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Leading creation


Mark Loftus of the Thinking Partnership draws from his experiences of the creative explosion in late 70s Britain.

To many living at the time, Britain in the mid-70s was a country sick with itself, turning in on itself and picking fights as it slipped through a long slow decline. Liverpool reflected and magnified these themes. Strikes seemed a daily occurrence and power cuts led to a strange ritual of candles and deep city dark. The vicious edge of skinhead boot-boys with their 14-hole Dr. Martens amplified the racial tensions that were the legacy of the city's former glory at the heart of the slave trade. Bomb sites interspersed with high-rise concrete thrown across Victorian slums seemed to sum up 30 years of neglect and decline.
Music and football had been the life-blood of the city for the previous decade helping to disguise the decline, but in the 70s the creative inspiration failed. The simplicity of the Mersey-sound seemed naïve as the glitter of glam-rock tarnished into production-line synthetic pop.
"There is a significant difference between creation as we see it all around ourselves in nature, and the expectations organisations tend to have of the process of innovation."
Without us realising at the time, the stage was set for an extraordinary outpouring of creative vigour and energy. Within a couple of years punk had transformed the music and artistic scene and Thatcher was on her journey to transform Britain. The process was ugly, divisive and often felt out of control, yet the outcome was one of transformational change.

Creativity vs creation

These reflections were to the front of my mind recently, prompted by an invitation to help a client understand the nature of leadership required to stimulate innovation. My conversations revealed a senior executive group which bemoaned the lack of innovation coming from their organisation, and a desire from them for their managers and the organisation as a whole to show more creativity. Yet the conversations also revealed a set of creative processes that had evolved into a predictable, well-oiled machine that turned out new product and service innovations that kept the business in play with their competitors, but without moving them ahead.
Essentially, the senior executive were asking their people to do two things. First, to be creative but to stay within established frameworks: to conform to process, to work within boundaries and keep focused on the market. Second, they were also asking people to pursue the kind of deep innovation that changes the game for themselves and their competitors. But they had failed to notice the deep difference between these two kinds of creativity; between creativity and creation. As a consequence, they had failed to understand their own part in stifling innovation. They had established a corporate culture of 'no surprises', of predictability and control that had ended up paying lip service to the idea of transformation and creation.

Creation requires leadership

There is a significant difference between creation as we see it all around ourselves in nature, and the expectations organisations tend to have of the process of innovation. The latter is akin to the pop production line that came to the fore in the 70s and once again dominates our landscape in the guise of The X Factor talent production line. It is about safety and the kind of creativity that keeps itself within defined parameters.
In contrast, creation in nature is much closer to the punks kicking over the traces of pomp rock. It is noisy, messy, abundant and deeply purposeful. Whether it is the raw pain of giving birth to a new life or the violence of a volcano spewing lava to create new land, there is little that is clean and orderly. If an organisation is serious about harnessing the potency of creation it needs to find a way of dealing with forces that are unpredictable, and are as likely to burn those who try to harness them as they are to result in breakthrough innovations.
"If an organisation is serious about harnessing the potency of creation it needs to find a way of dealing with forces that are unpredictable"
There is a paradox here in that by encouraging innovation leaders are encouraging people to challenge existing norms and values - the very norms and values that the leaders have put in place. Yet as I argued in last month's article, a primary task for leaders is to create the space within which others can show leadership, and creation is undoubtedly the province of leadership.
In this there is a parallel perhaps in the relationship between the consultant obstetrician and the midwife. The consultant takes the role of the senior leader, making sure that everything is in place technically, that risks are identified and mitigated. The midwife's role is to be a source of courage and connection as well as being practically skilled, to be emotionally involved with the mother's experience in the act of creation. 
The wise leader knows who the midwives in their organisation are, who are the people prepared to step into the action, to connect emotionally yet retain perspective, to put something of themselves on the line. More than this, the wise leader is willing to back them for the risks they take personally, because true innovation is a risky business.
Mark Loftus is a director of The Thinking Partnership. He has 20 years' experience as an organisational consultant and is a recognised authority on emotional intelligence and the art of assessing senior leaders. He is a chartered clinical psychologist with an MPhil from London's Institute of Psychiatry, and has a degree in philosophy and psychology from Oxford University.

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