Mastering creativity

For an industry whose stock-in-trade is supposedly transformational ideas, it's not doing a bang-up job of fostering them, according to James Hilton. The solution, he says, is for agencies to nurture creative polymaths.

Mastering creativity

I don’t know what I do. Whenever I’m asked, I feel nervous, like I’m about to be caught out. It feels like I’m meant to give a one-word answer. I often go for "Oh, I’m a designer" and hope that satisfies the protocol of social conversation. More often than not, though, another question follows: "What sort of things do you design?" Bloody hell. "Oh, you know… all sorts. That’s a nice hat/jumper/ear you’ve got – tell me about it." That usually does the trick and we’re off the subject.

It’s not that I mind people asking me things. It’s just that that specific question has tripped me up since I can remember. (I learnt a while ago that being asked a question was not my cue to offer a two-hour dissection of whatever it was they were asking.)

And while I don’t know what I specifically do, I’ve always known what I want to do: everything. "Write the theme tune, sing the theme tune." Dennis Waterman? Little Britain? Never mind. I want to write, design, film, mould, light, photograph, weld, build furniture and artificial limbs, and generally bring really good things into being that weren’t there before. I don’t care how or in what medium, just as long as they’re beautiful, do something useful and make someone feel good. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

The problem is that, for many companies in this creative industry, it is too much to ask. That’s a problem. It’s a problem for those who are having their natural abilities restricted because the business structure surrounding them requires their creativity to be on rails. And it’s a problem for businesses because their creative assets could be more potent, imaginative and therefore lucrative.

You see, this world has some odd ideas regarding creativity, not least the notion that it can be taught. Even the idea of "coming up with an idea" was itself amusingly (and subsequently politically incorrectly) rebranded in the 50s and 60s as "brainstorming" and "lateral thinking" respectively. How the fuck Brunel and Rembrandt managed to come up with anything without first throwing a ball around a circle of uninspired workers playing "word association ideation games" is a mystery to me.

Actually, it isn’t a mystery. It’s just that people back then were expected to be creative and no-one really thought it required all that much in the way of encouragement. It was just how things got done. But then the world got small and, with it, variety shrank. Lots of localised companies experimenting with making lots of things became fewer, bigger, global companies manufacturing lots of the same thing – toothbrushes, cars, ads. This transformation reduced creativity as the number of problems that required people to regularly think in new ways diminished.

Conformity kills creativity. Most people don’t realise they’re conforming – they simply feel they need, in some abstract way, to "be more creative". And as this is a tricky thing to articulate, they go on courses designed to help them become "more creative". They read "insightful" self-help books promising to unlock some hitherto unknown treasure trove of creativity within themselves. It’s a very healthy industry.

The issue, though, isn’t that people are becoming "less creative" and therefore need to become "more creative". They’re simply reacting to environments that erode their natural creativity so stealthily, they assume that they are at fault and therefore require creative (re)education.

"Can you teach someone to be creative?" is a question I am asked a lot – and the simple answer is: "No, but you can teach them how not to be." Teaching someone how to be "more creative" largely relies on getting people to combine what they already know in new ways. So far, so meh.

We all know that creativity is the ability to make connections and that this technique will bear fruit (initially, at least). Right up to the point when they run out of knowledge. A wide range of understanding is the key to creativity. Understanding goes beyond knowledge, which in turn goes beyond information.

Understanding means you own your knowledge. Reading some books and going on courses isn’t enough. We’re essentially talking about the acquisition of lots of all-consuming hobbies.

From sewing, baking and painting, to botany, astronomy and motorcycle engineering. Serious hobbies teach you things that can be applied to a wide and unrelated range of life’s problems. Unfortunately, it requires a tremendous amount of time to become skilled in any one hobby. And, of course, if you want to master several, you need to triple your practice time. Given that it’s hard enough some days in our industry to find time to have a shit, this presents some challenges. Having hobbies isn’t the tricky bit – finding the time for them is.

Acquiring multiple hobbies has the magical consequence of exponentially increasing your abilities in the one area where you have most talent. Here’s a fun fact: your brain isn’t a fixed mass that shapes your behaviour – your behaviour also shapes your brain. I love a fun fact, especially one that’s backed up by someone much smarter than I am.

Dr Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, writes: "If a gardener takes up a serious interest in engineering, for instance, her neurons form new pathways between previously isolated regions. It may well be a mistake to do just one thing. If you practise multiple things, you actually get better at any one of those things. To strengthen those neural pathways, however, we have to repeatedly do something… Leafing through a how-to book on nuclear propulsion systems won’t do it."

People whose hobbies have allowed them to become skilled across multiple disciplines, and thereby become exceptionally skilled in a certain area, have a name. And it isn’t smart-arse. It’s polymath.

Polymaths, some recent articles have lamented, are "an endangered species". Such articles highlight the contrast between the specialists who seemingly rule today’s world and the multidisciplinary polymaths of previous centuries. Of course, back then, there was far less overall knowledge – therefore, a working understanding of anything new could be attained relatively quickly compared with today.

