Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Can Creativity Be Stored? Yes, and It Should Be

For those of us who are not creative, it is difficult to imagine how creative people work. Perhaps we get some ideas from learning techniques such as brainstorming, when a team gets together and talk about ideas, with a ban on critique and an emphasis on letting each idea feed subsequent ideas. That’s a nice image, but it is not at all how creative industries and individuals work. Have you ever thought how unfair it is that the person with the messiest office is often the most creative at your workplace? Actually it is not unfair, and it is not just your workplace.

The explanation for the messy creative person and the uncreative brainstorming session can be found in research by Poornika Ananth and Sarah Harvey published in Administrative Science Quarterly. They had a big study of creative individuals in theatre and architecture, and among their many findings two stood out. Creativity can be drawn from storage. Creativity can be stored.

A key insight is that people who have creativity as their main work do not work on a single project, but many, both in sequence and concurrently. They get ideas and inspiration, which fuel creative outputs, but often these do not fit their current project well enough. What to do with ideas and inspiration that do not fit? Think about them creatively, create symbols that make them concrete and memorable, and store them for later. Try to make the storage systematic enough that they are easy to retrieve later.

What to do with creative projects when no ideas and inspiration are coming? Go to the creativity storage and see what fits. Probably nothing fits exactly, but there will be pieces there that look almost right and can be cobbled together. Creative people, especially when working in creative industries, are good at their work exactly because they have a portfolio of stored creative inputs that they can use in their portfolio of creative projects.

It is interesting how this description of creativity fits a theory of culture known as “culture as a toolkit.” When people have and use culture as a toolkit, culture is partly in their memory and partly picked up from others. They can have many cultural elements, which are not necessarily consistent with each other, and they will draw from those cultural elements to solve problems they encounter. The individual with a large and diverse cultural toolkit is a lot like the creative individual – a large storage of ideas and inspiration, and great ability to solve problems.

Perhaps we should not be surprised? A lot of creativity is culturally judged, and some of it even creates culture. We learn from theatrical plays and from watching buildings, if they are creative. The creative individual who stores and retrieves ideas and inspiration also creates ideas and inspiration for us, and is doing society a great service.

As I finish writing this, I am looking at my office, which is disturbingly tidy for a professor. I still like to think of myself as creative, and maybe it helps that my brain is messier than my office. I do have good memory, though, and I maintain a portfolio of projects that I work for. There is hope for everyone once we understand the processes that lead to creativity.

Ananth, Poornika and Sarah Harvey. 2023. Ideas in the Space Between: Stockpiling and Processes for Managing Ideas in Developing a Creative Portfolio. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Wait, Our Employees Can Also Use Us Politically? Political Activism in Firms

We already know about CEOs making political statements using their firm as a tool – such as leaving California while protesting taxes and regulation, or publicly announcing that they will cover travel expenses for abortions for their employees in abortion-banning states. There is debate over how much CEOs should engage in political debates and use their firms to make statements. But what about employees? Of course, anyone is free to act politically outside work, but it is also possible to use the firm as a tool for public protest.

Research by Alexandra Rheinhardt, Forrest Briscoe, and Aparna Joshi published in Administrative Science Quarterly asks when employees are more likely to use their organization as a tool for making political statements. It focuses on a public protest – the “Take a Knee” movement of players in the NFL (National Football League) kneeling or showing other kinds of protest during the pre-game play of the national anthem. It is a remarkably visible protest because of the TV broadcast of the event, the symbolism of the national anthem, and the clearly visible team uniforms.

Some politicians, some team owners, and some audience members were aghast when this movement began – and many others were delighted. As any real form of protest should be, it was controversial, and it was also a powerful ingredient of the Black Lives Matter movement to protest racism and police violence. But what made some players in some teams join the movement, while others did not? The research found two factors that made the players more likely to use their team as a tool for public protest.

The first was fairness – teams treating their players equally, as expressed through similar pay levels, were more likely to see players emboldened and making protests. Keep in mind that these were protests not against the team, but using the team colors, and they were protests for fairness in society. This makes sense.

The second was openness – teams that were open to the message of the movement, as expressed through having a greater proportion of black players, were more likely to see their players protest. Again, this action is part of the Black Lives Matter movement, so it matters that a team does not specifically favor white players through its recruitment. This makes sense too.

Both fairness and openness made individual players more likely to protest before a game, and it added up to making at least one player in the team, usually multiple, more likely to protest too. This brings us back to what happens when employees use the firm as a tool for public protest. Of course, it is a worthy effort for the employees, who feel strongly about the issue and want to express their views as publicly as possible. But should managers and owners be worried?

That brings us to the last part of the story. Another item predicting protests was that the teams were in more liberal communities – communities that generally agreed with the Black Lives Movement and would likely react positively to players protesting on its behalf. At least in this context, one could argue that the player, by taking an overall controversial stance, brought the team closer to its community. For a move that received so much public attention – even with the president at the time (who has no particular authority on football team hiring decisions) telling teams to fire the protesters – this is an unusually happy ending.

Rheinhardt, A., F. Briscoe, and A. Joshi. 2023 "Organization-as-Platform Activism: Theory and Evidence from the National Football League “Take a Knee” Movement." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.