Books: Business and divine sparks

It's no longer enough to let artists-in-residence wander aimlessly round the office. Colin Tweedy reviews a book that seeks to open up creativity to the whole team.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Could the seemingly opposing worlds of creativity and management ever be reconciled? After all, for many managers, creativity conjures up images of maverick individuals thinking outside the box, constantly pushing for radical changes. The creative destruction these rebels bring about is tolerated only because it is seen as a pre-requisite for the survival of any business operating in an ever-changing and fiercely competitive market. On the other hand, most managers function in rigid hierarchical systems with no tools to nurture and promote creativity.

Chris Bilton's Management and Creativity makes the case for convergence powerfully. Outstanding and provocative, his book belongs to a vociferous but not yet widely influential academic move to place artists not at the periphery but as key components of highly complex and gleefully unco-ordinated social networks. Through a clear and engaging synthesis of the latest thinking in aesthetics, creativity, management and strategy, Bilton invites us to revisit our views on how creativity happens and how to motivate workers effectively.

Those looking for a how-to book on managing creativity may be disappointed.

Bilton aims to change the way you think about creativity and how it can be better used in the workplace.

The book excels at debunking the myth of the spontaneous natural artistic genius that plagues everything from newspaper arts sections to many boardrooms across the UK. The first few chapters take us on a journey to meet artistic entrepreneurs who have been influential and valued, not despite their time and milieu but because they managed to successfully exploit the networks and systems under which they operated.

Most of these artists, Bilton tells us, never basked for too long in the glory of random bursts of innovative divergent thinking. Instead, they were able to recognise the need for reaching out to find willing early adapters with whom to engage in a deliberate and rational process to turn these novel ideas into something of value.

If you are willing to accept that creativity is a communal exercise that thrives in healthy team dynamics and withers under the sole influence of a singularly gifted individual, then you are ready to accept that the creative process must be systematically managed. But what does that mean in practice? It is no longer enough to bring artists-in-residence into the rigid corporate world to wander aimlessly around in the hope that their creativity will be transferred to staff by osmosis. Sustainable and innovative businesses need active managerial involvement.

The role of these managers is not to directly control and lead the innovation process. Instead, they orchestrate and modify the relationships that underpin it. Creativity in management is about intervening in the composition of the staff to ensure a specific team has the right mix of innovative thinkers and adapters, and about brokering creative relationships to bridge individual inventiveness and collective wisdom.

Strategic changes that are implemented by maverick CEOs may result in novel ideas whose only benefit is to distract staff from the monotony of everything else in the organisation. Profitable change thrives in an environment of coherence, integrity and continuity.

A more challenging task for managers, not fully addressed in this book, is finding the right set of external motivators to promote creative thinking in a communal setting. How do you reward creative teams when each member of the team gets a different pay cheque? Bilton's example of shared ownership (and rewards) illustrates only the limitations of this solution (eg, not sustainable) and fails to address the challenges of finding the right pay structure to promote intrapreneurship.

The book is on even shakier ground when, in its last chapters, it reviews current management practice and cultural policies under the lens of neo-liberalism. The analysis is not informed by a thorough understanding of the theories behind neo-liberalism. Instead, it is based on a limited number of books that critically review the practice of neo-liberal policies. Bilton's concerns about the 'disproportionate emphasis on the economic success of the creative industries' and his reminder that 'governments ... are increasingly marginal to the structure and direction of the creative industries' merit wider debate.

This book will appeal to a broad audience of creatives, policy-makers and students looking for an alternative, sounder framework for understanding how to nurture creativity in the workplace.

Management and Creativity; Chris Bilton; Blackwell Publishing £50 (hardback), £19.99 (paperback) To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

- Colin Tweedy has been CEO of Arts & Business (formerly the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts, ABSA) since 1983.

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