The four ways of creative cultivators

My New Year's Resolution for metacool is to publish more original stuff, more often.  Here's a step in that direction, and perhaps a step too far:  I didn't have time to craft a brief post, so I pounded out a long one.  I'm sorry. 

As of late I've been thinking a lot about the difference between managing and leading, whether creativity can be led or managed, and what might happen if you pushed those two questions together.  Here's an in-progress answer:

Hang around long enough in around the coffee stations of any Fortune 100 company, and you're bound to hear the question "how can we better manage creativity around here?".  While it may taken different forms, this is not just a tough question, it's also the wrong question. We can't manage creativity.  Period.  We can't implement a process that will create creative outcomes with a high degree of reliability.  If you look around, the killer innovations of our time are coming from organizations like Google, Mozilla, and the X Prize Foundation, who've each stopped trying to manage innovation in traditional, top-down ways in favor of leading it.  And they lead it in a very specific way: they see the leadership of creativity, in all its facets and complexity, as something akin to the act of cultivating a garden. Particularly when it comes to harnessing the power of emergent behavior, where creativity morphs in to world-changing innovations, leaders must all — in fact, can only — tend to their gardens.  They must learn to become cultivators of creativity. 

Some essential thoughts on creativity.   We at metacool hold these truths to be self evident, that everyone is potentially creative, that creativity is endless, that each individual is capable of being an agent of change in the world when properly supported by their surrounding ecology and society.  We do not subscribe to the myth that there two types of people: "creatives" and everyone else is not an idea that will sustain modern organizations. To be certain, differences in life experience enable some folks to be more creative, but a critical task of leadership is to enable every individual to be as creative as need be, rather than to choose the seductive path of tapping a select few to do the dreaming for the rest of the pack.

With the challenges we face in the world, it is incumbent upon leaders to unleash the creativity of the many, not the few.  Modern organizations tasked with delivering ever more holistic customer experiences must be able to tap in to the creativity, intelligence, and initiative of everyone affiliated with the brand, not just the talent of a select creative few. If the success of an open sourced Firefox over "closed" competitors such as Microsoft's Explorer can show us anything, it is that charging the generation of new sources of value and wealth to a limited few results in suboptimal outcomes in the form of disgruntled users and unhappy shareholders. Firefox is created largely by a community thousands of volunteers who work for ego satisfaction alone, organized by a small group of people — creative cultivators — wholly responsible to that community. Cultivating creative behavior within this type of community has much more in common with behaviors and attitudes associated with the successful cultivation of gardens than it does with traditional, top-down, centralized, command-and-control notions of what effective management looks like.

To realize a community, organization, or even an entire society capable of reaching its creative potential, we need a wholesale shift in our conception of what effective organizational leadership looks like. That leadership model can be found in the following four defining behaviors of creative cultivators:

1) Being at the bottom of things

Flourishing gardens come from being at the bottom of things. Instead of pursuing the traditional management goal of being on top of things — with the lucrative by-product of being at the top of things — the leader-as-cultivator makes it their job to live simultaneously at the bottom and in the middle and on the edges, dealing with things that might seem like plain manure to outsiders.  Unfortunately for those caught in old models of leadership, it's not lonely at the bottom. The bottom can be a messy place, but it is the wellspring of success when it comes to fostering creativity. With plants, as with people trying to act in creative ways, you can't tell them what to do, but you can try to support what they need to do, matching essential resources to tasks at hand. This is not traditional, I'm-the-heroic-boss leadership. Instead, the creative cultivator takes satisfaction from tending to the health of the overall garden, and wisely leaves the kudos for smelling great and looking good to the roses.

2) Trusting what is there

Creative cultivators trust what is there. A wise cultivator resists the temptation to "dig up the seed", as it were, to check if people are being creative enough. Many breakthrough innovation initiatives are stifled by linear project timetables more appropriate to incremental efforts. The paradox of cultivating creativity is that confidence in outcomes is the fundamental enabler of creativity itself; a wise gardener knows that roses are the best authorities on the creation of rosiness, and until they bloom, only checks in to see if they need more food and water. Furthermore, creative cultivators trust that the right answers — though not the ones they would have thought up themselves — will emerge from their gardens. Cultivators at Wal-Mart chose to move the needle on sustainability by engaging thousands of their store associates in a Personal Sustainability Project, with each individual choosing to reshape a life behavior. Trusting what was there, Wal-Mart rewarded "crazy but good" ideas emerging from the PSP program by promoting them across the company network. Likewise, ideas bubbling up within the PSP system which were negatively deviant — like a strange tomato that received too much fertilizer — were treated as a positive learning opportunity for the originator.  So much about what makes a creative organization tick is tacit.  It's about what's there and what it creates, rather than what a few brains wish to have happen via explicit processes and goals.

