When times are hard and money is tight, I hear this often. The belt-tightening process seems to automatically result in ditching the creative. It’s ironic, because when anyone starts a new business, it surely springs from a creative inspiration. So, why is it that the very thing that inspired the whole thing is seen as expendable?
I think it all stems from one simple fact that we really need to change if we are to move forward, pull ourselves out of recession and achieve a stable and abundant state: it’s simply that we are taught what to think, not how to think.
Consider any belief that you have, and you can usually trace it back to someone you trust telling you that this is a fact. It starts with our parents, and we continue this way of learning, often throughout our lives. Very little information we have is information we have originated ourselves. Politics, religion and education reinforce this way of learning to the point where we exclude creative notions as a matter of course – unless, by a process of repeated exposure and our own evidence-building processes (we want to believe certain things, so we find evidence that they are true for us), we start to believe them ourselves. Once we start buying into a belief, we tend to guard it, argue on its behalf and blank out counter beliefs. After all, we may have taken some convincing, and our self-esteem would be damaged if we think afterwards that we have taken on a wrong belief. You can see this happening in all areas of life, from the personal to the international.
We are not taught to be creative. A cynic might say that this is intentional. It helps maintain control and order if common beliefs are developed that serve the purposes of those dishing them out. Common beliefs are convenient, and they help things run smoothly. This is true in business as well, of course. This is what corporate culture, corporate image and identity, advertising and PR are all about, and it can help a company become successful.
So it is to be expected, then, that we often have an uneasy relationship with creativity. Faced with a creative person, business executives sometimes don’t know how to deal with this uneasiness and may criticize or put down creative ideas without appreciating their potential or seriously considering them at all. I call this Fear Undermining Creative Knowledge syndrome, the acronym of which accurately expresses the frustration that is so often felt when a businessman and a creative person try to work together. Two ships passing in a pea-souper at night, foghorns blasting to ensure a safe distance, but each desperately wanting to appreciate the existence of the other. Left brain meets right brain in a tortured dance to find an acceptable middle ground.
Or not. I was listening to Michael O’Leary (Ryanair) on the radio, saying with some pride that he doesn’t use creative consultants, and anyone with a pony tail won’t even get through his door. He has young staff, and they produce all the advertising ideas themselves in-house, so he has created a mix of control and creativity that works for him. Not many companies have that much confidence and such a charismatic leader to make that work well. Often, a weakness of an owner manager is that he or she cannot determine when it is best to seek creative expertise. Many have an ego that serves them well in the good times but can be disastrous in bad times or when the company needs to take a significant step up in order to continue to grow.
All this means that whether the creative process is carried out internally or externally, it often gets a bad rap, and it’s easy to convince board members that it isn’t important for survival. But they are missing one important point in thinking like this. They need creativity in order to move forward, and it’s rarely the creative input that causes the kind of disasters we have seen in recent times, that all combined to create the financial crisis. As we know, it was primarily dodgy financial practices that caused the problems, fuelled by collective unthinking and a lack of creativity to create the tools and mechanisms to avoid it. Once we pull ourselves through the mess, will anything in the financial world change? There are already signs of a repeat performance.
What, then, is the message we are not hearing? Maybe we all have some fresh learning to do about creativity and what it contributes to our lives. Maybe, as Sir Ken Robinson so eloquently urged in his famous TED talk, admired by over 4 million viewers, we need to radically re-think our educational system.
I was told once that in the west, when we see an abstract work of art we assess it, judge it and criticize it. In the East, they observe it, and see what they gain from it. To me, that rather sounds as if our culture blocks it out and maintains a distance from something we inherently don’t understand, and the other lets it in, and learns to appreciate what ever it is offering. Which way is the way of progress?