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

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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?

 

Stereotypes and skills gaps

This study from CreativeSkillSet (a skills and training organisation) is about leadership and management skills gaps among workers in the UK’s creative industries. It also talks about development needs and learning preferences among creative workers.

It’s got some interesting if not particularly ground breaking observations in it, and its sample group is dominated by participants in the TV industry.

I notice a couple of unstated underlying assumptions. Both are included in this sentence:”It was widely reported that the transition from a creative role to a leadership position [assumption 1: the two are mutually exclusive, which is something I’ve written about here] involved the development of new skills and the management of creative professionals presents different challenges to managing in other sectors [assumption 2: creatives are a special and tricky breed].”

These seem to be to be stereotypes of a creative professional. In story terms, the character’s traits. It’s a narrative structure about leadership within creative industries which starts from the point of view that it’s a problem; almost antithetical to the sort of person you find working in a creative business.

Still, I liked this bit, from a focus group participant:

“You wouldn’t say to a finance person or to a legal person, ‘actually, now, you’ve just got to go off and write a script and be creative,’ because it would be an absolute nightmare. They would all sit there for about a day, write two lines, and then throw it in the bin. But you do it the other way around. People make assumptions that because people have got this title, that somewhere along the lines someone has sat down and shown them a P&L account and explained it to them.” 

Sounds a bit like what I do!