Exploring and exploiting: a creative management paradox

This article has the brain bending title Managing exploration and exploitation paradoxes in creative organisations, which might suggest a discussion far removed from the practicalities of running a business in the creative industries. But in fact, it’s talking about a fundamental tension which lies within most, if not all, creative enterprises.

That tension arises from the inherent difference between the concepts of creativity and industry. Creativity is about exploration; producing new products through the creative process. That’s often long, unpredictable and difficult to control.

Industry (perhaps better described as the commercialisation of those products) is about exploitation. Make a product repeatable, divine a business model which generates profit and you have the basis of a sustainable business. The skills needed to manage these two disciplines are both contradictory and necessary. Therein lies the paradox.

I’m familiar with the need to balance the creative and the management aspects of a business through my work with creative industry companies, but I’ve not seen it expressed as neatly as the explore/exploit paradox. Within organisations large enough to employ staff, this paradox is often managed through compartmentalisation of roles (a design studio, for example, may well divide staff between creative, production and sales roles) and recruitment (employing people with the appropriate skills for each). For this reason, creative industry companies can often be melting pots of personality types.

Individual creatives and sole traders though have to manage this paradox by and within themselves. They must be both explorer and exploiter. How do creatives manage this without going mad? (And though I use that term flippantly, I think there is a considerable mental strain in having to be both those very different things).

I think that creatives who build successful businesses procure the management skills they need in certain ways. They can find those skills within themselves, lying latent until employed by necessity. They can acquire those skills through training and personal development. Or they can find others to undertake those tasks for them. But somehow, they must access those skills.

The authors then say there are a “three responses that individual managers can have to paradox: acceptance; differentiation/integration; and accommodation”

Acceptance involves embracing conflict without seeking to resolve it… Differentiation and integration is a cycling process whereby managers iterate between alternative patterns. Differentiation involves delineating alternate domains and serving each one separately, whereas
integration involves re-connecting domains into a meaningful whole… Accommodation reconciles both elements of opposition in “novel, creative synergy”… For example, Rothenberg (1979) suggested that creative artists like Mozart merged paradoxical demands to create new conceptions.

The option which seems closest to what I see in practice is differentiation/integration. Even within large organisations, there’s usually a CEO who started out as a creative (which I talk about here) and who needs to practice the flipping of modes between explorer and exploiter on a personal level all the time. They are, I guess, practicing an internal version of differentiation/integration on an hourly basis. Perhaps that’s one of the hallmarks of creative entrepreneurship.

Ref: Eric Knight , Will Harvey , “Managing exploration and exploitation paradoxes in creative organisations”, Management Decision, Vol. 53 Iss: 4, pp.809 – 827

 

 

 

 

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