Creativity Accounting

“I have always tried to show why art has to do with life. Only from art can a new concept of economics be formed, in terms of human need, not in the sense of use and consumption, politics and property, but above all in terms of the production of spiritual goods,” said the artist Joseph Beuys.

Innovation and creativity are entwined.  Yet, while innovation is seen as a business imperative, creativity tends to be distrusted. This is unhelpful as creativity is at the heart of innovation.  You can wear a suit and still be creative. Ask Gilbert and George.

Take inspiration from the world of cuisine and Ferran Adrià, creator of El Bulli (once rated as the world’s best restaurant): “Often, people give speeches about what creativity is all about without having any new ideas. We must have ideas. It could be that sometimes very simple things we do are taken as innovative and creative. When we talk about innovation, what is important about innovation is the consequence of it. For example, this is a chair. Whoever invented the chair originally made something very innovative. There have been many different chairs since with some little changes here and there that are not so much of an innovation. Until someone comes and invents a different purpose for a chair, the innovation has very little consequence.”

Adrià goes on to explain that his own innovation is “probably linked to something very simple: I ask myself the reason why we eat what we eat. Food is something we’ve always had. There are things that are right, things that are wrong, things that can improve.”

Adrià says that he constantly asks himself “why things are as they are.” After all, he adds, “inspiration is about the same thing for everyone: it’s about life. But what I mean by that is that life is what empowers everybody everywhere. Life is what inspires us: this interview, being at the airport, an art exhibition, watching television … everything inspires. It’s about seeing what others don’t — because it’s all there.”

For all this, the reality remains that business and creativity remain uncomfortable bedfellows. Indeed, creative is often a pejorative term in business—think of “creative accounting” or the broad-brush distrust of “creatives” in many organizations. The stereotypical corporate world is full of buttoned-up suits and left-brained rational decision makers, whereas the world we associate with creative endeavors is populated with undisciplined, scruffily clad, right-brained mavericks It is the seeming disconnect between creativity and business that makes innovation so difficult for companies (especially large companies) to understand and manage. Yet, manage it they must.

First the case for creativity.  London Business School’s Costas Markides argues that creative thinking leads to strategic innovation — the breakthroughs that can separate winning strategists from also-rans. Creativity in this context, Markides writes in his book, All the Right Moves, means “examining an issue from a variety of angles and experimenting with new ideas”.

As Markides views strategic innovation, creativity doesn’t end after developing strategy. Rather, it extends into deployment, such that managers focus on “what competencies to develop and what organizational context to create so as to facilitate the implementation of its strategy.” But even then, “the firm is still not done with strategy,” because strategy must be integrated into the organizational environment — culture, incentives, structure and people — that support strategic choices. “The real challenge is to develop the individual pieces and then put them together in such a way that they support and complement each other, on one hand, while they collectively support and promote the chosen strategy on the other.”

Another perspective on the role of creativity comes from Jonothan Neelands, professor of creative education at the United Kingdom’s Warwick Business School: “Creativity and doing things differently are, if not identical, then nearly synonymous. Doing things differently suggests a more creative approach to the world of business, but it is also a recognition that we cannot in any sphere of our lives continue as if we are not facing political, economic, social, and environmental crises that may engulf us. We are being battered by Schumpeter’s now constant gale.”

To some extent, creativity will always retain an elusive aura.  It cannot be easily systematized or even understood.  But, there is a positive side, according to Tuck Business School’s Vijay Govindarajan: “Innovation has two components. One side of innovation is ideas, creativity. Perhaps that is difficult to teach, since creativity may well be something that is an art, something that you are born with, although there are some people who say that you can also structure the process, so that you can become more creative. But the bulk of innovation is commercializing creativity, and commercializing creativity can be taught because there is a disciplined process by which you can take an idea and make it into a big business. Therefore, that part actually can be taught. Innovation can be taught.”

Indeed, there is a burgeoning industry encouraging and enabling executives to discover and then nurture their creative sides.  Creative construction is the mainspring of the creative destruction markets demand.


Jean-Paul Jouary, Ferran Adrià and El Bulli, Andre Deutsch, 2013

This was originally published in What we mean when we talk about innovation by Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove (Infinite Ideas, 2016).

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