3) Seeing the ecosystem

By their nature, gardens are part of larger ecosystems. As shown by the recent success of P&G in bringing in outside sources of innovation in to the company, healthy gardens readily accept inputs from the outside world.  Rain, water, seeds, nutrients — we don't care where they came from, we just care about their integrity and how they help us grow good stuff.  Encouraging variance — the creation of weird or unexpected ideas — is a key goal for someone cultivating a creative culture. Anything that encourages variance through the cross-pollination of ideas from outside sources (very much the function of bees) should be reinforced. And as we're sadly seeing out in the world, gardens without the benefit of bees soon stop producing. Thinking about the long-term health of all stakeholders in an ecosystem is also a signature act of the leader as cultivator. Innovating is a long-term endeavor and requires a great deal of patience, investment, and fortitude. Actions that value short-term productivity over the long-term health of the garden and its larger ecosystem are ultimately anti-creative.

4) Taking a bird's eye view

Finally, creative cultivators do all of the above while simultaneously curating the garden from a bird's eye view. Managing a portfolio of creative endeavors requires knowing how many plants a certain piece of land can support and then pruning or as culling appropriate. Steve Jobs has stated that the iPod's development would have been impossible to support had the company also invested in other attractive opportunities, such as a PDA. This notion of garden as portfolio extends to strategy and brand: creative cultivators recognize that terroir matters, that some things (think wine grapes) just grow better, taste better, in certain places. Doing the most with the resources at hand, listening to what works and what doesn't, and guiding growth to be something unique and wonderful – that is the essence of strategy, and of gardening as well. Most importantly, a creative cultivator creates the context for plants to grow in accordance with a strong vision of how the garden should evolve. In organizations, this means having points of origin that can inspire individuals to be creative in certain ways, and not others, and to innovate in certain directions. For example, Whole Foods has created tremendous value based on the proactive decision-making skills of thousands of employees, each guided by a carefully crafted set of Core Values.  BMW, Virgin, Prana, and a host of other strong brands do this well, too.

Taken together, these four ways of leading should help creativity and its children grow and flourish.  Instead of trying to manage creativity, we must move to a model of leadership that's all about cultivating it.

4 thoughts on “The four ways of creative cultivators

  1. I agree with your leadership model, the challenge for some of us in large corporations that are more traditional is to be able to produce results good enough and quickly enough to get the long-term support to sustain it.
    Great post Diego.

  2. Diego,
    I easily follow much of your line of thinking because I have worked for such a leader. The question for me is how do we move the masses of “managers” who have (or will) cut their teeth on industrial age models to this new way of working. About the only thing I am sure of is that education holds the key (and not industrial age models of leadership development).

  3. I am working on ideas of a creative ecology (with my next book ‘Creative Ecologies: Where Thinking is a Proper Job’, out in March). Three key principles: everyone is creative; creativity needs freedom; freedom needs markets (that’s markets in the global sense, not the American sense, and includes what Americans call non-market social networks). The third principle has four factors: diversity, change, learning and adaptation. So, I agree with what you say. But I think this is a global topic (most/all of your examples come from the US?). and I now spend half my time in China. To generalise about these things we have to understand how creativity/innovation operate in Asia as well as US and Europe, Africa, etc, especially in the networked minds of young people. For example, compare GM/Chrysler/Ford wth SAIC…. Would be glad to discuss this further with you. John

  4. Hi Diego,
    I’m a new reader and will definitely be sticking around. I recently graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce and have moved on to study law. In just over two years I will be starting at the bottom of one career chain or another. Can you please share your insight on how to “lead” creativity before even being in a position to “manage” it?
    Best wishes,
    Michael Alexis

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