Late last year, I was ‘on one’ to a colleague on the phone. The call was being recorded (we often do this, as we never know when creative inspiration is going to strike).
The conversation took place a few days after Trump was elected, and a few months after Brexit, but I was troubled more by the media narrative than the results themselves. Here’s an extract from it (which has been edited only slightly, to aid comprehension and spare you some bad language).
“There’s a joke in the advertising industry that the collective noun for planners [strategists who advise clients about how they should spend their money] is ‘whinge’. Of course, the irony is that these are the very people whose constructive advice is necessary for clients to derive value from their advertising, and so for the entire advertising industry to function. Conceptually at least, they are people who are paid because they believe that the future can be rosy.
“Advertising isn’t the only business where the complainers rule. It happens in every organisation where people feel undermined by the context in which they are expected to work. It’s an all-too-human response to feeling out of control – like your destiny isn’t in your own hands.
“It’s not limited to business, either. Every time I turn on the TV, what greets me is a world full of people with complaints. Look at these elections [in 2016]. The political left despairs of the political right, and the right despairs of the left. The overarching narrative in the media feeds a sense of a world that’s in irreversible decline. Businesses are regarded as vessels for corporate greed, caring about nothing other than shareholder value. Globalisation and immigration are supposed to be wresting self-determination away from ‘the people’, who appear to want it back in ever bigger numbers. It increasingly feels like we’re all living in circumstances that make us deeply uncomfortable.
“And, collectively, we do have problems. Wealth inequality, for example, is a serious concern that underpins a great deal of the current malaise, and new solutions are needed for that. But, objectively, the human race is not in decline. Our capacity for self-improvement has always been vast. It’s that old ‘ascent of man’ thing. Although living standards still vary way more than they should, for the most part – and yes this is a relative thing – we are all enjoying better standards of education, health and wealth than ever before. We’ve continually invented things that make our lives better, healthier, longer.
“We’re a species with a huge capacity to think creatively about our own future, and it’s partly our creativity that defines us.
“But it’s what’s not in the narrative that is properly troubling. In all the discussions about recent world events, globalisation and immigration took centre stage in the election coverage this year but the bigger and far more legitimate concern – automation – did not.
“Automation matters because it is going to squeeze not only low paid workers but almost all jobs that require task and process out of existence.”
“The base-line threat of automation is that society doesn’t so much reorder as disorder itself, with terrible consequences. How would you react if forces that felt beyond your control meant that you couldn’t provide for your family? If a robot took your job? And if the people creating the technology hoarded the wealth created for themselves?
“There’s got to be a good answer to that question, but no-one seems to have it. But, if nothing else, what I think is needed in the narrative is someone or something to champion creative thought. If we can help people be more creative, somewhere along the line someone, or more likely different groups of people, will start coming up with the right answers. Creativity is what’s moved us forward in the past, and it can move us forward in the future. Even better, it’s one of the only things that robots can’t actually do.
“Championing creativity isn’t just a job for politicians. It’s also time that business started leading from the front – to identify how people can be usefully redeployed into work that is fundamentally more creative, and which not only continues but also enhances what it means to be a human being. In the very near future all of us are actually going to be faced with a stark choice – create and ascend, or decline.
“Business has a role to play in defining what choice gets made. It needs to step up to the plate, and start caring about things beyond shareholder value.”
“Look, there’s no point in complaining – it won’t stop the robots and it won’t stop us ripping each other limb from limb when the robots take most of the jobs. What we can – and need – to do is harness our innate creativity. It is high time that we focused on that, and started identifying how it can support our families, our communities, our businesses, our economies, and the wider human race. This is what human beings needs to do, and what businesses need to do.”
My colleague listened as I banged on. “Well, you could stop complaining about it, and write that up,” she said, drily.
Three months later, here we are. Our manifesto, Creativity Is Power, has just launched. Below is an excerpt from the introduction. I hope you enjoy it. For the full book, and the complementary 60 minute film, head here.
Introduction: A New Crisis
Here are two truths.
- Getting the creative best out of people is essential, not only for organisations to do well, but also for them to survive in the modern world.
- Most organisations are terrible at it.
