26 February 2007

Darwin & The Incalculable Productivity of Creativity

I was in some meetings with two heads of a health care company’s new business division who are obese. From what I could glean, they didn’t take the time for exercise largely because they worked so many hours. They’ve compromised their own health as they are busily pursuing business solutions to health problems.

The boundary between work and home has disappeared along with the wires we once needed for phones and computers. Work hours are steadily creeping upwards.

For me, the worst thing about this is that it overlooks what research into the mysteries of the mind has repeatedly proven: gestation is a necessary component in creativity. When people are continually rushed to translate problems and information into solutions, the solutions they arrive at are almost invariably clichéd, predictable, and of little value. Research indicates that people need time after immersion in a problem to let it gestate before expecting a breakthrough.

My work with dozens and dozens of organizations has convinced me of this: there is no shortage that creativity cannot overcome. Whether the organization is short of customers, cash, or talented employees, the shortage can be overcome by creativity. Creativity, however, has trouble overcoming a shortage of time. And as organizations become less creative, they feel compelled to work longer hours, which further reduces the level of creativity.

Lest you think this hypothetical, you may be interested to know that Darwin worked only two to four hours a day. Last I heard, his insights had led to research and products worth hundreds of billions - perhaps trillions of dollars by now. You can't calculate the productivity of creativity any more than you can calculate the number of apples in an apple seed.


Life Hiker said...

Very perceptive! I love the way you identify and examine these issues. Almost always your conclusions fit my experience of how the world really works.

I remember an organization that was specifically set up to accomplish dramatic change in business process and results. It depended on many very talented individuals to identify and implement these changes while many of them also ran the current day-to-day operations.

Rather than being encouraged to work long hours, people were advised against "working too hard", and they were often kicked out of their offices if they were perceived to be putting in too much time. The general rule was "If the bell rings, you have to answer it. Otherwise, you own your own objectives and your personal and work lives. You need to manage them to a healthy balance."

These people, who seemed pretty relaxed most of the time, hit the bullseye almost every time. People in other offices where the lights stayed on constantly failed with predictable regularity.

Long hours turn people into zombies and their outputs fall. When people have time to chew on their challenges and incubate their solutions, their brains stay fresh and their outputs are maximized.

It would be nice to have Darwin's IQ and work 2-4 hours each day, but most workers in creative roles will do very, very well if they "actively" work no more than eight hours, and hopefully less, each day. Would that the bosses always recogized this paradox!

Dave said...

As usual, I can only offer anecdotal evidence; but, I have two conflicting anecdotes.

When I am researching and/or writing, I have to wander through it, unless the issue is pedestrian. At a point, having wandered and started writing, "it," the point will appear in my mind and be susceptible to being said in words. Gestation as you call it.

However, I have often been in court, examining a witness, making an argument on a motion and said something that I had never thought of before, something that was the essence of my case. These moments always come after long hours of preparation for the trial or hearing, during a period of stress. I've always likened them to the athletic "zone."

To your mind, are these moments of insight due to gestation, stress, fatigue, or more hopefully, fitful genius?

Anonymous said...

May be coincedence, but I stumbled on this earlier today:

Anonymous said...

Sorry. Looks like you'll have to splice.


Ron Davison said...

LH - thanks for the reassurance that this observation has held up in other situations. I like your example.

Dave - I would say that both of the incidents you cite are examples of the psychology of creativity that Csikszentmihalyi explains in these stages:
The creative process goes through steps. (A) “Preparation, becoming immersed, consciously or not, in a set of problematic issues that are interesting and arouse curiosity.” (B) “Incubation, during which ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness.” (C) “Insight, sometimes called the “Aha” moment, the instant instant Archimedes cried out ‘Eureka’.” (D) “Evaluation, when the person must decide whether the insight is valuable and worth pursuing.” (E) “Elaboration . . . takes up the most time and involves the hardest work.”
From: http://www.lifeskillstraining.org/creativity.htm

Anonymous - welcome! Thanks for the link to more information.

Vladimir Dzhuvinov said...

Brilliant observation, brilliant post :)

To create something timeless, as Darwin did, you shouldn't be constrained by time - that is simple :)

I know a professor in Greece who occasionally takes "creative holidays". I used to ridicule him for that, but gradually I learned his point :)

Coincidence or not, today a friend of mine said (while reflecting on the turbulent time he now has at work): "[work] chaos disappears once you step out of time" :)

How much of creative thinking happens subconsciously? I would love to find out! :)

flametree said...

Strangely enough, I was chatting with a colleague today who is moving to another company. He phoned his new boss, asking if it'd be alright if he called and met his new team. The new boss said sure, my colleague suggested lunch-time. New boss replied "Can't do it at lunch time, everyone will be out. We don't allow people to eat lunch at their desks here".

Wonder why he's leaving our company?! At least there are some companies out their who recognise the importance of down-time, be it to foster creativity or simply to re-charge the batteries.

Ron Davison said...


Thanks again for your comments. I don't know how much I've mentioned it in my posts, but Csikszentmihalyi - author of Flow - is a big influence on me. Flow is a state of consciousness that causes one to lose track of time and is the antithesis of chaos. In other words, I quite agree with your friend.

Flametree - ultimately we have to translate our attention into our work, not our time. If time spent is incidental to attention paid, fine. If, by contrast, attention paid is incidental to the time, we're less productive.

Thanks for your comment and your posting to provoke mine. :)