The Creative Spark


I got detailed this morning to attend a session entitled “Sparking Creativity”, an innovation/brainstorming workshop. The point was not so much to generate actual ideas, as explore the ways that the workplace discourages or encourages creativity amongst employees.

For the most part, the emphasis was on Montessori-school flakey (my bad — see comments) conceptions of creativity, where creativity is equated with playfulness, laughter, and the almost complete absence of rules or constraints. I haven’t got much time for this sort of stuff, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be.

One thing that interested me was the underlying assumption of the session (and of most of these sorts of exercises), which is that what we lack are ideas, and we need to encourage the generation of more ideas. But innovation has two elements, the generation of novel forms and the testing of them against real-world problems. Put another way, there is the creativity and the destruction — both play a critical role.

So here’s the question. If innovation is what we want, which side of the equation is lacking? Do we have too few ideas? Or are there plenty of ideas going around with insufficient discipline and attention in the testing? I suppose the answer differs from one field to another. I think at the CBC for example, there are too many ideas that aren’t subject to the discipline of proper testing. But how about the newspaper business — is it more creativity we need, or a more judicious process of destruction?

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The Creative Spark

  1. This posting makes me wonder if innovation and creativity are the same. I wouldn’t think so, at least not the way we typically use the words. One might be endlessly creative within boundaries set down by tradition or devised by earlier innovators

    In fact, I would venture that most creative people don’t bother trying to be innovative. They learn the rules and operate creatively without bothering to expend mental energy violating them.

    This might sound like doctrine but I think it’s just observation. Bobby Orr was innovative: he changed what a defenceman does. But the best defencemen who came after him were, though often wonderfully creative in doing the job as Orr recreated it, not really innovative themselves.

    Great artists tend to be sticklers when it comes to craft. They realize that learning the forms frees the artist to be creative; there’s no need to make up new forms, to innovate, to be a great writer or painter or musician.

    I’m reminded of this exchange from W. H. Auden’s famous 1974 interview with the Paris Review:

    Q. You have always been a formalist. Today’s poets seem to prefer free verse. Do you think that’s an aversion to discipline?

    A. Unfortunately that’s too often the case. But I can’t understand—strictly from a hedonistic point of view—how one can enjoy writing with no form at all. If one plays a game, one needs rules, otherwise there is no fun. The wildest poem has to have a firm basis in common sense, and this, I think, is the advantage of formal verse.

    In your posting, Andrew, you make mention of a school of thought in which “creativity is equated with playfulness, laughter, and the almost complete absence of rules or constraints.” Following Auden, I would be skeptical. Playfulness without constraints? Play starts with rules.

    This all seems to me to matter when we get to your question about what’s lacking, ideas or sufficient testing of them? The answer depends on what sort of ideas we’re talking about.

    If we’re working within the bounds of a well-defined form—a classroom, say, or the front page of a daily paper—then somebody who has mastered the rules should be able to generate creative ideas with reasonable confidence about what will work. The challenge, then, is simply coming up with enough of those creative ideas to keep the front page grabby and the class engaged.

    If, on the other hand, the situation demands new forms—a website aimed at an audience that doesn’t yet like websites, for example, or a company in which the positions in the hierarchy are to be assigned by lot—then we need truly innovative ideas. In cases like these, which require daring innovation, most ideas are bound to fail, so the need to somehow test them becomes paramount.

  2. Perfect. You’ve got it exactly right, I think. My point wasn’t to endorse what I’m calling the “montessori school” theory of creativity; I actually think it is highly pernicious, but all too prevalent.

    Creativity is inseparable from constraints — the best discussion of the relationship between the two is Douglas Hofstadter’s book Le Ton Beau de Marot. Or, for a neat but somewhat annoying example, Christian Bok’s Eunoia.

    Your last couple of paragraphs get to the question I was trying to frame in the posting, which is that it seems to me that the world is lousy with ideas, and what we lack are good ways of testing the ones we have.

    This isn’t a fully-formed theory yet, I’m still trying to work out just what I’m getting at. But my inclination is that if innovation is a process of generate-and-test, I’m not convinced that what we need is more idea generation.

    But further comments are most welcome.

  3. Andrew, you shouldn’t slam Montessori schools unless you have spent a fair bit of time in them. In a classic Montessori school, the children spend lots of time working with physical materials which can only function in certain ways, and provide real-world feedback if the kids have used them incorrectly. So, the rules on what kind of creativity is appropriate are not imposed by the teacher: instead the physical world itself shows the child whether his idea and implementation of it worked or did not.

