The myth of the lone genius

Management and Creativity
November 9, 2006

Writers on creativity come in two irreconcilable varieties. One lot have a soft spot for creative people who are pig-headed, egotistic and ornery. The others think creative people should be sensible, rational and accommodating - or at least as sensible, rational and accommodating as everyone else. Those who embrace the first view tend to excuse creative people's wayward, cussed and often downright infuriating behaviour; the others feel such behaviour to be unwarranted, vainglorious and self-indulgent.

Both author Chris Bilton and Lord Puttnam, who has written the foreword to Management and Creativity , are firmly in the second camp. Both deplore the way creative people think of themselves as "geniuses" and like to feel they are different from ordinary folk.

Puttnam writes: "The idea of a rigid distinction between creatives on the one hand and uncreative managers on the other is an illusion... I believe Chris Bilton's notion that creativity is distributed across teams and organisations and does not simply attach to the 'genius' of a single individual is profoundly right."

Bilton writes: "The separation of creative people from their managers and the splitting of innovation and novelty from questions of value... reflects a partial and incomplete view of the creative process." True. But the belief that creative people and their managers are just different cuts from the same bolt of cloth also reflects "a partial and incomplete view of the creative process".

Bilton's preconceptions naturally colour his judgments, both for better and for worse. On the plus side they help him demolish a fair number of widely held cliches. He rightly rejects the "light bulb in the brain" image of instant creativity. He correctly insists innovation is not always beneficial, and that new ideas are often bad ideas. He argues convincingly that the creative industries - media, fashion, entertainment and the commercial arts - have been over-glamorised and overhyped. But on the minus side he belittles the notion that creative people have special talents, and he has little understanding of how they often need to fight like hell, to the point of tempers and tantrums, to get their work accepted.

Management and Creativity is divided into two almost self-contained halves, although the author has tried to build artificial bridges between them. The first half concerns the management of creativity in the creative industries. The second half concerns the ways creative management can best be employed in the wider business arena - how and when creativity should be integrated into general management. The two artificial bridges, which Bilton identifies as the principal themes of his book, both stem directly from his attitudes to creative people.

His first theme is the harmful polarisation of management and creativity. He argues that in the creative industries, managers and creative people have traditionally been kept at a distance from each other, at opposite ends of a corridor, in one of his metaphorical examples. Consequently the creative people fail to understand the business imperatives that govern their jobs - getting work done on time, fit for purpose and to a price - and come to believe they should not be constrained by such mundane practicalities.

Similarly, Bilton contends, in the wider business arena most managers do not know how to employ creativity to best advantage - managers and creativity still being at opposite ends of the metaphorical corridor. Here the metaphor is less apposite, but Bilton is spot-on about creativity having become such a chic management buzz word that managers try to be creative too frequently, and too heavy-handedly, and often when creativity is uncalled for - without fully understanding what they are doing. Nowadays creativity is de rigueur . Any manager who gets labelled "uncreative" can say goodbye for ever to a key to the directors' loo.

Bilton's second theme is that creativity is always a team effort - the concept of the individual genius working alone and conjuring ideas from the air was never really true, he claims, and is today disastrously misguided.

Even Mozart and Picasso had to learn their craft from others, and this required teamwork. (As it happens, both of them learnt most from their fathers, but I suppose learning from your father can just about be described as teamwork.) And if the need for teamwork was true for Mozart and Picasso, how much truer is it for the run-of-the-mill creative guys who work in modern businesses?

Bilton here misses the subtle distinction between working in a team and being a "team player". Creative people increasingly work in teams, but few of them can truly be called team players. Think football: individuals all play in teams, but not all are team players - and some of the very best are decidedly not team players.

Although Bilton is fascinated by creativity, he is not in thrall to it. Indeed, he opens his introduction to the book by quoting John Tusa in On Creativity: Interviews Exploring the Process (2003): "'Creative', 'creation' and 'creativity' are some of the most overused and ultimately debased words in the language. Stripped of any special significance by a generation of bureaucrats, civil servants, managers and politicians, lazily used as political margarine to spread approvingly and inclusively over any activity with a non-material element to it, the word 'creative' has become almost unusable."

Having nailed his flag to Tusa's mast, however, during the book's opening chapters Bilton obfuscates the "creative" words himself by exploring countless overlapping definitions. And in these early chapters, his arguments are often so convoluted as to seem self-contradictory. He is obsessed by what he sees as the mistaken belief that creative industries are wholly dependent on creative individuals: the "geniuses" he rails against. But he provides several case histories in which the contributions of the creative individuals are, indeed, all-important.

Later, exploring their motives for working in the creative sector, he writes that "the rewards of artistic and cultural production remain pitifully small" and yet talks about the hardly impoverished Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst, Martin Amis, Ang Lee, Sam Mendes and a host of others - not to mention numerous advertising executives, none of whom is short of a few bob.

Even worse than being convoluted, the early chapters are unbearably repetitious. If Bilton says once that creativity is not an individual act but a group process, he says it several dozen times. Likewise, his mantra that creativity must not be confused with innovation is constantly repeated, as is his belief that creative genius is a myth.

When Bilton moves on to the wider shores of creativity in general management he is more surefooted, perhaps because his pet themes are more applicable outside the creative industries. He sensibly has no truck with unstructured think-tanks and brainstorming sessions, which throw up top-of-the-head ideas with no substance.

As he says, to be successful organisational change must be incremental, and new ideas must be honed and polished as they progress. Even companies such as easyJet and Ryanair, which appear to depend on the single, simple idea of cheap air travel, have in fact succeeded because of the thoroughness with which that single, simple idea has been implemented in every nook and cranny of the business.

Having ideas, as Bilton correctly (but too often) says, is a much over-rated activity. Having ideas is relatively easy. Having relevant ideas and putting them into effect is very hard. Bilton illustrates this with some pertinent case histories, but he comes a cropper when he deals with creativity in marketing.

In his penultimate chapter, Bilton naively buys into most of the trendy twaddle doing the rounds in marketing circles. He refers incessantly to "postmodern marketing" and "creative consumption", both of which are unmitigated tosh. And he merely skims the surface when discussing the relative roles of products and imagery in marketing - postmodern or not.

Happily, Bilton's final chapter, "The politics of creativity", brings him back to clarity and reality. He points out that the nomenclature "creative industries" was introduced here in 1997 as a substitute for the more descriptive "cultural industries" because the word culture is associated with national culture, while the creative industries are increasingly global.

"The creative industries and the creative economy have become politically fashionable, regardless of the statistical evidence for or against their quantifiable impacts on employment, export earnings and GDP," Bilton concludes. Good stuff. Pity it is not all as good.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, the Royal Institution, and worked in advertising for many years.

Management and Creativity

Author - Chris Bilton
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 190
Price - £50.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 1 4051 1995 0 and 1996 9

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