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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Bridging the creative/financial divide.

I’m preparing to deliver a training workshop at the Artlands conference in Dubbo later this month. It’s a workshop I’ve now delivered many times called ‘Making Money Business’ and it covers business skills for Indigenous artists running creative enterprises. It’s a workshop I’ve gained a lot from and have blogged about it before, on what these Indigenous artists can teach other businesses about sales.

I’m in the middle of redesigning the workshop for its next iteration, so was intrigued to come across this journal article which details the results of “a survey of small creative firms … in the south west UK”. The survey indicated:

…the majority of firms are interested in a lifestyle based on fulfilling creative aspirations. Very few respondents exhibit any interest in participating in training schemes aimed at enhancing business performance.

So that was little discouraging.

This is a space I’ve inhabited for many years. I’ve both organised and delivered training activities for creatives covering a variety of topics. Generally, the feedback from those sessions has been very positive. And usually, these activities are well attended, which would indicate some level of interest in participating.

But as I read through the article, I realised the assertion that creatives aren’t so keen on undertaking business skills training is not the guts of the article. It’s a conclusion drawn from the piece’s central analysis about the motivation driving the owners of creative firms. (Interestingly, he uses an established quantitative model for measuring entrepreneurship.)

The author’s survey tested the how strongly the participants leant towards creative satisfaction or financial gain from their work. The results were mapped on the matrix above. He finds that the participants value the creative benefits more highly than monetary ones and so…

… it seems rather unlikely that one could persuade them to dramatically alter their artistic
philosophy to the point where they now wish to participate in business growth support
programmes…

For the creatives I’ve worked with, and for the participants in the Making Money Business workshops, I’d argue that this is not a binary choice. Most creatives I engage with want to be creatively fulfilled and financially successful. Sometimes the dream of making a living out a creative passion is unfeasible – an insurmountable mismatch between an artist’s labour of love and the market demand for that work.

But where there is a market demand to be met (and Indigenous art is a good example here) and an artist can tread the line between making fulfilling art and art that fulfils a customer’s order, then there’s a mutually beneficial transaction to be made. Which can be useful if you want to both make art and pay the rent. For me, it’s not so much about dramatically altering an artistic philosophy, but about seeking to improve the chances of being able to do both those things.

 

 

 

 

 

Is bricolage a thing? And do creatives own it?

I had to consult dictionary.com for this one. Bricolage is “a construction made of whatever materials are at hand; something created from a variety of available things”. And this paper says that there’s an entrepreneurial bricolage which is employed by creative industries ‘actors’ which distinguishes their efforts. The author defines it as:

“something that is available at a given time which can be tapped into as needed to access diverse talents and resources to create what could not be otherwise possible …in a resource and institutionally constrained environment” … People working in the creative industry seem to naturally adopt a sub-form of bricolage, namely collaborative bricolage. Therefore, collaborative bricolage is defined as a relationship where people work with each other to make the most of what is available, but it transcends the short-term goal of getting the job done for one specific project.

There is some parallel here between the creative process (which involves the juxtaposition of a variety of elements available to hand to produce something new) and the process of running a creative business (often characterised by holding the whole thing together with both hands and sticky tape).

But I’m not sure that this is unique to creative industries. Wouldn’t any number of entrepreneurs feel they their lives are full of bricolage? Which of those ‘non creative’ business owners feel they have 100% of the skills, resources and opportunities to achieve what they want to?

This makes me recall a long running yet never concluded conversation between me and another business adviser about preciousness – the tendency for creative industries to see themselves as different from other industries. Are they really? Aren’t they all just businesses and business people? Does this prevailing preciousness get in the way of the creative industries generating the same attention and respect as other industry sectors?

Bricolage is an interesting element, and I suspect an experience common across many industries and many other walks of life. But to me, what makes a creative business distinct from its non-creative counterparts is that it generates profits (well, that’s the plan) from products and services out of original creative IP. How does entrepreneurialism express itself in that environment? Which parts of this are widespread and which parts are particular to creative industries?

I am just full of questions tonight.

 

 

 

 

Hey, this could be a play AND a conference paper.

This is an odd piece. Two academics sit down to write a short play for a conference, to demonstrate their theories on entrepreneurship. Through the course of that conversation, they have a business idea of their own. This exchange then becomes their short play. Which they then present and comment upon in this journal article. There’s something going on here about unfulfilled theatrical ambitions.

What they’re seeking to demonstrate through their play is that entrepreneurialism is often seen as set of personal traits within people lucky enough to be gifted with the ability to spot and convert opportunity. The reality, they say, is that the emergence of business ideas is far more complex, and more iterative. One idea builds on another. Elements of the idea are explored, discard and developed depending on who you’re talking to and where and when.

This rings true to me and chimes with my experience of helping people develop and realise their business ideas. There’s also something weirdly meta about these academics creating narrative versions of themselves which express their own foibles; teaching but not living entrepreneurship, growing tired of their jobs, gently niggling at each other throughout.

But it is also familiar territory for me as a playwright. The central concepts for my own plays are often a combination of ideas. Often one is not sufficient to sustain an entire plot, but the juxtaposition of two or three key ideas can present something novel and intriguing.

So if the process of being entrepreneurial is similar to the process of narrative construction (unpredictable, piecemeal, gradual, collaborative), then perhaps all we’re talking about is the iterative process of developing any idea? The single sole lightning flash of perfect inspiration is probably rare. The slow development of an idea bit by bit over time, with input from a range of people and stimuli, might be the standard.