    In fact, Montessori school creativity is exactly what we need most: the children generate ideas, and then test them against the constraints of the physical world. The authorities (ie, the teachers), do not get involved in telling kids what can and can’t be done.

    A Montessori approach to creativity would help to prevent fiascos like this.

    I think you are looking for the word “Waldorf” or perhaps just “common”, instead of “Montessori”,

  4. For 20 years I have done a newspaper and other publications on Montessori education.

    As a journalist, I’d say there’s a bit of irony in the post, suggesting you need discipline along with ideas. Journalistic discipline involves more than blurting out “ideas.” It involves a disciplined checking of facts. That clearly didn’t happen.

    Good Montessori schools have a keen sense of discipline, not a Summerhillian absence of it. It is simply developed and presented in ways that require some attention from those who editorialize.

    This is not an infrequent mistake. A lot of good folks working there hearts out in Montessori schools are hurt by the lack of discipline of journalists, comics and just plain blow-hards.

  5. Ok fine, I’m wrong on the Montessori school bit. Bad marketing on their part to get so frequently lumped in with the flakes. I apologise and won’t do it again. But how about answering the question?

  6. I find it hugely ironic that the popular (uninformed) opinion of Montessori is exactly what good Montessori schools find as being at fault in regular schools. But what is equally sad is that the two posts defending Montessori criticise Waldorf and Summerhill in the same way. While maybe the freedom of Summerhill is possibly at first glance closer to the description of playfulness and laugher, it would certainly be incorrect to say if is “completely free of rules and restraints”. Summerhill probably has more rules than any other school in the world – the crucial difference is that the rules are made by the people who are affected by them – the children. While Waldorf schools may be characterised by a lot of playfulness and laughter, they are actually very much centred on the authority of the teacher. The creative, arts-based aspect is anything but a matter of total freedom of expression, but a very structured approach to developing this aspect.

    Montessori, on the other hand, is often criticized by advocates of regular early childhood programmes for not having enough playfulness and laughter, and to be lacking in creativity (also a mis-understanding). Children in real Montessori schools develop deep concentration and focus, and an imagination based on an understanding and appreciation of reality (in contrast to Waldorf and Summerhill which encourage fantasy play and promote fantasy literature and so on).

    I find it offensive that people who have no understanding of alternatives to conventional schooling and it’s dominator paradigm structures insist on assuming that freedom equates to chaos.

  7. Sorry about starting the Montessori parade. As an entrepreneur, I find the main question almost trivial. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The hard work and sheer pigheaded stubbornness required to overcome human and physical obstacles and put them into practice are in short supply. Ideas that are put into practice, without testing, like too much in the arts world, are mainly a product of government subsidies.

  8. Thank you for retracting the comment about Montessori – but ironically the answer to your question may just be in …. Montessori. You see most people link creativity and fantasy. Children get force fed fantasy from their first cot mobile – lots of buzzers and bells with not real content, through the fantasy stories and encouragement to pretend. Pre-schools and day-cares pride themselves on encouraging creativity by giving children trash and getting them to pretend that the finished product is art and not just re-worked rubbish. Then they go on through a schooling system that is little more than a smoke and mirror attempt to disguise busywork as learning.

    Montessori, on the other hand, is based on giving children real practical skills, and meaningful information from the word go. Then through the development of the true imagination (as opposed to fantasy which has no substance) children grow into adults who are able to use that foundation creatively. The two gentlemen who created Google where Montessori graduates.

  9. THANK YOU Sharon Cladwell for your post. I have been a Montessori parent for 26 years and a certified Montessori teacher for 24. Your insight could be used as an “in the nutshell” description of our philosophy. When children are given the opportunity to learn the real practical skills necessary for success AND meaningful information along the way, imagination will follow.

  10. First, I regret if any Summerhill supporters were saddened when they misinterpreted my one-word reference as a criticism.

    But I will grant that the post’s larger question is a worthy one and important.

    And of course, the answer is that we need both ideas and discipline. The balance right now is not especially healthy — and it’s not much the result of schools.