A huge number of businesses reliant on the creativity of their people are squandering those talents through short-sightedness

Which brings us to the 10,000 hours rule. It was first noticed in the 19th century that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything – although another group of experts are currently trying their best to prove this wrong. Perhaps they’re annoyed that it took them longer than 10,000 hours to become experts or maybe they just can’t stand a smart-arse. Regardless, due to the ever-increasing amount of information on any one thing, this figure keeps going up. Ten-thousand hours is a fairly long time – and that’s just to, supposedly, become expert at one thing. But, as we’ve already seen, you really need to become expert at a few things for them to have a tangible impact on your "creativity".

This brings us to the main point. (Sorry, I do bang on a bit.) Great creative people are very often not simply creative in one thing: their creative minds want to roam, to see the world in different ways and imagine different possibilities. In advertising, we like to think we can label certain people "creative" – put them in a creative department and expect them to channel their creativity into, say, making film or designing a website.

But creativity is like that scene from Dirty Dancing – you can’t put it in a corner. It will, quite naturally, want to break out and explore other creative areas. How can the industry ac­commodate free-ranging creative impulses? Can they be channelled within the agency or be allowed to flourish outside, freeing creative talent to pursue other interests in parallel to their day jobs?

I have been, it must be said, ex­ceedingly fortunate. AKQA allows extraordinary creative freedom to develop across multitudes of media and technologies. But the reality is that this experience is the exception rather than the rule, and a huge number of businesses reliant on the creativity of their people are squandering those talents through short-sightedness and a misplaced idea of focus.

Ideally, and if they were being strictly truthful, most businesses in our industry would love to employ creative parrots, not polymaths. That is to say, individuals who can do roughly the same thing and generally repeat the same tricks, day in, day out. Reasonably manageable, lots of squawking, with the odd squawk being sufficiently different to stand out from the others – until emulated by the other parrots until all squawks sound like it a year later, and so on and so on.

For all the talk of originality and authenticity, agencies would far rather their originality and authenticity be delivered within set criteria. They would prefer you to "stay focused". You see, it’s difficult to deal with creative types – the ones probably described at school as "lacking focus". Everyone knows they’re amazingly talented "when they can be bothered" – so they’re lured into jobs with attractive remunerative packages, fancy titles and promises, all inside structures within which they can be "managed". And then everyone is surprised when they get bored and leave.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that this is also the inherent issue of the trend within companies seeking to hire the skill du jour: namely, entrepreneurs. The bottom line being that this can be an immensely enriching thing to do, for a business with the wisdom and structure to cope with actual entrepreneurialism. But to those who are simply in love with the idea rather than the reality: don’t be too surprised when they, too, leave. Actual entrepreneurs tend not to stick around all that long building someone else’s business.

What we really need to nurture in our businesses is the desire to be polymathic. How? Well, that’s the multimillion-pound question, so hand over a few million quid and I’ll tell you my ideas. Just kidding. Sort of…

One fairly obvious idea is in-house incubators. Instead of sabbaticals (or holiday – gasp!), companies provide in-house incubators (or simply the time) to support their employees’ hobbies/fledgling companies. If they succeed, the founders of said companies get an amazing kick-start and the agency gets some serious never-to-be-forgotten love and highly enthused ambassadors. If they don’t succeed, the would-be founders come back inside the agency having had their change-is-as-good-as-a-break and learnt a hell of a lot on the way. The thing is, the amount of time given over to such activities needs to be significant. Let’s say it needs to be 20 per cent of an employee’s company time. Sounds a lot. But anything much less and there’s no time to get into anything, so the exercise becomes futile. Impossible? Madness? Makes no business sense? Maybe. Maybe not. It really depends on how far into the future you want to look, or what you believe the cost benefit to be.

Taking 20 per cent away from employees’ potential billability doesn’t sound too smart, and it definitely isn’t smart if that person is correspondingly 20 per cent less effective. But what if that time was spent enriching their minds, providing the means to acquire ownable knowledge, which would in turn result in ever-more imaginative ideas? Then, in theory, they would become 20 per cent "more creative". Or put another way: 20 per cent more effective, making the reduction in actual hard time irrelevant. Plus, they would be happier. And wouldn’t get bored. And wouldn’t leave quite as much. Which would save on rehiring and bedding-in costs.

It should come as no surprise that I am not called on by business schools to lecture.

The main hurdle that businesses need to get over is the "That’s got nothing to do with what we do here" syndrome. Everything has everything to do with everything, as we’ve seen. The challenge is to allow people to exercise real creative freedom. Everyone seems to focus on what sort of contribution people make to businesses – which is certainly sensible – but what about the contribution businesses make to the people? More often than not, this is answered financially, with the promise of "opportunity". But, until businesses realise that what creatives actually crave is the freedom to explore and master activities seemingly at odds with the company’s immediate focus, talented creative people will continue to get bored and leave. No matter how much you pay them.

It is, of course, all enormously inconvenient. I mean, why can’t people just stick to the bloody task in hand? Well, they can. And they will, for a time. And when they start to tire or wander, they’ll ask to go on a training course – which might do the trick for a while. But the real trick is for businesses to get ahead of the potentially disastrous creative-conformity curve and instil practices and values within their companies that hold sacred the idea of polymathic creativity. To have a structure that supports and encourages it – or one that even demands it.

Because, with well-stocked brains, the real creativity will follow – and I for one would rather work with polymaths than parrots.

James Hilton is the co-founder of AKQA and founding partner of AtelierStrange