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Here’s to the Passionate Creatives

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Apple ad, “Think Different”, 1997

Why did Apple’s ad resonate so well with you? After all, how much time do we spend disagreeing. Admit how happy it can make you when your manager praises you for executing well on an assignment. I know I feel it. No “think different”. More like “think excellence”.

But that Apple ad. It was damn good, wasn’t it? Seemed to reach inside us to something else beside the praise we get for doing an assigned job well. It was celebrating some thing in each of us.

John Hagel recently wrote A Labor Day Manifesto for a New World. The post is a call to action for work that better fits our human nature. Our desire for creating better ways to address problems, in ways that fit our personality, interests and skills. To reach our full potential. We’re not all doing this though.

Hagel terms people whose personalities and drive are based on making situations better than what currently exists as “passionate creatives”. There have always been these types, but recent changes in the global economy and shifting market dynamics (e.g. digital technology rewriting one industry after another) are increasing their importance.

Passionate creatives exist within organizations, and as independent entrepreneurs. For those inside firms, Hagel notes:

They experience deep frustration today with the institutional barriers that have been put in their way as they seek to more effectively achieve their full potential.  They want and need platforms that can help them connect with others and drive performance to new levels.

For many of us, even if we wouldn’t label ourselves “passionate creatives”, the point about frustration resonates. How often have you had an idea, but can’t attention for it, nor resources, nor figure out who else to work with? I’ve had jobs like that in the past. You know some things are not working well, and you can see how to improve the product/delivery/business model. But you can’t make headway on iterating through new possibilities.

Hagel’s manifesto is a great read. I want to hit on two points I take away from it:

  • What is the role of “passionate creativity” in daily work?
  • The gathering of passionate creatives at the edges and the accelerating rate of change in markets

The Role of Passionate Creativity in Work

Very few of us get to live a life of unfettered passionate creativity. The realities of the mundane trump the thrill of the new. And that’s not a fault of the system. If all we did was work on new stuff, there’d be no stability and no scalability. More like mass economic anarchy.

But that’s too heavy handed a look at it. We can be quite productive and help our companies, and careers, while working on tasks that hit our passionate creative sweet spot. A good question to ask is, how much of this passionate creativity infuses our work days?

Work imbued with passionate creativity

Take a look at those two Venn Diagrams. They’re saying different things. The left one says that we all have to execute on tasks assigned by others, or assigned by ourselves for the role we fill. In some of that work, we’ll have the opportunity to reach deeper, to deliver creativity on an activity that animates us. But the primary focus is executing on the plans and processes already in place.

The right one indicates a job which is dominated by passionate creativity. Hagel’s call-to-action is more aligned here. We work primarily on things which stimulate and energize us regularly. But there is a twist to this notion. It doesn’t mean spending one’s time on only starry-eyed big picture thinking, producing little of tangible value for your organization. It includes work by those “who are searching for new and creative ways to do the most ‘routine’ tasks.”

Which model of work are we likely to see arise in the next decade or two? Both. Neither. Yes.

Hagel’s manifesto is not so much a clear-eyed plan for rearranging organizations. Rather, it’s a wake-up call to the corporate world that the nature of work and what employees seek is changing. As he says:

Why will more and more people evolve into passionate creatives? Because we live in a world that is shifting inexorably from an obsession with efficiency to an obsession with learning.  We have come to call this the Big Shift.

In that statement, I draw some conclusions that relate which model above will emerge. First, note that the Big Shift is a shift in “obsessions”. From efficiency to learning. That’s a shift in attention, and in resources. It’s a shift in the dynamics of the supply side of the equation.

What hasn’t shifted is the demand side of the equation. Consumers worldwide still depend on the massive efficiencies that Tayloresque methodologies have brought to our economy.

So there’s the quandary: if we’re all working on things that inflame our passionate creativity, who is minding the massive scalability store?

My sense is that the Venn Diagram on the left is closer to what we’ll see. Enlightened companies will follow the examples set by Google and 3M, encouraging employees to pursue initiatives outside their regular routines. This does a couple things:

  • It provides an outlet for growing passionate creativity on a wider basis
  • Some of those initiatives will turn into full-fledged projects

The second point then lets employees live a life in the right-side Venn Diagram.

Passionate Creatives at the Edges

Another point Hagel makes is that passionate creatives tend to occupy spaces that are “edges”:

Passionate creatives are everywhere among us, but they are not evenly distributed. They tend to gather on the edges where unmet needs intersect with unexploited capabilities.  Edges are fertile seedbeds for innovation.

Reading this, I was struck by how well this fits with the observation that Gary Hamel made. The pace of change in markets is faster now than it ever has been in history. What this means is that Hagel’s edges – unmet needs intersect with unexploited capabilities – will be more frequently found.

Companies need to get better in pivoting to meet changes in their markets. And this keeps CEOs up at night. IBM surveyed global CEOs in 2008, asking them about their view of changes in their markets. The results are eye-opening:

Collectively, CEOs set their organization’s ability to manage change 22 percentage points lower than their expectations for the level of change they will have to manage — a ‘change gap’ that is widening.

A wide ‘change gap’ there, isn’t it? If Hamel identifies the problem companies face, Hagel identifies the types of workers who will make a difference in addressing the problem. The passionate creatives.

The edges are places of opportunity and uncertainty. It’s hard to know what the demand dynamics are, and existing infrastructure and processes don’t address the changing market needs. New alternatives are emerging, it’s time for fresh approaches by existing firms.

Companies are best-served by allowing employees who are attracted to these changes to pursue innovative ways to address them. Why? They get energy. They get an experimenter’s mentality. They get a happier workforce. Let employees exercise some form of self-organization to accomplish this.

The alternative may be incumbent staffers who have fallen into routines, or have reason to protect the status quo. This does not help companies address rising levels of volatility. Free the passionate creatives!

Passionate Creativity Will Fall on a Spectrum

My sense is that work will evolve, over years and decades, to allow people to shift attention to work that energizes them more fully. It will happen on a spectrum, with daily jobs that fall between those two Venn Diagrams above. Society cannot get away from the requirements of predictability, efficiency and scalability. We’re all going to have elements of our jobs that are routine.

I think Hagel’s post is right on though. It will be a slow change where companies integrate the existing passionate creatives more effectively, and develop the passionate creativity in all employees. Companies doing it well will need to celebrated and publicized repeatedly for the value to be understood more widely in the market.Over time, we’ll see the change.

Note what G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitón wrote in this recent Business Week article. Passionate creatives like to “follow the challenges”:

Stop and think about the last truly great person who left your organization. First think about what made that employee great. We bet you name such characteristics as action-oriented, driven, passionate, fun, and genuine.

Now think about where that worker went. Chances are, to a position with a perceived promise of putting his or her talents to better use—moving into a role with greater challenges and opportunities to learn and make a difference. It wasn’t about money.

It will happen. Here’s to the passionate creatives.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

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