    The betrayal of public and private trust in many, many venues over the past 40 or so years has been coupled with a sort of self-affirmation ethic — speaking one’s “truth” to power — and a rotten marketplace of ideas — my spin will balance your spin. Our airwaves, public discussion and marketing-pr channels brim with self-assured communication — public, private and governmental — that would pass no truth test. It sometimes seems that our smartest young people trust no one.

    I suspect one way to establish the balance and trust necessary to do a good society is the work of individuals and media organizations to take seriously the work of fact-checking and myth-dispelling…and maybe serve as models to our publics to embrace greater discipline.

    There is an old line: you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. I would substitute the term innovation. We shouldn’t disdain innovation or even the creation of bizarre theories. We just need to work together to prevent them from poisoning our common well.

    I don’t see or hear much CBC, but it’s got to be light years better than U.S. talk radio or Fox.

  11. If I understand the basic argument, the Sparking Creativity session’s broad goal is to make society (or perhaps just workplaces) better, and their assumption is that the best way to achieve this is to make all individuals more creative, hence the need for the session. Andrew’s presumed goal is the same, but wonders if creativity isn’t relatively plentiful and if improved discipline wouldn’t be a better focus and method to advance society (or the workplace).

    John Geddes’ very good post classifies new ideas (and action) into the creative and innovative categories.

    Paraphrasing MarkCh, there aren’t enough people doing the hard work of turning ideas into real improvements in society (or the workplace), whether those ideas are creative or innovative in nature. Put another way, as we strive for a better society the constraint is a lack of “doers” and not a lack of ideas or creative thinkers.

    Without prejudice to any of the education philosophies already discussed, what this implies is that we should be trying to raise critical thinkers who can better evaluate other people’s ideas and work, be they creative or innovative, and not to worry about developing more creative people. This will make life easier for the overburdened “doers” of the world and will lead to more practical good faster.

    By asking people to focus on thinking clearly as opposed to creatively, to spend more time or skill evaluating as opposed to being original, it will also clear up much of the clutter Dennis talks about. I suspect it will also free a great many students and workers who would rather not have the huge burden of chasing the muse of original thought but who wouldn’t mind applying themselves to the relatively straightforward work of clear thinking.

    I think this makes the work of accomplishing improvements much easier for those so disposed. I think it makes the life of the watchers easier too.

    I think this is what Andrew is saying. If so, I wholeheartedly agree.

  12. Why not check out the video of what Ken Robinson has to say about creativity and education at ted.com?

  13. This situation is very similar to my own experience. Since being laid off from a great job in the advertising agency business last fall, I have been unable to land a new position. I have now turned my attention to working for myself as a sales and marketing consultant. I have attracted two clients so far and more are coming forward. I do feel as if being laid off was the catalyst to get me going on a new path

    • Hi Chris,

      Congratulations Chris on your move to start your new business. I’d like to know more of what your doing and maybe we can help each other out.

      My email is as stated and my phone number is 519-653-8754

      Look forward to speaking with you Chris.

      Eric Hoot

    • Make sure you can collect what you bill.
      Be very sticky about this.

  14. What Canadians have understood for years that Americans are only now beginning to understand is the need to live within one’s means. I have many Canadian associates, they are always more practical than my American associates: They pay attention to detail more and they are more likely to work together. That’s not to say that Canada is some kind of a utopia, but at least civil dialogue is still appreciated there and in hard economic times that goes a long way.

    • Canadians owe more than their US cousins: they have a higher debt to income ratio. Simple fact: we are not different, regardless of how many apartments or condos you need to sell/rent this month.

      • You actually have this backwards. The US are far more in debt as a percentage than the average Canadian. This is largely because of mortgage deductibility

  15. So if everyone gets laid off it will be a godsend? Jezzus editor, break your pills in half.

    • That’s not what the article is saying. The point is …. should it happen, there are opportunities that can be explored without becoming dispondant over the lay-off. Read, then process.. it’ll help ya when you need to fill out that job application.

  16. So, I guess we can all get some sort of job working for the government in some capacity or other. Tell me when we all go to work for government, where will government collect taxes to pay for 33 million employees. Boy talk about rose colored glasses, ya unexplored opportunities just abound out there. Also to the 40 year old guy who is going to be a cop. What force wants to hire a guy too old to do the job that is expected of a rookie? You figure to get the chiefs job without having payed your dues or what? Not sure how that’s going to work. Good luck with that.

