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innovation - the fizz and the burn

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Bill Law
18 March 2011

Bill Law

Since this is an innovation website, it might be worth giving careers-work creativity a bit of thought.  There’s no shortage of words.  And ‘innovation’ is one.   But there is also ‘inventiveness’.   And ’novelty’ - though I can’t see why doing something not done before is necessarily creative.  What we know for sure is that sticking with the way things are is not creative. 

So how would it be, to sort these word into a spectrum - stretched between uncreative extremes?  It would map the space in which creativity finds its energy.  It might look something like this...

novelty   |   <>   inventiveness   <>   innovation   <>   |   status-quo

It gives us at least two ways of recognising careers-work creativity - as inventiveness and as innovation.  I’ve sorted the words out like this for a reason.

The reason is economist David Galenson, who got started with a question about artistic market value.  He examined how different creators work - painters, sculptors, move-directors, poets, novelists.  It led him to make a two-fold distinction between what he calls and ‘conceptual’ and ‘experimental’ creativity. 

>     conceptual creativity starts with an idea to get across - sometimes revealed to the artist in a flash.  It is deductive - working from that idea to the creation.  But, once it is done, the creator moves on to the next idea - coming up with many different ideas over a life-time.  Each is different - both from other people’s work, and from that artist’s previous work.  So, any particular creative form can become fashionable - but it can also prove transient.  Nonetheless, each time, the artist knows what she or he is looking for - in this here-and-now.  I want to call this ‘inventiveness’.

>    experimental creativity is different.  These artists don’t know in advance what might come out of their work - the work is tentative and incremental.  Artists are working from a studied past, and into a not-yet-realised future.  This is inductive - working through a process of search and discovery.  A creator may work on the same subject many times - struggling with a process of trial-and-error, in constant search for a better way forward.  Such artists are cautiously working out their rules - one-step-at-a-time.  There are no flash-points here - it is a patient out-working of search, disappointment and persistence   A perfectionist creator is often plagued by frustration.  I want to call this ‘innovation’.

David Gallenson’s underlying account of creativity has proven influential.  The author gets commissions to show how it works in business, politics and education.  I doubt that we can afford him.

But I think he may have a point which is worth reworking in careers-work terms.  I call it the ‘quick-fizz’ and the ‘slow-burn’ of careers-work creativity.

>     quick-fizz creativity is conceptually inventive.  It knows what it wants to do in order to move people into looking again at what we do.  The creative products are surprising, inviting, edgy - cool.  They get an immediate reaction, attract attention, and find a ready take-up.  But they do little to disturb ideas in any long-term way.  This all feels closer to fashionable novelty than to boring status quo - but, as we’ll see, that feeling is deceptive.  The question is, do we have careers-work creativity like this?

>    slow-burn creativity is experimentally innovative.  It moves slowly, working towards a new way of doing things, which has not yet been fully grasped - and so can’t be confidently declared.  But the creators stick with the project, working towards what may feel out-of-reach - but which demands pursuit.  It all feels closer to boring status-quo than to fashionable novelty.  That may be because it takes time, calls on study, and is in for the long-haul.  The surprises of this kind of creativity are being intrigued, challenged and disturbed - and all of these are kinds of confusion.  Do we need careers-work creativity like this?

I say this is a spectrum, not a dichotomy.  And such a continuum makes subtle distinctions possible.  There are, for example, careers-work people developing ways of presenting what we do, by inventively calling on images that are familiar and welcome to the people who most need our help.  It may be more like fizz rather than burn, but it is certainly not mere novelty.

But there are dangers - for both quick-fix and slow burn.  Some quick-fix is little more than novelty - a parasytical mash-up of other people's creativity.  That’s the deception - because it undermines genuine innovation.  In careers work it is especially dangerous when it decorates the status-quo with inviting bells and flattering whistles.  Where that happens - and it does - it is not supporting innovation, it is substituting for it.  It colludes with the way things are - and that is not reform.

And slow burn-dangers?  Slow burn can closely resemble status-quo solidity.  That is so when its pedantry moves so patiently that is mistaken for deference to our habitual ways of doing things.  Some careers worker welcome that kind of reassurance.  But innovation is for reform, not defence.   Reassuring art might be fine for some living rooms.  But reassuring innovation is not innovation at all.

There are questions.  How much of the spectrum can careers work usefully occupy?  What kind of professionals are attracted to what areas?   And what does that mean for a website which gives itself the title ‘innovation’?

Tell me about it.

The book:
David Gallenson (2006).  Old Masters and Young Geniuses - The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. Oxford: Princeton University Press


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