In any case, I think the dialogue could do with a little tightening up. But my favourite line is this one, which might betray a prejudice about the prospects of a career in the creative industries:

I’ve never settled into what you call ‘a proper job’ but, as you keep observing, I do have talents with photography, video and music.

Yeah, don’t call us. 😉

 

 

 

The polished image and the messy reality

In a lifestyle magazine, casually discarded about our house, I came across an article about a person who runs a company. It’s an a-day-in-the-life piece. It starts with breakfast with the kids. Then a meeting with the sales manager. Then a review of a product in the workshop. Then exercise and walking the dog before dinner and bedtime and catching up on admin on the iPad and so it goes. Calm, elegant, controlled. Idyllic.

I’m in a privileged position, getting to see inside businesses. I’ve seen inside that one and met that person. The difference between the article (the polished prose, the conversational tone, the carefully styled photos)… and the tense, uncertain, fraught, it’s-my-house-that’s-on-the-line reality is what sticks in my mind.

A business person, an entrepreneur, is a prized label. Like sports stars or rock stars, a handful of them with profiles and media exposure become household names. To be a business leader is in some senses to be a pin-up. It has its own celebrity.

This dichotomy between the truth about being a leader and the narrative told about leaders, is what this journal article is about. It’s a critique of ‘authentic leadership’, a management theory which suggests that there is an individual’s adherence to closely held values and beliefs is the basis for good leadership. I won’t pretend to have gotten to the essence of the article, but a couple of things jumped out at me.

One is that to have an authentic self suggests the existence of an inauthentic self. So the supremacy of one necessarily means the other has to be supressed. Which calls into question the authenticity of those qualities which make up the authentic self.

Then there’s the idea that this tension between the two requires the invention of a narrative about the authentic self. That in fact for leaders to behave in an authentic way, there has to be a story for them to project onto themselves about being a leader. As it says:

The telling of life stories is concerned with the management of the reproduction of meaning. To project oneself outwards as a leader, to position oneself within a narrative as a recognizable leader in a recognizable leader ship narrative, one must construct oneself within existing frameworks of characterizations and narratives of leader ship.

We could easy replace ‘leader’ with ‘entrepreneur’ in that quote. And that article, showing the idealised, Real Living version of the messy, stressful, high stakes game of running a small creative business, is surely one of those ‘existing frameworks of characterizations’ within which ‘one must construct oneself.’

 

Don’t call me creative.

Not everyone’s happy about creativity. Lucy Kellaway of the Finanical Times is one of them. In fact, she’s cranky about it.

In this blistering piece, she calls creativity a “plague” which has infected management and recruitment processes to an extraordinary and unnecessary degree. Confronted by scores of job ads which include the word “creative”, she says “being polite and co-operative are vital traits for every job I’ve heard of, whereas most companies have no use for real creativity at all.”

Kellaway notes a current trend for “creative worship” which leads to patronising and misleading labels (such as Subway calling its workers sandwich artists) or time wasting team building exercises (such as Lego play sessions for staff). As she goes on, she gets around to talking about creativity’s role in “making things new”. Here she expresses a familiar blurring of the lines between innovation and creativity, the first of which is often seen as essential to business success but without the Lego constructing nonsense associated with creativity. (See also James Dyson’s umbrage with the term “creative industries”, again drawing a defensive line around innovation.)

Kellaway concludes:

To survive, companies need to change from time to time. They need to do things slightly differently from how they were done before – but for that they don’t need creativity. They need people with intelligence and judgment to work out the right variations on existing ideas. More than that they need people with the determination to test those ideas, tweak accordingly and turn them into sales.

Not much to argue with there. But does this mean creativity should be treated with disdain and hostility? There’s also something going on here about identity; Kellaway starts her article with the declaration, “I’m not a creative”. Who is allowed and not allowed to be a creative? Why is it good or bad to be one? And does distinguishing innovation from creativity help  – either with management or with identity?

 

The creative process and The Code

Film and TV production is a practice I’ve been close to for many years. In particular, I’ve seen plenty of films and TV programs in production, and I’ve worked with a number of filmmakers to help achieve business sustainability. One part of the lifecycle of a production that I haven’t had much exposure to is the commissioning and development stages where many key creative decisions are taken.

This journal article reports on interviews held with some of the key creative personnel behind The Code, a well regarded tech conspiracy drama from Playmaker which aired in 2014. By talking to the producers, the commissioners at ABC, a lead actor, the writer and director, the authors identify a set of practices which contributed to the success of the series: wise partnering, collective visioning and stakeholder empowerment, underpinned by a set of common social values.

The authors pick out these traits as aspects of creative leadership which emerges through a collective process. Two thoughts occur to me about this. Firstly, it seems that the process of commissioning and developing  The Code was a fairly harmonious process (the interviewees are quick to praise each other and their respective contributions). What might the authors have found on a production where the personalities of the key creatives didn’t mesh as well?

Secondly, the collective collaboration model is necessary during the commissioning and development stage; not only because such projects must take into account the creative input of many contributors, but also because these contributors often control the finance to produce the work. But when a film or TV series moves into production, a much more hierarchical leadership structure exerts itself (from my observations).

The nature of production (technically complex, and involving many people working to tight deadlines and with limited budgets) mean that leadership power shifts to a different collective – the producer, the director and their key staff – and a more traditional ‘command and control’ structure moves in. It would be interesting to interview some of the crew of The Code to see how their experience of working under that model of creative leadership worked, and how it contrasted with the commissioning/development stage.