From responsibility to creativity

I originally wrote new work, new attitude in 2008, but would like to revisit and add to it.


Nine Shift has a few posts on the changing nature of work and how the idea of responsibility usurped morals during the industrial age (See Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3).

“In the Industrial Age of the 20th century, you didn’t have to be of good moral character to work in the factory. But you did have to be responsible.  And so teachers in the 20th century schoolhouse and college taught (still teach) responsibility.   And by that  teachers mean specific behaviors.

Those behaviors are now obsolete. They made sense in the factory …  But not in the virtual office.”

As we moved from morality to responsibility one hundred years ago, are we now shifting from responsibility to creativity? If we are, then most of our organizational tools and measurements about productivity may have to get thrown out.


“The word ‘responsible’ is one of those code-words that hides a whole range of preferred behaviours, from respecting copyright to keeping the language clean to refraining from bullying and hurtful behaviour to staying on topic, sitting up, and paying attention.” —Stephen Downes

From morality to responsibility to creativity

The past 100 years have been the first time that we have had a large middle class in many parts of the world (though this is quickly shrinking in places). The Corporation was an experiment to deal with large scale capitalism, and we had no real models to base it on, other than the military or the church. Therefore we got hierarchies. But perhaps this period was not a blip and really just the first phase of dealing with the new electric communications medium? Now that we are ~150 years post-telegraph, we are finally realizing that things have radically changed. It’s like the early 1600’s in Europe, 150 years after the printing press, and all hell is breaking loose. For a more detailed perspective on communication shifts and literacies, I would recommend “Why Johnny and Janey Can’t Read, and Why Mr. and Ms. Smith Can’t Teach: The challenge of multiple media literacies in tumultuous times” by Mark Federman.

An IBM poll of CEOs (2010) found they deemed creativity to be “the NUMBER ONE leadership competency of the successful enterprise of the future”. Today, being responsible is not good enough. Ross Dawson says that, “in a connected world, unless your skills are world-class, you are a commodity.” He suggests that there are three skill sets necessary to transcend commoditization — Expertise, Relationships, and Innovation. Creativity is needed to choose the right area of expertise, develop diverse professional networks, and be innovative. In our education systems, creativity is a fringe subject and is not nurtured or lauded.

Barbara Ormsby recently commented that, “Responsibility and creativity are two rather different qualities. This helps understand why the transition from clear responsibilities to practised creativity is such a huge challenge in organizations today.” So how can we improve creativity in organizations? We should learn from the creatives!

Make space for conversations

Creativity is a conversation – a tension – between individuals working on individual problems and the professional communities they belong to. —David Williamson Shaffer

Provide breathing room

Creativity shouldn’t–can’t–be a luxury, though. It can’t be something that we bring to a problem only when we have the space and time for it, because more often than not, we will be in situations where we lack both. We need to find ways to build it into the DNA of our working lives so that it becomes a part of who we are, not something we do only when the circumstances are “right.” This is our only security in a world that shifts constantly, demanding of us new ideas and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. —Michele Martin 

 Abandon ‘jobs’

The core assumption of the job, that it can be ‘filled’ [just like the minds of learners], needs to change. This is the key constraining concept for the creative economy. It presumes common skills and the mechanistic view that workers can be replaced without disruption. But who could replace Van Gogh, Picasso or even Steve Jobs? Complex work requires more creativity, and confining individual creativity within the bounds of a mere job description is debilitating. Structured jobs can suck individual creativity and create an organizational framework that discourages entrepreneurial zeal.

Develop improv skills

Improv comedy can help people deal with uncertainty. They have to make difficult decisions on the spot and think quickly without scripts or plots.

In a business world that’s more uncertain than ever it pays to be able to think on your feet. That’s why some business schools are using improvisation classes to teach skills such as creativity and leadership … As well as teaching people to react and adapt, he [Robert Kulhan] said improvisation can teach creativity, innovation, communication, teamwork and leadership. —CNN Route to the Top

Finally, abolish laws that choke creativity

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