Opinionista Peter Flack 9 July 2018

Creativity: If it’s so important, why is there so little of it?

As a businessman I have admired creativity more than any other gift or skill. That someone using only his or her imagination could produce something new and valuable is a source of never-ending wonder to me. Poets, painters, sculptors, writers, composers, designers are my real heroes.

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, said that “innovation in the US is somewhere between dire straits and dead”. He pointed out that travel speeds peaked with the Concorde in the 1970s but since then have declined to norms reminiscent of the 1960s. “If you look outside the computer and the internet, there has been 40 years of stagnation.”

SpaceX and Tesla chief executive Elon Musk agrees, saying, “I think there are probably too many smart people pursuing internet stuff and law. That is part of the reason why we haven’t seen as much innovation.”

Phil Knight, founder of Nike, in his book, Shoe Dog, wrote, “America is becoming less entrepreneurial, not more.”

In the book, Creativity Explained, David Priilaid, a UCT associate professor and convener of the postgraduate course in entrepreneurship where he and his team teach young people to create businesses and manage them properly, wrote:

A good metric for the pace of innovation and technical progress is something called ‘total factor productivity’ – or TFP – that measures the rate of output relative to the input of capital and labour. According to recent estimates, after 1970, TFP grew at less than a third of the rate achieved between 1920 and 1970.”

He goes on to write that some of the factors which explain the stagnation of creativity include the following:

  1. The persistence of outmoded business practices such as a zero tolerance for failure;

  2. The stultification of mission-critical qualities like passion, risk taking and vocation; this across most quarters of working life; and, probably most importantly,

  3. Education’s debasement of art and creative disciplines in favour of finance and technology.

As a businessman I have admired creativity more than any other gift or skill. That someone using only his or her imagination could produce something new and valuable is a source of never ending wonder to me – poets, painters, sculptors, writers, composers, designers – are my real heroes.

And, as my business career developed, so I began to realise what a critical aspect of business it was. In fact, creativity was the difference between those businesses that flourished and those that didn’t.

Take Rand Merchant Bank, for example, on whose board I was lucky to sit for some 20 years while it was driven by the creative genius of GT Ferreira from its humble beginnings on the brown linoleum floor offices in scruffy, uptown Anderson Street, Johannesburg, to the bank/insurance giant it is today, in its plush Sandton offices.

Take the London-listed Randgold Resources as another example. This was the brainchild of its current chief executive, Mark Bristow, with whom I was lucky enough to work for a number of years.

He created it out of the surplus mineral rights held by Randgold & Exploration, a South African gold mining company, and on which they placed no value at a time when the board of directors were totally focused on closing all four underlying mines in which they were invested “with dignity” as they put it.

Today, some 20-odd years later, Randgold Resources has a market capitalisation worth many billions of dollars and provides employment to thousand of people in a number of African countries.

The sad thing is that, while a lot of companies pay lip service to creativity, few really understand what is involved or how to develop, let alone, encourage it. This is made more difficult by the fact that there are not 10 boxes you can tick and “Voila” you become creative.

There are however certainly things you can do to develop creativity in yourself and your business.

My awakening came some years ago when I watched Professor Ken Robinson talk on the subject during one of the TED Talks. As he explained in his amusing way, look at the way a small child uses its imagination to entertain itself. That armchair is a horse and the veld lies in front of the two of them as they gallop to rescue a friend in distress.

Then we take the same child and box him or her into whatever predetermined model their particular school has in mind and finally complete the dumbing down process at university.

Duly modelled, the person is then employed and the first thing he or she is told is to use their imagination, be innovative, use their initiative!

How could we have got it so wrong?

So it was that I became fascinated by Priilaid and the work he was doing at UCT with those I believe will be among the future business leaders of this country.

A young family friend who attended the course and is now working in a start-up business, described it as the most important one she has ever attended.

Priilaid contends:

There remains a route to discovering what is required of us to be properly creative – and that is via a thorough examination of the fundamental tenets of creativity. This should not be from the viewpoint of business, but from the perspective of those who dedicate their lives to the development of great ideas – in other words – genuine artists. Though this notion might at first seem counterintuitive, in certain important ways the composing of a brilliant song or poem can be likened to coming up with an idea for a new product or service.

In both instances, the definition of creativity is the use of imagination to produce something new and valuable. This being so, possibly the best way of understanding the dynamics of creativity is by analysing how creative people develop their ideas.

By and large, such individuals are NOT business types. They are almost exclusively artists: novelists, poets, songwriters, composers, musicians, painters, sculptors, singers, dancers, actors or designers. Sometimes, however, creative geniuses do come from business, and here I am thinking especially of the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers, who was, in many respects, a genuine artist. In the main, these are exceptions, however.”

In his book, he goes on to say:

Creativity cannot be rendered by way of a formula. It is a not a science in the sense that it can be replicated by prescription.

As a reading of any texts about artists such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Keith Richards will reveal; creativity comes from a very different place… I have studied the life stories of them and people like them – all in an effort to come to a deeper appreciation of the creative process that underpinned so much of their work.

For me, the result of this study has been nothing short of illuminating, unveiling a creative process that genuinely represents the way in which great artists go about producing great work. (In short, the process incorporates three mindset components: love, resilience and suffering, and four creative disciplines: proactivity, practice, perspective and the invocation of the muse.)”

And not all creativity consists of those major Eureka moments which have produced the human genome or the Theory of Relativity, for example. Most creativity produces valuable new ideas that may be quite small to begin with but are then developed by technically skilled people.

I was intrigued to learn from Priilaid that he believes creativity lurks within us all. We just need to listen carefully when the moment occurs and, instead of rolling over and going back to sleep or being distracted when the car behind hoots, to take note and make use of these precious moments.

Here the anecdote of Keith Richards has always struck me as instructive. The great musician woke in the early hours of the morning with four notes reverberating in his brain. He got up, wrote them down, worked on them assiduously and, at the end of three days, produced one the greatest Rolling Stones hit songs, Satisfaction.

Instead of turning out another political scientist, in my humble opinion, I think we should focus on preparing and equipping our young people to address the issues that currently seek to overwhelm us, such as population growth, food and water security, climate change, animal extinctions, religious intolerance and so on.

The list is extensive and we need to be able to look at the same problems differently.

For example, when the magazine, Melody Maker, asked David Bowie, “Why aren’t you wearing your girl’s dress today?” he replied, “Oh dear. You must understand that it’s not a woman’s dress. It’s a man’s dress.”

Or Dylan who in 2009 said, “When I started out, mainstream culture was Sinatra, Perry Como, Andy Williams, The Sound of Music. There was no fitting into it then and of course there’s no fitting into it now.

This is not a new matter. I remember many years ago being sent to Wall Street by the partner of the law firm who recruited me from university. He said that all those he recruited were hard working and bright but the problem was we all read the same books and came up with the same answers.

His wish was that Wall Street would teach me to look at things differently, from a different angle and help me to come up with new solutions to old problems. I am not sure that it did but I do know that a form of madness is where a person keeps on doing the same thing over and over again while hoping for a different outcome each time.

Now more than ever, we need more Monty Python moments – something completely different! DM

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