Forty-eight ways to transform creativity: act one
A view from Sue Unerman

Forty-eight ways to transform creativity: act one

There are 48 techniques that can transform the creativity of the work that you do. Here’s one: the power of diverse voices, as illustrated by a tale from a Broadway production.

Its not a secret that I believe that diversity drives business growth.  It is also crucial to creativity, and truly creative people, whoever they are, synthesize different voices to create powerful new work and ideas.

In 1963 Mike Nichols (who subsequently went on to direct and win an Oscar for The Graduate, a movie that is more interesting, by the way, from the point of view of Mrs Robinson than the other characters) was just about to embark on directing for the first time (he had been a comedy performer until then).

His first play, which he delivered in just five days, was Barefoot in the Park , written by Neil Simon and starring Robert Redford in one of his breakthrough roles (Redford also starred in the later movie version).

Speaking on the Sky documentary Becoming Mike Nichols, the director talked about the process of creating the play, which included a lot of rewrites and improv – his preferred way of working. 

New job, lots to prove, five-day turnaround, script unfinished. Quite a challenge.

Nichols said that the play was funny, but didn’t have an ending, and though he and Simon wracked their brains, they couldn’t find a good third act.  The breakthrough came from an older friend of Nichols who watched a rehearsal. The writer Lillian Hellman commented on one scene saying that she had a much better idea for it. She thought that the mother-in-law of the lead character played by Redford might sneak off for a fling with the rakish elderly gentleman who lived upstairs. This in fact wasn’t the plot, but as Nichols considered it, this actually was the twist that the play needed – the action that allowed the resolution of the stormy new marriage of the main plot. 

Nichols as a younger man, closer in age to the young married couple who are the protagonists of the play, couldn’t imagine the mother-in-law (in her 50s) having illicit sex with the man upstairs.  As he reminisced about it, he sounded somewhat shocked even in retrospect. What was clear was that without Hellman, a women in her late 50s, the 30-something men who were writing and directing would neither have considered, nor felt permission, to add this charming twist to the plot. 

Nichols and Simon – two men in their 30s, stumped creatively and saved by listening to the voice of a woman who, because of her age, would be fairly invisible in traditional creative departments.

As MediaCom’s global chief executive of creative systems Stef Calcraft writes: “Here’s to the creative ones, and that can be all of us.”  If it isn’t all of us, really all of us, in our full differences in every respect (including age), there just won’t be as much creativity.

That was the first of the 48 ways to transform creativity. The others I will come back to in future blogs.

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom