Thursday, April 26, 2012

Creativity, Control & Benign Structures

Creativity and control are often thought to be incompatible. But are they?  It depends on how these two terms are framed.  Look at the following:
Creativity: chaotic, wild woolly, haphazard, anarchic, incoherent

Control: power, domination, regimentation, subjection, repression

Framed in those extreme terms, they have nothing to offer one another.  Anyone who has been involved in creative activities, however, knows that some form of controlling limitation can be a great aid to the creative process.  The controlling limitation can be a strong vision, a required format, a theme, a problem, a limited amount of time, a framework or process, scarce resources, a set of ingredients, a script, and so on.  Unconstrained open-endedness can paralyze creativity. 

Film making is a highly creative and controlled process with the director working the tension.  Read what people say about Martin Scorcese’s style:
“. . . if Scorcese is one of film’s grand conductors . . . then there’s one important twist to the kind of orchestra he leads. It’s sometimes playing jazz. His leadership style is equal parts structure and improvisation, reverence, and irreverence.”

“Marty’s very, very prepared,” says Irwin Winkler a producer of several Scorcese films including Raging Bull. “He knows what he wants so he has the freedom of improvising . . . like a jazz musician.”
Many actors . . . credit this mix of structure and creative flexibility with his success as a leader on set.  “It was loose and methodical at the same time,” Ellen Burstyn says of the process. Of all the directors I’ve worked with, Marty is the best at providing an atmosphere where actors can do their best work.  He trusts actors, and involves them.”

Robert de Niro remembers a similar technique of finding ‘a structure for improvisation’, in Mean Streets as well as Raging Bull.”
“The freedom of expression Scorcese provides each member of his team acts in concert with, and toward the greater goal of, his vision.”

All quotes are from Martin Scorcese: Il maestro by Mary Pat Kelly, The Washington Post. February 24, 2011.
Francis Ford Coppola relies on theme as a controlling limitation.  He says, “When you make a movie, always try to discover what the theme of the movie is in one or two words.  Every time I made a film, I always knew what I thought the theme was, the core, in one word. In ‘The Godfather’ it was succession. In ‘The Conversation’ it was privacy. In ‘Apocalypse’ it was morality . . . Knowing the theme helps you make a decision when you’re not sure which way to go.”

Quote from Francis Ford Coppola: On Risk, Money, Craft & Collaboration by Ariston Anderson in The Washington Post, February 24, 2011.
Structure is a word often associated with forms of control. Organizational structure, for example, refers to how roles, governance, procedures, authority, decision-making, and other control mechanisms are configured – factors that limit or influence individual behaviors.  When looked at this way, structure and creativity would seem to be antithetical to one another.  Does this always need to be the case?

I recently came across some work –developed a couple of decades ago - by two academics at the University of Manchester – Susan Moger and  Tudor Rickards. Their work focuses on creative leadership in teams. In their model, the creative leader introduces structures (protocols) that facilitate the creativity of the team. They call these structures ‘benign structures’ – benign in the sense that they don’t impose structural impediments to creative development and systems change. They are not structures aimed at maintaining the status quo.  A benign structure can be a creativity technique. The technique will have codified and explicit protocols (rules), but they operate “to establish habits against habits” (a quote from S J. Parnes, co-founder of the International Center for Studies in Creativity).  Think of what Robert de Niro said about Scorcese’s technique of finding ‘a structure for improvisation’.
With collaborative creativity and innovation being very high on corporate agendas, I think the idea of ‘benign structures’ needs to be looked at anew.

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