Resourcing Creativity

Resourcing Creativity

My book Ask for the Moon looks at creativity and innovation in organisations, and the conditions that nurture or constrain these. As a central case study for the book, I chose to look at Shaw Brothers Studios and their production of martial arts movies in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s.

Shaw Brothers had a business and production model that was unique for the time and place in which they operated. Their artistic workforce – directors, cinematographers, editors, martial arts choreographers, performers, writers, production designers, etc. – were extraordinarily creative and some of them even managed innovations in their art form.

The good thing about working for big studios was that you got classy, quality support. Even if you asked for the moon, they could get the moon for you, which was amazing. ~ Shaw Brothers Studios director Chor Yuen

One of the components of the Shaw Brothers production model was their organisation of resources. Whether it was a gobsmacking array of lavish costumes and set dressings, state of the art equipment, or a large and dedicated corps of human talent, Shaw Brothers could, as shown in the Chor Yuen quote above, support the vision of their directors with terrific resources.

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A still from Chor Yuen’s film ‘Killer Clans’. Note the yellow carpet…

They did this by pooling these resources centrally, and then mandating their re-use across a number of films. This kept costs down but, because the resources themselves were of high calibre to begin with, also ensured a decent quality. As a former creative worker and arts manager, I can completely empathise with Chor Yuen’s appreciation of being able to ask for his moon (and I know he got it because I’ve seen it in many of his glamorous looking movies). In my personal history I saw many arts projects get produced on shoe string budgets, and artists frequently worked miracles to produce material despite this, but this isn’t ideal for nurturing sustained creativity or producing good quality and well realised work. Shaw Brothers were able to churn out hundreds of handsome looking films in two and a half decades, of consistently good quality, and their strategy for managing resourcing played an important part in this.

(Producer) Run Run (Shaw) calibrated the resourcing of his production model… and then aligned it with producing a certain quality of product geared towards satisfying a certain audience need. ~ Ask for the Moon

Good, and certainly great, creative work needs to be adequately resourced. If it’s not, then potential is constrained, and your creatives will be distracted by stretching resources rather than doing the very best work they can do.

Shaw Brothers’ production model, and its particular approach to the management of resourcing, did have a down side: Shaw directors were constrained to using the same resources again and again. While they did good work, and this is commendable, this could also limit their ability to experiment and innovate (and this is one of the core things I look at in my book). This led to a certain sameness in aesthetic in the films – the same costumes, sets, actors, and even plots were recycled – and induced a feeling of staleness in some of the filmmakers.

Note the same yellow carpet underfoot in this still from another Chor Yuen film, ‘The Magic Blade’. I have seen this same carpet in every Shaws film I have seen.

Many Shaw Brothers’ films are eye-catching and fun, but only a few of them managed to be actually innovative, rather than just imaginative, under this regimen of controlling resources.

So, the lesson is plain: if you want ground breaking work, resource it properly.

Ask for the Moon is on sale now and you can buy it here.

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Great work; not so great work

Great work; not so great work

“He painted all the time to do a really good painting and, like any artist, sometimes he did great works and sometimes he did not so great ones.” Brett Lichtenstein on Brett Whiteley, p. 81, Whiteley on Trial, by Gabriella Coslovich

I am currently reading (and enjoying) Gabriella Coslovich’s book Whiteley on Trial, a fascinating account of the biggest case of alleged art fraud in Australia. As well as providing a detailed retelling of the court proceedings, Coslovich also includes accounts of her interviews with a fascinating cast of characters, all connected with the late artist Brett Whiteley, or his artworks, or the apparent forgery of his style.

The above quote comes from a conversation the author had with the master framer Brett Lichtenstein. It caught my eye because I have been lately ruminating on the willingness of artists (from any discipline) to embrace experimentation and risk in their work. In my life, I have worked in both the arts industry and other sectors. It came as a rude shock to me, when I left the arts to go and work in the community and tertiary sectors, to realise how risk averse a lot of people were in comparison to the artists I was used to working with.

There is a myth that artists are woefully chaotic and badly disorganised, and spend their lives mucking about ineffectually to make all kinds of weirdly arcane stuff. The older I get the wearier I am of hearing this, usually from people who have no experience in the arts industry. The truth is – take it from one who has worked both within and out of the arts industry and can compare – that the percentage of artists who are bimbos and flakes is no higher or lower than the percentage of bimbos and flakes in other sectors.

