The royal road to creativity is the path less travelled, the experimental product or service, taking a leap of faith in the dark and doing your best to learn as you go along, writes S Ramchander*, strategy consultant and author of the forthcoming title, Creativity@Work.
Creativity is invariably and most commonly associated with the artistic world. The word brings to mind immediately names such as Picasso and Shakespeare, in India of Satyajit Ray, Ravi Shankar or M S Subbalakshmi. Yet creativity has a far broader meaning. It is a feature of life everywhere and in everyone's life.
The essence of creativity is doing something not tried or thought of before, and this includes making the hidden connections between phenomena hitherto not seen together. In this sense a customer relations manager in a bank or a hotel who uses her ingenuity and initiative to solve a customer's problem instantly is doing something creative – and is doing her job in a creative way.
Practical creativity or "creativity at work" can therefore extend to a product or service, a method or a way of thinking or indeed an approach to life itself. innovation, or invention its near synonym, is but one expression of it. Innovation usually has a focus: a device such as the iPod or the 'Post It' pads, things that never existed some years ago, which we take for granted today.
Why is it important to study the subject today? One good reason is that the fast paced modern life, especially since the opening up of the Indian economy to the world as a market place and source for all sorts of resources, offers most of us very little time to attempt something really different in our own place of work or daily routine. The simple reason is that the trodden path is faster and seems safer and appears to demand less of an effort or risk.
Yet everyone insists that innovative ways are the only way to develop and preserve any sort of competitive advantage. On the other hand, popular management books emphasise comparative metrics a good deal; and benchmarking of the best practices of other organisations is a favourite recommendation of the gurus although often this means one merely does what someone else does, perhaps a little bit faster or at less expense.
We also hear talk of the need for thinking out of the box in every industry and in every walk of life. Therefore it is worth anyone's while to enquire: what are the roots of creativity? Where are its wellsprings? And are there any routes to it (one is tempted to add) that are tried and tested?
Clearly you don't get to be original or strike a bold path in any field by comparison and seeking standards set previously by others. For the same reason, there are no charted paths or mandatory tools that are guaranteed to yield the new, the original or the exceptional. To ask for formulae therefore is by definition incorrect. Obviously the royal road to creativity is the path less travelled, the experimental product or service, the heuristic effort - which simply means taking a leap of faith in the dark and doing your best to learn as you go along.
A moment's reflection should tell us that if one is seeking a breakthrough, it is counterproductive to do what has already been tried and done. Therefore one of the first principles of learning to be creative is to be open to new experiences and events and allow oneself to be surprised. One must be ready to shed one's conditioning, leave behind the certainties to try something new, and to look at things in a different way from the conventional one, wearing a different set of lenses, so to speak.
If six young men, the founders of Infosys, had not thought in such terms, when they met in a spare bedroom of Narayan Murthy's flat in Pune many years ago, they might have snugly settled into a salaried job and lived happily ever after! The fact that they did not is a sure indication of the urge towards living creatively.
Creativity also implies, almost in consequence, an eagerness to ask the difficult or inconvenient questions: why must we do things the way we have always done, why not change? If such thoughts had not occurred to a few mavericks throughout history, it is doubtful if mankind would have made the progress it has done. This tendency is a characteristic of scientists and explorers. All creative endeavours are in some sense a discovery, and therefore include a process of continuing learning.
Few discoverers in any field would have been satisfied with the 'status quo'. What drives them is a sense of restlessness, of active playing with the reality and a sense and humour to accept whatever happens, including failure. To paraphrase Thomas Alva Edison, an extraordinary genius, who failed several times in many ways, a hundred attempts that failed are to be seen not as tragedies but as a hundred different lessons that life has taught.
One of the hurdles to a wider appreciation of such a trial-and-error attitude in the real world especially of organisations is fear of failure. Every wise man has said that fear constricts the mind and narrows the heart and the imagination. Freedom to dream does not come from fear; this is one of the challenges to leadership in purpose-built institutions – how to encourage and foster a spirit of innovative, exploratory behaviour and yet minimise the costs of big flops?
Every manager has faced this problem several times, as for example, when asking some one to do something that cannot be personally supervised, probably at a distance. The creative manager accepts this as a challenge to his leadership. If he failed to delegate and breathed down the junior's neck supervising too closely, the manager might well be content with safe but mediocre solutions.
If he allowed the employees greater freedom to exercise their initiative, trusted his own gut feel and their intentions – as demonstrated by Ricardo Semler (the author of Maverick) in his extraordinarily managed group of companies -- he could be rewarded with far greater success. And a more motivated and better equipped bunch of future managers to take over from him – as a bonus, besides the specific job on hand!
Semler took over as CEO of SEMCO SA, a $4-million Brazillian company in 1982 when he was 23 and expanded it to a $212-million, 6,000-product group by 2003 and his innovative business management policies have attracted widespread interest around the world.
In summary then, living creatively can bring rich personal and social rewards but could appear, to the conformist and the conservative, to carry huge risks also. The truly creative human being, however, is fully aware of this, accepts it, and lives with the ambiguity and uncertainty, letting the natural flow of events to take him forward, with some form of implicit trust in himself, others and nature itself.
*IIM Ahmedabad and Harvard alumnus, S Ramachander is the author of Creativity@Work, published by Sage Books and due for release later this week. Other books by the author include Ascending the Value Spiral – from insight to innovation.