Monday, October 09, 2006

Knowledge management: Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

With such a name, you have to be creative yourself probably... I enjoyed reading this book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In English it is called Creativity. Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. It's easy to read and become very practical in the end.

I was actually drawn to the concept of communities of practice in 2002/2003, when I was a member of a community of practice of organizational development advisors of SNV in West Africa. I thought it was a real creative space within the organisation. Since then, I have been interested in the topic of communities of practice, probably most for their potential to stimulate creativity. Mihaly C. has interviewed more than 90 highly creative, older people; his definition is different from the usual casual use of the word creativity though; often used to talk about a person with lots of new ideas. He talks about creativity as a process which changes a symbolic (cultural) field, like a tradition. In order to be able to do so, you have to know the field very well. So many of the people he interviewed are actually Nobel Price winners.

To be able to make a creative contribution, you need creative personalities, but that's not enough. Creative personalities need to invest in knowing one field thoroughly. And they need to link up with other people who know the field to determine what a really creative contribution or innovation is. Friendship and encounters with thought leaders are very important for creative people because they offer a platform to talk about their own work, offer a competitive culture which stimulated people to get the best out of themselves, offer constructive critism and opportunities and information for career paths. I can see an analogy to the function of a community of practice that goes through a phase of mapping its domain before it can move towards real innovation. And communities of practice can connect people to though leaders too.

The interviewed creative people have very different lives, but Mihaly is able to detect 10 elements in common; all are two extreme poles that creative people know how to combine much better than others:
  1. lots of energy while being calm and quiet at the same time
  2. smart but naief
  3. disciplined yet playful
  4. with a sense of reality but lots of imagination
  5. both intro and extrovert
  6. modest and proud,
  7. psychologically androgyn
  8. conservative and irreverent
  9. objective yet engaged
  10. and finally their sensitivity leads to more pain but also pleasure.

Rewards, intrinsic and extrinsic help to stimulate creativity. Money for materials or travels can help, recognition is nice (expecially for people who are insecure or work in isolated ways). Intrinsic motivation is the flow created by working on difficult problems, but this intrinsic motivation can also be fustrated by bureacratic work environments, too much pressure etc. Though a creative person may concur resistance, rewards and the right environment may stimulate it.

Practical suggestions are formulated towards the end, 'borrowing' from creative people's lives to make your own life more creative eg.

  1. Be curious by looking more thoroughly at things that surprise you, trying to surprise others, writing down what surprised you, doing something with the things that surprise you.
  2. Bring flow into your daily life by starting the day with a clear goal, having fun, doing more complex things.
  3. Become a strong person by working with schemes, reserving time for reflection and relaxation, form your space (house, office) wirting down what you like and dislike to do, and the next step doing more of what you like and less of what you dislike.
  4. Personal characteristics; develop what's missing, alternate between being outward and inward looking, aim for complexity
  5. Applying creative energy by finding a way to express your emotions, looking at a problem from various angles, think about the consequences and implement solutions.
  6. Think divergently by producing more and more different ideas, illogical ideas too.
  7. And finally choose a field you want to explore.

We just had a scenario thinking exercise in IICD, facilitated by Alain Wouters of Whole Systems; which was also a very creative process. I do like facilitation methods which stimulate creative thinking, and they seem to work through some of the same principles like be curious, divergent thinking, looking at problems from various angles, etc.

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