The process of making art is messy; the process of creating something is full of trial and error. Perhaps this is why, to the outsider, artists look disorganised in their work. Whiteley was a great artist; many of Coslovich’s interviewees call him a genius. But as Lichtenstein attests above – and as Whiteley’s favourite framer he developed an intimate knowledge of Whiteley’s work over the course of many years – this genius “sometimes did not so great” work.

But to get to that “really good painting” Whiteley had to paint “all the time”, had to keep painting pieces that fell a little short until he produced a great work that didn’t. And as Lichtenstein says above, this is “like any artist”. Any of us working creatively are going to churn through this process of trying to find that sweet point where technique aligns with inspiration. In Whiteley’s case, his great works were really great. But even if most of us can never match his outcomes, we can still learn from his process.

The Balcony (2) by Brett Whiteley
The Balcony (2) by Brett Whiteley

On the Brainpickings website, Maria Popova included some insights from writer Ann Patchett on her creative process including the following:

“Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, … I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing.”

I wish, I really really wish, someone had given me this advice when I was a young dancer and choreographer. Being creative is tough. You constantly have to weather the disappointment of not being able to reproduce the inspirational thing in your head as a real tangible outcome, you come up short, or it doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would, or you try too hard and overcomplicate things.

But to make the thing you are capable of making, you have to keep trying, make some bad work, move past that, keep trying, make some OK work, learn from that, keep trying, make some bad work again, reflect some more, keep trying, and then make that capable (even great?) piece. Then move on from that. Keep trying. Make some more bad work. Keep trying. And so on. And so forth.

If you want to experience insight into creativity, especially in how to apply it to innovation, then come along to the Creative Melbourne conference, 18-22 February, which offers a unique experience in creative co-learning. For more information, please look here.

Workshop: Harnessing Creativity Through Project Planning

Workshop: Harnessing Creativity Through Project Planning

“Innovate or die” is an exhortation that has become familiar to many organisations. Underpinning innovation is creativity; creative ideas provide the concepts that inspire innovation. Much advice that is written around creativity is focused very narrowly on ideation or being more imaginative without addressing how these ‘flights of fancy’ can be applied to real life situations.

On 9 August 2016 I will be offering a day long workshop ‘Harnessing Creativity Through Project Planning’. This workshop provides project managers and their teams with concrete and workable approaches that they can apply to preexisting and embedded operational systems or project planning templates. This workshop helps participants understand more about creativity and how it works, and how creative thinking can be used to enhance planning and delivery of projects. During this interactive workshop participants will learn how to make space for creative thinking within a project plan without allowing the free-ranging nature of imaginative thought derail project plans and measures.

Cost:

  • General public $400
  • Members of Association for Tertiary Education Management $300; Affiliates $340

Venue: Deakin University, Melbourne City Centre

Bookings close 3 August. Places are limited so BOOK NOW.

To register or find out more information please go here.

800px-Guido_Reni_-_Apollo_on_the_Sun_Chariot_-_Google_Art_Project
Apollo on the Sun Chariot by Guido Reni (1575-1642)
Recommended Read: David Bowie – innovator extraordinaire

Recommended Read: David Bowie – innovator extraordinaire

“Musician, actor, icon and entrepreneur. David Bowie was an innovator in every way. He stepped into the vacuum left by the Beatles’ break-up in 1970 and developed an array of strategies that have gone on to become the common sense of popular culture and of business itself.”

So begins Mike Jones’ article ‘David Bowie – Innovator Extraordinaire’. First published on The Conversation on 12 January 2016 (shortly after Bowie’s death) it is an interesting examination of how Bowie was able to meld ground breaking performative and musical approaches with business savviness.

“Through his Ziggy Stardust persona, Bowie united the visual and narrative conceits of science fiction with those of pop in a way that allowed him to at once be and yet not be that invented character. Having gained an audience, it was then a business masterstroke to kill off this successful creation and to trust that his audience was now primed to accept and delight in successive incarnations and their associated musical genres.

This allowed Bowie to always be “himself” (whoever and whatever that was), while enjoying the licence to pioneer different genres of music – whether electronica, funk or emergent dance music. He combined print, stage and video design to create symbolically rich and dramatic settings for his different alter egos, using them to carry and complete his latest incarnation.”