Let’s unpick those truths. The leader of an organisation might ask the following questions in response. (My answers are in italics.)
Why should I care about creativity?
Because creative organisations are the ones that succeed.
Does our survival really depend on creativity?
Yes. Because if creativity is poor, the organisation will fail.
If my organisation is so bad at creativity, why is it my problem?
You’re the leader. Everything is your problem.
Why am I not getting the creative best out of my people?
Read on, and you’ll be able to diagnose what’s wrong with your organisation.
Most organisations are not very good at creativity because for a very long time the world of work has been organised around the idea of process. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, workers were given tasks, and had to finish them in an allotted time, with that time getting ever shorter. Creatively, they gave very little of themselves at work, because that wasn’t part of the deal. They gave their time, a small amount of their capacity, and then they went home to do something more interesting. Too much of working life is still like that. It isn’t good for creativity, and it’s not what the present or the future demand of us. Quite simply, it’s old hat.
And it isn’t just old hat. It’s a crisis.
What machines cannot do
The notion that ‘knowledge is power’ has only recently become out of date. Search engines, Big Data, and (shortly) artificial intelligence all provide access to endless knowledge. Humans have become expendable in this context, being replaced by robots and automation. But creativity and caring are the two things that machines cannot do. Caring is important, but creativity is where the power will reside. And creativity is not a desirable extra; it is a requirement right now.
Does our business culture do enough to put creativity at the heart of our working lives? No, it doesn’t. In fact, many organisations barely even recognise the problem.
In the 21st century, creative organisations are succeeding, while uncreative ones are failing. It’s that stark. In the past, it used to take years for large companies to decline. Now it can be a matter of months or even weeks. Smaller companies, which don’t make the headlines but make up a much larger proportion of the economy, can go to the wall in the blink of an eye. The crisis is spilling over into politics. Voters have recently given the establishment a kicking because they are unhappy with their lives. Automation is driving mass obsolescence in low and medium paid workforces, in a context where these workers are already struggling to get used to inequality, the instability of employment, mass migration and globalisation.
Take Trump’s victory in the 2016 US Presidential election. Workers in uncreative organisations, as well as the unemployed, can see others (including many who were foreign-born) in fast-moving, creative, technology-driven businesses becoming rich. In some cases, very rich. They cannot join ‘hero’ companies like Apple and Google, they are not the beneficiaries of the wealth being created and redistributed, and they are rebelling. This is an existential crisis for mankind – and there are symptoms of this revolt of the powerless elsewhere, from Brexit to the Italian referendum, and it will continue to surface in various elections to come. Although many commentators would have you believe that we are at some sort of high tide mark, in truth these events are just the first wave signs of a vast, global malaise.
This manifesto is going to make the case for creativity as the solution to a critical problem that needs fixing now: what are human beings for, in an age when machines can do so much, and how must our organisations adapt today and tomorrow?
To stay in business, or to continue doing the things it does, every organisation must create and ship excellent things. That is what work now demands of us, and that is exactly what workers are now demanding in order to feel fulfilled. Famously creative outfits like Nike and Zappos get the best out of their people – and keep doing so despite threats to their competitiveness from every angle. Organisations in which people do not play to their strengths, for ends that are without purpose, and in which truth is a stranger and the politics is bad, find themselves stuck, leading to dysfunction, crisis and demise.
You know this, too. In your organisation, you probably try to emulate your more creative rivals. You envy them for the things they do and the way they are. You do not envy the others.
Here are, boiled down, the preconditions for a creative organisation. (When none of these preconditions is in place, progress is unlikely.)
- Leaders must spot and deal with barriers to creativity, hidden and in unlikely places as they may be.
- Everyone must work honestly, creatively and flexibly with others who have complementary skills.
- People need to be in the right jobs, and getting better at the things that they are naturally good at.
- The organisation needs to be open.
- The organisation needs to be optimistic and purposeful.
These preconditions are not as easy to achieve as they are to distil. This might be because some of them feel intangible (‘how do we know if we’re open?’). This manifesto will take the reader through why they must be brought about, and how.
For the full book, and the complementary 60 minute film, head to creativityispower.co.uk.