On Creativity and Collective Impact


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“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking”

-Albert Einstein

At Tamarack’s Collective Impact Summit in October 2014, I had the pleasure of hosting a dinner with about ten of the summit participants. My co-host was the wonderfully creative Elayne Greeley who did some incredible art work of the summit proceedings. The topic of our dinner conversation was Collective Impact, Creativity and Personal Change.

I chose this topic because all too often practitioners of Collective Impact discount the creativity required to do this work and also tend to discount their own creativity. Often people see creativity in terms of writing a poem or a song or painting a picture or drawing. In other words, they associate creativity with some kind of artistic product. I believe creativity is within each and every one of us; it just manifests differently and contextually.

This doesn’t mean we are or must be creative all of the time. That would be a tough calling to attain, but it does mean that to engage in our work, we should embrace our creativity and recognize that sometimes we lead creativity and other times it is led by others.

I also chose “personal change” as a topic because the transformations that are required by our organizations and collaborations will only occur if we, as individuals, recognize that collective transformation requires personal transformation – and that’s easier said than done!

As John Ott points out we are pretty good at engaging in many change elements. We will change budgets and plans, policies and programs, and we might also change our foundational statements (mission and vision), but the type of change that organizations tend to sidestep is the personal change people must undertake. I am talking about changing how we see, what we believe, how we identify with our work, even how we feel about ourselves.

Most of us identify with our work. The work is integrated into our identity and how we see ourselves and how others see and experience us. If we are going to work radically differently together, it follows that we need to change ourselves and that we need help doing so and are called upon by others to help them.

Personal change and creativity are connected. Both help each other to occur. A key question is how do we do that? As you may expect there is no set prescription for either, no guarantees that if you follow this step or that step, personal change and/or creativity will just flow from our efforts. I do suggest, however, that there are certain practices that, if we engage in such practice consistently over time, will lead to the “change” results we aspire to achieve.

The first thing to understand is that creativity is not reserved for those who are highly intelligent or for those who can create art. From the reading I have done, there is no substantive correlation between intelligence and creativity. Super intelligent people may or may not be creative. Those who are creative may or may not be at the top of the intelligence scale. This implies the need for us to nurture both in our organizations and to recognize that just focusing on becoming knowledge experts and skilled practitioners is only part of the learning we require.

Dictionary.com defines creativity as: “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.” Note that in that definition there is no mention of painting, drawing, musicianship and so forth.

Here’s an important thing to remember: creativity is the process of using what “is” to give birth to what “is not.” Everything we create is derived from what already exists and “mixed together” to create a new idea, form, or pattern. The sculpture chips away at stone to reveal her statue. The songwriter weaves words together and musical notes to create a song. Organizations create new programs, using history, knowledge, and intent, with an eye on desired results. What we create may be original or innovative, but the materials used to create are already present.


Creative people are curious and inquisitive
Creativity flows from curiosity. And curiosity involves asking questions. Lots of them, like

  • What is that?
  • How does that work? Or, why is that broken?
  • What would happen if I mixed this with that and that?
  • How can I find more time to do this?
  • What is the fitting thing to do right now?
  • If we couldn’t do what we are doing now, what would we do in order to keep meeting our intentions?

Creative people tend to phrase questions that are purposed to propel us forward rather than result in stasis. For example when faced with the prospect of expanding a service and consequently spending time on doing so, creative people shy away from show-stopper statements like, “We don’t have enough time or resources to do that.” They ask “how can we make the time and find the resources?”

When creative people are working together, they tend to help one another with idea generation or the creation of what they are striving for. They help each other get their ideas out by asking questions or by saying, “please tell me more about that.” If they have an idea that might benefit the creative undertaking they will offer it up as a possibility, not as a competitive idea or a replacement for the one being worked on collectively. I call this collective or shared curiosity.

Being creative together is highly collaborative, with each player contributing their individual gifts to the overall effort. I write songs – the melody and the words. When I had a band, I would bring new songs to the group and we would work together to make the song better. The bass player would lead us through a variety of bass lines and together we would agree on the one we thought was most relevant. The guitar player would experiment with doing a lead instrumental and the rest of us would weigh in on the experiment. The entire effort was focused on find a way for all of our ideas and our instruments to blend together with the melody as the guide and the words as the message we wanted to accentuate through the overall composition that we created.

Creative people are interested in what is “out there”
In a recent blog posting on Entrepreneur.com, Stephan Wiedner, cited the work of Marcial Losada, a psychologist and expert on team dynamics. Losada tells us that creative people are less likely to defend a point of view and more likely to explore what others are thinking and doing. Wiedner calls this “outward thinking.”[1]

They are not necessarily seeking best practice, which tends to be the default investigation of many in our field. Instead they are seeking what might add value and then experimenting with what they find to test the viability of the mix. I am not saying there may not be some best practice stuff that works, too, but creative people look beyond the usual and are not inclined to be limited by what others say is the best way to proceed.

This is an important distinction because in our organizations we are simultaneously delivering on the status quo while seeking and building variations of what we do (often called “innovations”). The knowledge-driven side of our brains naturally look to what others have demonstrated to be true or to be best practice and are less likely to entertain un-proven ideas or approaches. The creative side of our brains might gravitate more readily to an idea or approach that seems “attractive” or “promising” in and of itself, whether proven or not.