I liked Jones’ choice of Bowie as a case study of an innovator in both the business and creative fields; Bowie’s output clearly does demonstrates how canny and imaginative uses of “visual and narrative conceits” underpin strong branding that positions you as an innovator in the eyes of your stakeholders.

Jones’ highlighting of the way Bowie’s performative personae and musical styles kept evolving is also insightful; during Bowie’s life innovation begat more innovation and his “audience was… primed to accept and delight in successive incarnations.”

You can find the complete article here.

6033d9bodysuit
Image sourced from time.com
Deep Diving into the Creative – Part 2

Deep Diving into the Creative – Part 2

Last week I responded to an article in The Conversation by Laura D’Olimpio entitled Philosophy for the People: Commencing a Dialogue. In part D’Olimpio wrote about how works of art like literature and films can be used to deepen empathy. I wrote:

“I am also deeply interested in how creative works such as films, works of literature, plays can be used to encourage critical, empathetic and creative responses from those who experience them and, further, how discussion of and reflection on these responses can be used as learning experiences.”

For the rest of Part 1 of this blog please click here.

“Human curiosity is an incredible driving force and we connect with others by telling stories.” (Laura D’Olimpio)

I am right now working on putting together the frameworks for a series of facilitated conversations I hope to offer sometime in the future. These conversations revolve around using extracts from literature as a filter and a prompt to examine aspects of organisational culture and function.

Talking about these things can make many people feel defensive and even judged; this is certainly not my intention but it is something that can readily happen. On the same day that I read D’Olimpio’s piece I also read an opinion piece in The Guardian by George Monbiot called How a corporate cult captures and destroys our best graduates. The title is self-explanatory and I do get where Monbiot is coming from but the many comments seem to reflect that the people who read the piece took it quite personally (many of them appear to work in the corporate culture that Monbiot is describing in damning terms). Some of the commenters are receptive to Monbiot’s angle, but there are plenty who sound defeated and resigned and even more who sound defensive and angry. Monbiot is trying to talk about something systemic, but many of these commenters are hearing a personal judgement levelled at them. I really don’t think this was Monbiot’s intention but I can understand this response; most of us, if we’re honest, would react the same way.

Kittens. That's the ticket. Look at kittens if you feel defensive or upset.
Kittens. That’s the ticket. Look at kittens if you feel defensive or upset.

So here’s the thing: how do you get people to reflect on, analyse critically, address creatively, and engineer change to the systems, cultures and paradigms in which they are embedded day by day. How do you get them to do this without feeling that they need to defend their personal decisions to be working within these parameters? Once people start to feel defensive then the shutters get intellectually and emotionally flung up and reflection and learning (and perhaps shifts in perspective) become impossible to achieve.

“…artworks provide us with a great stimulus for such discussions…” (Laura D’Olimpio)

My theory is that if I take a literary extract into a discussion and ask people to talk to it, and not necessarily about themselves, it will allow people to engage with ideas on an intellectual, imaginative and emotional level while also allowing people to sidestep the need to defend themselves; the artwork is under scrutiny, not them.

It’s hard to get perspective, to surface for air, from the day to day lives we find ourselves immersed in. We all need a framework or some kind of sheltering structure or protective entity to work through. Fortunately these things exist. They’re called artworks.

The Globe Kittens (1902)  by Ernest J. Rowley
The Globe Kittens (1902) by Ernest J. Rowley
Recommended Read: ‘cooperation makes us human’

Recommended Read: ‘cooperation makes us human’

“Automation of procedural work is accelerating” writes Harold Jarche as the opening sentence to his elegant and succinct piece ‘cooperation makes us human’, published 21 April on jarche.com. He then goes on to explicate why he thinks that “Interconnected people have the ability to adapt to a world dominated by machines and algorithms”. In describing the qualities that make humans unique and which cannot be replicated by computers Jarche goes on to write one of the most balanced and even hopeful responses to the increasingly widely circulated idea that technology is radically changing the ways in which we work, how we work and even why we work.

There is plenty of gloomy speculation as to the effects that increasing automation will have on industry and society; among the more alarming is the idea that at some stage many people will be left without work as many jobs will simply cease to exist, having been absorbed into the range of technological activity performed by super-duper robots. My personal view has always been that if, IF, we, as a society, undertake to be adaptable, broad minded, and socially just, and if we can bear to leave behind old fashioned notions of what work ought to mean and how labour ought to define us, then we have nothing to fear from the drastic changes to our society that will be wrought by this onslaught of technology.

