That was the question that David Terrar posed yesterday morning when tweeting a link to an HBR article that stated what many of us know to be the bleedin’ obvious: you can teach people to be more “creative”.

It’s one of those gloriously open questions for which I love Twitter. Especially when I’m sitting on the 07:14 to London Waterloo on a cold but bright early spring morning. I reckon that there are two key reasons.

The first is a conspiracy of silence amongst the world that calls itself “the creative industry”. This shadowy world of marketing, design, digital and other black arts isn’t trying to deceive the rest of us by viewing creativity as some sort of innate talent: it’s trying to delude itself. Creativity is a golden goose, so the mythology goes, not a process. It’s something possessed only by special “creative” types who call themselves “creatives” whilst they are being “creative” creating “creative”. Utter poppycock.

The creative industries are a factory of ersatz culture, producing mostly derivative works in the fashion of the time, or low-risk retreads of formulae that have worked in the past. Just look at the average pop-band-best-of-loosely-strung-together-into-a-story or successful-movie-with-added-songs guff that open regularly on the stages of the West End or Broadway these days.

The second reason, though, is more insidious. It’s because in an era when delivery is prized over everything, thinking is a second-class activity. Why? My hunch is because thinking (and creativity) are next to impossible to measure, and in our numerically-obsessed culture if you can’t measure it it’s obviously not important.

Measurement is the enemy of creativity. Measurement is the enemy of thinking. Measurement is the enemy of curiosity.

It’s not to say that measuring things isn’t useful; it’s just that we have become convinced that ideas without statistical support are wrong. But that’s nonsense. We don’t win hearts and minds through numbers, we win hearts and minds through stories.

Don’t believe me? Well, think about the organisations that are held up as great exemplars of creativity…

Gore are a company that’s seriously creative because of it’s flat management structure and the way in which is encourages its employees to be innovative.

Google is a creative company because it has a wacky environment and free lunches (actually an invention of the 1950s with companies like Connecticut General’s move out of cities and into suburban campuses). Don’t get suckered by the 20% time — that’s a piece of PR statistical trickery.

NASA is an innovative place because they put humans on the moon.

Palo Alto Research Centre is an innovative place because Steve Jobs stole all of their good ideas.

Apple is a creative company because, wow, look at the beautiful objects (Apple was lauded for its creativity well before it became the most powerful brand in the known universe).

These are the stories that identify these places as creative. Numbers can be used to justify them. Numbers are a means to explain stories to those who are dead on the inside.

We don’t value creativity, we don’t value thought, because we can’t easily attribute a value to creativity or thought. Instead we focus on measurable deliverables. The end output. And then forget to do the bit that gets us there half the time anyway.

One final illustration. That desparate world of the resume. Curriculum Vitaes — the place that language goes to die. When was the the last time you saw the word “thoughtful” on a CV?

Images taken from The Information Machine, a film from 1958 by Charles & Ray Eames produced for IBM

One thought on “So why are thinking skills so rarely taught?

  1. Hi Matt,
    You are so right – particularly around the notion that delivery is everything.
    I sometimes wonder what happened to curiosity ??
    When I got into this industry I was curious about “how & why” and less focussed about what. I often knew what something did but I wanted to know how so that I could understand it, change it, make it better. Curiosity is becoming a forgotten skill because so much is just given to people. Dev’s now have access to almost unlimited compute, storage, functions and comms, so they just lash stuff together quickly and deliver. That has its place – but so does thought and curiosity that often creates something better.

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