Creative people have a process
Creativity does not appear out of thin air. It’s not like we are just ambling along and a miraculous “poof” occurs and something new and profound is waiting for us in the proverbial spot light as the creative smoke dissipates. Of course there is not just one creative process, but this one makes some sense to me.

Kirby Ferguson[2] suggests there are three basic elements of creativity. We copy something, transform it, and then start combining it with other existing concepts or techniques. When I write a song, I copy a structure, such as 4/4 time and how I roll out the lyrics will likely include a chorus. I used words for lyrics and weave them together into a message. The words, each an entity in and of themselves, become transformed into a message that is uniquely mine. The words are not mine; the blending of them is. This qualifies to me at least as transformation.

Then as I continue to develop the song, often including others in its creation, we add (combine) instruments and the ideas of other musicians which work together to make the song what it wasn’t before. Sometimes that process may lead us to play with timing. There are occasions when a song I wrote was transformed from 4-4 time to 3-4 timing. It just made more sense to make the change. There was no “proof” of the change being necessary or proven. It just worked.

In the context of collective impact, what we copy might actually be a best practice, but not to limit us, but to form a foundation for the creative pursuit of something better than “best” that is relevant to the context of what we are trying to create. One of the participants at the Tamarack Institute’s Community Impact Summit in October 2014 offered the following on a sticky note: “best practice is anti-innovation.” This is often the case I think because we stop there, assuming the best practice is our answer as opposed to serving more as a foundational set of concepts that are working for someone else and the context of their pursuit.

One of the guidelines I have injected into our thinking at Bissell Centre, where I serve as CEO, is that any new services we create will not be standalone services; they must be combined and leveraged with other services we deliver and/or the services of partners. This principle or guideline then becomes part and parcel to our thinking/creative processes. While it does take collective intelligence to pull this off, it also requires creative thinking among the players in our organization. The reason why I identified this guideline is that one of our fundamental aims to deliver integrated services, not a series of stove-piped services that naturally accept gaps between them, which in the end are a dis-service to those we wish to support and help.

Creative people fail, adapt, and persist
Creativity rarely, if ever, gets it right the first time. Artists are adept at failing forward, however. I suggest we should be, too. I am a digital artist, which means I create art on my computer using various types of software. One of the basic functions of all of these software packages is that they have an undo/redo capability. I might try something, hate it, and just undo it. I save various versions along the way so I can bring forward an older version if the newest version turns out to be a fail. I use the tools at my disposal to leverage my chances of creating a piece of art that works for me, that matches my vision of the final product. That vision, by the way, is rarely fixed. As I work on the piece, the vision may change or adapt to what is unfolding. The vision is often interative; it is affected by the actions involved in trying to achieve it and often those actions re-shape the vision itself.

This is where prototyping fits in for me when we are trying to build a new way of doing things. Our historical practice has been to plan everything up front, then build the entire machine and then plug it in assuming all will work just fine. We know that this approach is rife with problems. Prototyping allows us to test our ideas and evolving conclusions, experience what is not working, fix problems or find another way to do what we want to do. Over time, our prototyping should lead us to a place where we are ready to scale up our creative work into a larger version called a pilot. The pilot is more fulsome than a prototype, but not yet the final product. It is more “real life” than the prototype, but not yet ripe enough to warrant full scale execution.

In both the prototype and the pilot we will experience failures, small and large. Perhaps the product we are producing is an excellent one but it takes too long to produce or is too resource-intensive. So we persist through deploying new combinations of ideas or even a type of reductionist thinking where we start removing things to see if they are necessary to achieve our desire result.

Creative people have strong yet yielding egos
It takes some courage to put a creative idea “out there” for others to see and consider. And even more courage to not just give up on the idea if met with immediate resistance or negative judgements. Another way of saying this is that creative people require strong egos to actually be creative, to act on their ideas. Yet they also require the capacity to yield to the ideas (and the ego-strength) of others to create a collective effort, which more often than not leads to a better result.

This does not mean it’s just smooth sailing. People are people and the ideas we hold are personal, not just professional. We are attached to them. Tensions do arise. Collective creativity requires the ability of the participants to dialogue together, not just debate whose ideas are best. This includes ensuring that people who are creating together are committed to appreciative inquiry and to the practice of dialogue. Both include, I suggest, a common belief that creativity should welcome all that arises (a phrase I have stolen from John Ott), a commitment to see ways to build on one another’s ideas rather than render them unworthy, and another fundamental principle of dialogue which is to never try to prove yourself right by proving another person wrong.


I am doing more writing about creativity. The next posting will be about how to incorporate learning about creativity into organization learning efforts. We are pretty good at offering learnings that advance knowledge and work related skills, but my experience across many organizations as a consultant and as an executive leader suggest that that organizations are far less mindful about the need for introducing learning and a learning environment that foster creativity among our colleagues.

I will also be writing more about how to structure organizations and organizational learning in ways that foster the capacity for people to undertake personal transformations required to achieve dramatically new ways of working together.

See http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/232808

[2] See Maria Popova’s posting on Ferguson’s work at http://www.brainpickings.org/2011/06/20/everything-is-a-remix-3/

– See more at: http://tamarackcci.ca/blogs/mjholmgren/creativity-and-collective-impact#sthash.7EpnnD9h.dpuf


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