“We can never be better computers. People cannot become more efficient than machines.”

Jarche has not written an anti-technology piece by any means, and that is one of the things I like about it. But he goes onto say that “All we can do is be more empathetic, more passionate, more creative. Our social connections reflect and reinforce our humanity. Cooperation is social. Collaboration is a temporary agreement to get something done. Amongst trusted people, collaboration is the easy part. Machines cannot cooperate.”

Cooperation, empathy and creativity cannot be automated. We have nothing to fear.

Image sourced from www.leonardo-sa-vinci-biography.com
Image sourced from http://www.leonardo-sa-vinci-biography.com
How to wrangle a millennial:

How to wrangle a millennial:

Millenials blog

You don’t.

Millennials tend to be described either as paragons of empathy and creativity or narcissistic over-indulged brats. To borrow a phrase from Jane Austen, they “deserve neither such praise nor such censure”*. They’re just people. Respect them and talk to them in the same way you do with your Boomer and Slacker reports and colleagues. If your normal way of managing, co-working and communicating doesn’t provide the optimal conditions for a Millennial to function creatively and collaboratively then the bad news is that your normal way of working has not provided the optimal conditions for anyone of any generation to fulfil their potential.

I have come across articles from time to time mentioning the differences between the generations. I feel as if there is a theme I am spotting where millennials are being praised for their super-duper capacity for empathy and creativity. There is a lot of well-meaning advice out there for folks (it seems to be pitched at boomers and slackers) who feel they need to hire and then manage these millennials so that the young’uns can work their magic and create innovative STUFF for the businesses these old folks own and / or manage. I have been wondering why I find these articles so damned irritating. I don’t find millennials irritating. I have worked with lots of millennials in my time and had a ball doing it**. But these articles irk me; recently I realised why.

There are amongst us oldies out there a cohort of people who figure they have an issue or problem in that their companies need to ‘innovate or die’. They figure they can help to address this by hiring packs of millennials who, so they are told, are extra creative. I think my problem with this line of thinking is that it offers a solution to a problem that allows current managers to ignore an underlying problem.

Which is this: You can hire millennials by the truckload, but if you insert them into the culture or hierarchies that already exist in your business then you are not going to be able to harvest the insights or ideas from them that you crave. If you figure that your current staff is so bereft of the ability to innovate that you have to outsource this most human of functions to a whole other new generation then the problem is not that your current staff are a pack of dullards. Your problem is that you treat them as if they are. You, as a manager, have failed to generate opportunities for your fellow Boomers, Gen-Xers and the older millennials already on your staff to engage with innovative process. Your work culture, your communication processes, your hierarchies, have all worked to estrange or silence innovative people on your staff. Your problem is not that you don’t have the most creative millennials on your staff. Your problem is that you have been unheedingly walking past the most creative boomers and Xers on your staff every day for years and not doing a bloody thing about that. Unless you address that failing, all the promising young talent in the world is not going to be able to make their ideas known to you.

Am I oversimplifying things? Of course I am! This is just a one page blog, after all. But I really can’t shake the feeling that older business leaders and their managers are working themselves up into a lather over how to hire and then how to communicate with these rarefied beings called millennials; article are written and talks are given in the same fomenting but hushed tones certain people might use in describing that time they saw an extra-terrestrial or a unicorn gambolling on their front lawn.

Futurist Jeremy Scrivens has a wonderful story he tells (see the YouTube clip  below) about how a company dealt with a sudden challenge by reaching out to, and then discovering new things about, their existing staff. Watch it and have a ponder about just how well you know your own staff. Do you think they could surprise you? Instead of looking outside your organisation and assuming the answer to the future lies in people as yet unhired, do you need to actually look closer to home first?

I wrote (and then forgot about) this blog months ago, actually. It was a companion blog to one I wrote at the same time and posted last year – On Problem Solving and Black Mould.

*Lizzy Bennet dealing with Miss Bingley in Chapter 9 of Pride and Prejudice.

**For the record – as a contractor I worked at student services departments at RMIT University from 2003-2010 doing stuff that ranged from project management, volunteer management, event management, arts administration and included supporting and / or mentoring student leaders. Lots of fun! Number 1 tip for working with millennials? Um… treat them like any other human being? Empathy and respect works for anyone of any generation.