Creativity, Improvisation, Business


I'm interested in creativity in business - not the business of creative productions or art or show business, but the use of creativity in non-glamorous everyday jobs, careers, and organizations. If accountants and insurance salesmen and policemen and coffeehouse baristas could be more creative they would more likely enjoy their jobs and contribute more to society and their employers.

Lots of people are interested in business creativity or its cousin innovation. The business sections of bookstores are lined with books on innovation - a reflection that people recognize its importance and are seeking ways to foster it. Most of these books are mediocre (most books of any sort are mediocre), and innovation is notoriously difficult to make happen. Politicians are forever promoting policies to enable innovation, and the heads of big companies love to talk about making their organizations more innovative. Did you know that the federal government has a Strategy for American Innovation and that the Small Business Administration is holding a Startup America roundtable at the South by Southwest Festival? [LINK TO ] As well intentioned as these initiatives are, I cant help but be skeptical. Creativity and innovation seems to more often spring from the ground up. Not necessarily from individuals, but more often from small groups than large organizations.

Creativity is exciting to watch happen. Thats why I enjoy attending improv shows. Even sloppy improv by beginners is good as far as I am concerned. I like to imagine I can gain some insight into ways to make creativity happen in business. Not that I really have any answers. Yet.

One person who does have answers is Twyla Tharp, author of the excellent book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life. Subtitled A Practical Guide this volume offers more compelling and convincing advice on workplace innovation than most of the titles in the business section.

Tharp is a choreographer. Shes been designing and producing dance shows in New York for over 40 years and is recognized as a leader in that field. I have no interest in dance and in any case dance productions like Tharps are the opposite of improvisation. Theyre polished and rehearsed and there is no possibility of deviation from plan. But its in the planning and development of the dance that creativity is in motion.

And its surprisingly humdrum. In contrast to the romantic notion that creative ideas appear like a bolt from the skies to the free spirit who gets in tune with the cosmos, Tharp stresses methodical habits and regular schedules.

The most productive artists I know have a plan in mind when they get down to work. They know what they want to accomplish, how to do it, and what to do if the process falls off track.

Tharp has a routine when shes developing a new project: a place, people, and process of collecting and discarding, editing and synthesizing. Theres no supernatural muse whispering in Tharps ear. Or if there is the muse is so hidden she shows up in non-miraculous workaday events.

The creator benefits from planning, but also from improvisation. She pronounces the paradox of creativity: In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative, but good planning alone wont make your efforts successful; its only after you let go of your plans that you can breathe life into your efforts.

Referencing her own career as well as stories from other artists, athletes, and entrepreneurs, Tharp recognizes that serendipity is all around, but the creator has to have habits to seize on serendipitous happenings.

In industrial history the discovery of vulcanized rubber is often cited as an accident. But it was an occurrence that happened only after Charles Goodyear had been playing around with different concoctions for years. Goodyear didnt regard his innovation as an accident and neither does Tharp. In creative endeavors luck is a skill, she says. But in a rebuke to overly anal innovation managers, she opines to embrace luck you have to embrace your tolerance for ambiguity. This is where I suspect many corporate innovation initiatives stumble. A certain type of manager doesnt like ambiguity and chance.

The creative person must be grounded the field he or she works in. Tharp talks about Michael Jordans and Tiger Woods work ethic that made them practice more than their peers. The great painters arent just artists; they are skilled draftsmen that know how to mix their own paint, put in fixative, etc. Bach knew the mechanical operations of pipe organs inside out. The great ones never take the fundamentals for granted Tharp says. Not to sound too cynical, but Ive seen plenty of self-styled innovative companies (in the dot com boom) where the employees where ungrounded and ignorant of what their organizations was nominally doing. No wonder this type of innovation fails.

Towards the end of Tharps book is a chapter called An A in Failure. Now theres something anyone who has stood on an improv stage can relate to we fail all the time; we should celebrate failure because we know without failure were not pushing enough. Tharp quotes high achievers from many fields on the value of failure as a spur to further growth. Plenty of businesses pay lip service to this philosophy but only the ones with real integrity and courage actually embrace failure enough to foster creativity and innovation.

Check out Tharps The Creative Habit. I think you will agree its a practical business book.


Good Stuff

"In order to be creative, you have to know how to prepare to be creative." Twyla Tharp

"The growth of knowledge proceeds from our problems and from our attempts to solve them.” - Karl Popper

Temperence, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, Humility

"Time spent laughing is time spent with the gods." — Japanese Proverb

Get in Touch

  • Email:
    info – at –