Why Elon Musk needs to understand the value of being disciplined while being creative
The ability to meld flourish with functionality is disciplined creativity
The cult status of an eccentric genius is an accepted truth. The romantic history of business, much less than of sports, cinema, or literature, brims with such examples. The “Elon Musk phenomenon” is a good example.
The belief is that real creation, or innovation, if we are to take the context of workplaces, needs rare talent. For rare talent to blossom, it must not be stopped, hampered or subjected to rules. Think of a photographer, filmmaker or jingle writer. For magic to happen, they must have unfettered freedom to bring their best out. Original thought takes time. It must therefore be allowed space, time and patience.
From the celebrated example of 3M, a global innovation company, way back in the 1970s where employees were mandated to spend “15% of (their paid) time” hatching their own ideas to tech giant Google where employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time on “side projects”, companies are freeing up their employees to be creative and innovative.
On the flip side, there are people, especially those who have worked in large, established companies with well-defined processes, who question the lack of set frameworks, even in new ventures, or projects, that might still be in discovery mode. They argue that it is impossible to scale up and build a real business around innovation unless one is deliberate, considered and process-bound. After all, without discipline and rigor, a business cannot grow and thrive.
Sadly, cases of extreme abound here too.
The world of institutions, in particular, whether in education, government or policy, is replete with examples of rules at the cost of progress and innovation. Equally, scores of managers, entrepreneurs and start-ups are all about ideas but end up never making a mark.
Yet, it’s the balance of poetry and process that actually makes the world go around. Let’s call this combination—the ability to meld flourish with functionality—disciplined creativity.
Even in professions and industries where success is strongly associated with artistic flair, talent and intelligence—say the media, restaurants or advertising—the fact is that their inner working rhythms are process-driven and timeline-focused. Being creative isn’t always art for art’s sake. More often, it’s quite literally the art of work, profits and impact. Disciplined creativity has many benefits and applications—for professionals and organizations alike.
First, of course, is its impact on the very process of creation. It influences how we might build products, write books and start companies. Take Design Thinking, a framework for creators, as an example. No longer is Design Thinking limited to mere creativity. The approach can be used to come up with a training process for nursing staff, or to redesign a factory of metal works.
The much-celebrated framework focuses on testing adoption and continuously asking for feedback to fine tune the purpose and the “why” of building something. After all, you don’t want to be a hammer looking for a nail. It’s much the question entrepreneurs, even the brightest and most creative one, will always be asked: Are you solving a problem? Here, the discipline that balances creativity is in understanding whether it’s even worth it at all.
Second, disciplined creativity is also about how to manage teams and enterprises. It’s inherent in the 15-20% that 3M or Google allowed for in encouraging creativity and innovation. The rest of the 80-85% is expended in the discipline of scaling up and capturing the value of the innovation.
In our case, one of us, being a former editor of a magazine that prided itself on cool covers and a strong aesthetic, the role brought out the need for, and the value of disciplined creativity. However creative, or unique, the cover shoot might need to be, the printer needed the proofs on a certain day. The domino of actions from then cascaded to the circulation and subscription teams. If they missed the deadlines to make things available at magazine stands, your beautiful cover and the month’s hard work could stay unread.
Third, disciplined creativity improves decision-making. For example, creating unique variations of a flavoured yogurt may result in creative new offerings for the customer. But, knowing when to cull the range if some flavours don’t earn their keep is an art in balancing creativity with the discipline of sales.
Moreover, being more creative in taking decisions in some areas of work demand equal and greater discipline in others. If only Mr Musk had been more disciplined about the creativity in taking his company private, he would not have lost the support of his investors, the trust of the Securities and Exchange Commission and his chairmanship.
Art of Work focuses on extreme choices in the workplace and offers suggestions on how to find the doable middle ground.
Pramath Raj Sinha has founded several higher education institutions and Shreyasi Singh is an author who now works in higher education.
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