companies of the Fortune 500 of the 1950's haven't fared well." He adjusted his examples as he looked in the rear view mirror and estimated my age. "Even you would remember those companies. You might wonder, vaguely remembering their names, what happened to them?"

I really wasn't interested in engaging in a meaningful conversation but I was beginning to feel intimidated by this taxi driver. I wondered if he had seen my presentation on Integrating Innovation Into Strategic Planning where I begin with exactly the point he was making. "No one is safe", I assert, using the fallout statistics of the Forties 100 and the Fortune 500 companies.

I nodded assent, and agreed with the cab driver's analysis. He continued, not giving me a chance to add anything to the discussion.

"Big companies don't even want creative people," he asserted. "They're too different. They don't fit in. You can tell a creative person by their characteristics," he continued. "Creative people are iconoclasts. If you want to find out if someone is creative or not, look to see how he, or she, spends their leisure time. If they're doing things differently, the unusual twist, then they're probably creative."

Now baited to the point of responding, I told him that there were no characteristics that were deterministic of creative ability. "People are creative in a variety of different ways, and there are no characteristics that enable predetermination," I replied.

He wasn't about to buy this.

"Not everyone is creative," he stated categorically. "It's a characteristic you're born with. It's determined by your genetics and your early experiences in life. Only under extreme duress affecting your basic functions, the lower Maslow levels, like survival, can most people be creative," he stated bluntly.

Now I really began to wonder. Was this a setup? Did someone, knowing that I would call a cab to go to the airport, put this person in my life? I began to think of Candid Camera. Was Allen Funt lurking in the trunk? So contrary to my philosophy and understanding of people, and organization management, were this cab driver's views that I knew it was hopeless, in the remaining minutes or so to get to the airport, to change his views.

Nevertheless I attempted a retort. "Everyone is creative," I said. "They were born that way. It's what distinguishes humans from other animals. Everyone is creative in their own way. We just have to learn to tap the creative ability we have."

The cab driver certainly wasn't buying in to my assertions. He went back to a discussion of how successful, large companies operate. "Small companies create all the new jobs," he explained. "Large companies just keep things the same." "As a matter of fact," he said, "large companies don't really want creative people. They will just reduce the productivity of the bureaucracy. Seems to me," he con-cluded, "that you really can't teach creativity, and even if you could, I can't understand why a company would want it taught."

Mercifully we had arrived at the airport. I paid my fare and rushed to get away from this cab driver. I had to be on time, and produc-tive. I had schedules to meet. People depend-ing upon me. I couldn't take a hike to the west coast, board a freighter for Japan, stop along the way, and work for my passage as the cab driver had suggested a creative person would do. It was 8 a.m. on Thursday, and by 2 p.m. on Friday (actually Thursday because of the date line), I would be in Japan.

Is there any hope? Are we destined to at-tempt to perpetually improve our productivity by efficiencies of scale, control of capital and expense, and reduction of risk? Are we going to continually drop in the eyes of Ameri-can executives? Or, are we going to find ways to be creatively productive? Can we break through the traditions of our thinking that limit the vision of our accomplishments?

Is there any hope? Of course! You are the hope. You are the greatest resource that any organization has.

We are not predestined to anything, suc-cess or failure. We have the future in our hands. If we can, collectively, figure out how to integrate creative productivity into our work and our organizational behavior, we will be ever more successful in the future than we have been in the past.

Is there any hope? Can you be creative and work for an organization? The answer to this question, the answer you have in your mind, the one you believe to be true, will determine your fu-ture and that of our country.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Paul Schumann

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