    • I think it is an important message to send out for anyone who finds thenselves laid off. It is an opportunity to re-invent yourself. I too found myself laid off at 40. I only had a 6 week severence but I took it as a golden opportunity to do something that I wanted to do and not continue something that paid the bills. Life is too short for that but sometimes we all need a little push to do what we should of done a long time ago.

    • I just wanted to reply to your comments regarding the 40 year old who wants to be a cop. A few years ago, a friend of mine from work was let go. We weren’t in the tough times that we are now. He was very good at what he did, but just did not see eye-to-eye with the new VP. It was purely political, and he was let go. He also got a severance package, which was pretty close to a year’s pay. He took time off for about the first half of that period, and then starting looking for work. One of the jobs that interested him was being a cop. He tried out, went through the whole interview process, and was accepted. He then went through all the training, and he did indeed have a job when he came out. He has now been a cop for a few years. How old was he when he was let go? He was 40. What police force took him on? The Metro Toronto Police. Don’t discourage someone from doing something that is very possible. I wish the guy in this article the best of luck, and having seen it happen, I think he can do it.

      The only thing that concerns me with this article overall is that not everybody will be so lucky. Yes, you may be let go, and may take the opportunity to pursue another line of work. But are there real paying opportunities in all those areas? In these tough times, opportunities have thinned out in many areas. I would probably do the same thing though. If you are let go, and you have to look around and decide what next, why not take a shot at something you have always wanted to do? If not now, then when? Some will be successful, and some won’t. But that isn’t really any different than in normal times. For those who have the guts to try, I wish you all the best.

  17. We see both positive and negative views in the responses, but what those with nothing to see but the negative side need to remember is that, in order to finally lose weight [as an example!] we cannot expect to do so without some [or perhaps a lot—] of discomfort. It has been obvious for some time that the ride was not going to go on forever, but like the dieter who just pokes away at getting healthy, nothing truly gets accomplished until something dire threatens. The economy has taken a beating and the repercussions will go on and on until people get on a forward path again, hopefully with some better ideas of how to better protect their futures. But people will always move forward in the face of hard times, as history has repeatedly shown us. And each time the recovery period was shorter!! {I’m thinking I should read my own words and get serious about dropping 75-80 pounds before I get the word from the doc that time has become an issue!!}

  18. Excellent work MacLeans !!
    THIS title embodies the untold story of these difficult circumstances we find ourselves in. Surely nobody doubts that the negative news (I call it financial terrorism) has been disseminated sufficiently and continues to be so by the mainstream media … particularly the talking heads at BNN and CNBC. They’re horrible for our economic well being.
    In fact it’s really nice to see the media companies paying the financial price for their terrible editorial decisions of publishing fantastic, sensationalized and scary negative stories without balance. The quicker these media companies connect the dots and realize THAT’S why their advertisers have dissappeared, the better.
    Everyone recognizes there are big challenges before us all, but it’s time to find solutions like those in this story are doing. Enough financial blood & guts in the news already !!

  19. I think it would be great, and positive, to see in these comments what others have done when faced with a lay off. The examples given were great and I’m sure those of you who have prospered after the dreaded pink slip could offer much solid advice for those just facing it now…or fearing it.

    • Last recession (1990ish) while on EI, I worked on two Section 25 placements for a non-profit group. Section 25 being the instrument whereby my EI was topped up to the max, while I went to work supposedly on a training basis. The training was to figure out how to do what needed doing, which suited me just fine. While the WI was running out, I invented a part-time job for myself for the organization. Initially I was paid a small honourarium which I supplemented with freelance work, and after about a year of very lean times, the organization, with my help, was able to secure Foundation funding to pay me. I didn’t look for full-time work for those two years because I wanted to use my skills for something I considered worthwhile. My attitude was that job creation is stupid when there is so much that isn’t getting done; the trick is finding money to do those real jobs. I’m still working in a similar capacity but in another sector.

      I don’t even know if a similar Section 25 program exists now, and if I was laid off now, I ‘m not sure I’d still have the energy or the strength to be without income for that second while creating the right job, but I’d recommend that younger people think carefully about what they are willing to devote a third of their waking hours to doing. Look around your community and find out what is needed, and where your skills and interests lie.

      Inventing a job is harder than filling out an application, but once you’ve done it, it’s your job, real work, not just an exchange of labour for money.

