full image

Lars Strannegård, professor of leadership at the Stockholm School of Economics and co-director of its research centre ABC – Arts, Business and Culture – explores the nature of creativity and economic growth

4 min read

A dance teacher met her group for the first time. She put some music on and said: “Come on, dance. Try to do as creative moves as you can.” But the group hardly moved. People stood still, perhaps overwhelmed by the possibilities at hand.

Then the teacher took a piece of chalk and drew a circle on the floor. New instruction: “Come on, do creative moves. But you have to have one part of your body inside the circle at all times.” When the music was turned on once more, there was dancing with noses, ears and fingers on the floor: moves quite distant from ordinary dancing.

This short example suggests that creativity might thrive well with restrictions and limitations. Perhaps the latter two are even prerequisites for the former. Could it even be that creativity, in order to bloom in full, needs to be managed and organised?

When the social network site LinkedIn published a list of words used most frequently in résumés by their 187 million members, “creative” was at the top of the list. This is not surprising; for many years now, winds of creativity have been blowing across society as a whole, over business and reaching all the way to political leaders in many countries. Creativity, entrepreneurship, innovation and new ideas have become prestige terms; the oil that lubricates the machinery of global growth.

The reason is simple: Western economic growth is said to no longer come from physical production; this is already outsourced to countries where wages are lower and productivity higher. Instead we are to engage in concept development, branding, design and producing emotions. This, of course, is an exaggeration. We need people who do routine and low-skilled tasks, who work in coffee shops, do the dishes, drive buses and operate machines.

Still, the creative component gains in economic importance. The capacity to think originally and non-repetitively is one of the key components that distinguish countries from each other. In market economies, creativity is the most basic mechanism for growth. It is the ability to constantly think in new ways and take action accordingly that keeps all organisations running. Without creativity, they wane and eventually cease to exist.

Thus, it is by being creative that we can maintain our standard of living. Creativity is the basic solution to all the challenges we are facing: from climate change to economic and social inequalities.

So, in summary, creativity is the answer to why we are living the way we do, as well as our hope of a better future. But the problem is that our collective, systematic knowledge of how we are creative in ways that contribute to a sustainable economic growth is utterly limited. In short, we do not know how to be creative on demand, how to be more creative more quickly, or how to make sure there will be an efficient flow of new ideas, products and services.

Creativity and efficiency are two concepts whose potential compatibility is not readily evident. They are like oil and water and can even be regarded as each other’s opposites. The reason may be that being creative is sometimes equated with overturning existing ideas, with questioning the current course of action. The creative person simply opposes the existing order. To be creative is often presented as more fun, better and more colorful than the grey, systematic routine often associated with efficiency.

Nevertheless, the Gordian Knot of the post-industrial society is exactly this: how do we become more creative while being efficient? How do we make our creative processes more efficient? Creativity and innovation must allow for failures. But, still, resources are better applied the more accurate and innovative you are from the beginning. So how are these two “worlds” paired?

We know so well that truly artistic and creative work must be allowed in its own right, without a pressure to deliver economic value. So, is it at all possible to increase the degree of accuracy and minimise slack in truly innovative work processes? The truth is, again, we have no systematised knowledge about the extent to which this is possible.

The good part of this lack of knowledge is that this white field needs colour: good examples and inspiring cases. We have heard anecdotes, such as Steve Jobs’ calligraphy course and its implications for Apple. We know that Google employees are allowed to spend certain hours a week on whatever they find developing.

But we also need more rigorous studies if we are to better understand the organisation and management of creative work. We simply need to know whether circles like the one the dance teacher drew are needed and, if so, how wide should those circles be, and when do the circles need to be squares or take other shapes?