  20. EXCELLENT. It is not the odd success story that sets the pattern to generalize across the board.
    Buying a lottery ticket does not make us all a winner. There is this one, or two fortunate or delusional cases, sadly enough most people don’t have that easy.

  21. It’s a pleasure to read an article that inspires – maybe not everyone – but there WILL be people who will read your words and have an attitude adjustment. I am self-employed, and during the launch of our U.S.-manufactured machine, the Canadian dollar nose-dived, the economic news turned ugly, and there was the listeriosis outbreak – all which completely stalled 8 months worth of planning and marketing! Yes, we are suffering, but we believe in ourselves and we will manage somehow to make things work. People need to have faith in themselves – not depend on their jobs to define them. Nobody said it’s going to be easy, but if you open your mind to change and allow yourself to restructure (regroup), EVERYONE can survive. Like some of the others have said, it really could be the best thing to happen to some – they will see what greatness they are capable of.

    Take care all, and please try to look forward!


  23. I left a reply above about re-inventing yourself after lay off and I thought I would come back to add more detail. I have to say the transition into a new career was NEVER easy. I took a great deal of sacrifice on the whole family from the day I was laid off 2 yrs ago until now as I work to establish a new career. There has extreme financial hardship of getting calls from banks, utility companies and whoever else was owed money to see who would get paid that month and who would be deferred until next. I have to say when times are good and everyone is happy, banks are your best friend. When things go south, it has been my experience that they are the first ones not to play fair in the sandbox and pull the heavy punches real fast. But back to the topic at hand….It is an opportunity to take a skill set you have developed and see where you can apply them in something you would love to do. Like all things in life, happiness breeds success, not the other way around. If you are truly happy doing something you love, sooner or later you will be successful at it. Dream it, then live it!!

  24. Of course its a blessing in disguise when you get a large payout of money! But many people don’t i.e. kids saddled with student debt.

    Not really a well rounded story.

    • You’re right. Many many people don’t get the huge payout. But, whether your a kid with a student loan or an adult with bills, mortgage and car payments, its all what you make it. You can sit around feeling sorry for yourelf or you can get up brush yourself off and figure a way to make it happen. No one ever said life was easy or even fair.

  25. I have to make a comment as i do know one of the people in this story — this has not been easy for him or his family. He wasn’t handed this, when he knew Kitchener Frame was definately closing he was calling the Self Employment Business program to get his name in there as soon as possible. These people haven’t seen any money yet from a severance, who knows when that will come. In my mind this story was just showing an example of what a few have done since losing their job. Yes, its not everyone and no not everyone has a talent to fall back on. But in these times people need to be creative on how to make a living.

  26. This is an uplifting article. In the midst of the economic crisis and negative news of the layoffs and negative growthof the stockmarket we need this positive news.
    the negative news can bring us down so that we are blind for positive news.
    I, myself came trough a crisis of a depression followed by a layoff so that I had to reinvent myself.
    I was a well established safety inspector, and my personal depression resulted in a layoff. After some time of counseling, I started looking for work and found some temporary jobs as a driver and administrative assistant.
    I volunteered also with SPRINT, visiting an elderly person for two hours once in two weeks and from that volunteeringI started my own painting business in 1993. Now my business is going steady even during this economic crisis.
    We cannot become lazy. We all have received different talents and as we use them, we become skilled with training_practice makes perfect.
    Even in a time as I had no job the volunteering made me happy by making somebody else happy. And now I learned in my painting business, the priority is not to make myself rich,but to make my customers happy.
    If you have lost your job. There is hope, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Here are some suggestions: 1. Think what you like to do.
    2.Train in what you like to do and become excellent. That takes time and effort.
    3. Do it to make others happy and you will make money, and you will be happy.
    I wish you succes.
    God bless you,

  27. What this article, and the comments, points to, is the fact that there are two kinds of people, those who see the glass half full, and those who see the glass half empty.

    Those who see the glass half full will find their way, reinvent themselves, and will fuel the new economy. What we as a nation have to do is to change the attitude of the half empty people.

    There are all sorts of people out there who have all sorts of skills, but they do not have the spirit to see the the possibilities, some never will, others need a little help.

    I live in a small town that lost its old industrial base ten years ago. There are still gloom and doom people around, but now we are beginning to see the town reinvent itself. In that respect we are ten years ahead of many other places in Canada.

  28. Keep that fighting spirit up. You'll need it in all of your success.

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