Unpacking the value of creativity

Our business is values driven. But it’s one thing for our values to be on our website, and quite another for us to live them out. In this blog, Fergus Bailey continues his series unpacking our values, this time focusing on creativity. 

There is always more in the world we don’t understand than that which we do. Two of our values – creativity and curiosity – are about approaching our work with openness, and a desire to learn about the world with epistemic humility. However, where curiosity is a hunger for understanding for how things are, creativity is the act of turning that understanding into something new. This act stems from inspiration: the moment in which a possible, novel thing bursts forth.  

Inspiration is tricky to pursue.  

I‘m an occasional musician, and even in such a pure creative space, inspiration is a slippery fish. What I’ve learned from writing music is that creativity needs a stillness.  

A person stands in silhouette against a sunset with a fishing rod in hand. A lighbulb dangles from the rod.Tom Waits described writing songs as like fishing; “you gotta be real quiet sometimes if you wanna catch the big ones.” 

This is not to say that being idle brings creativity, quite the opposite. Possibility and creativity are generated by what has come before them, by the work you do to feed them. A fish cannot be caught without bait, a boat, a line, an understanding of fish behaviours, and so forth. All the apparatus is necessary to allow the moment to occur, they just don’t guarantee it. You need to do all the work ahead of time so you can afford to stop and wait. You need to understand things fully to set aside those preconceived ideas and allow the world to intervene on you. Curiosity generates creativity. 

When I started at ARTD, I didn’t really understand how this could operate in a work environment. As a musician it was easy: you just stopped doing things for a while until you sensed movement in the water. But I couldn’t just sit around at work waiting for an idea to come, I was at work, and I wanted to show I was productive.  

Creating the space for creative thinking within a productive work day 

One day the Great Algorithm suggested a video for me to watch that explained how to integrate these seemingly incongruent things: John Cleese giving a lecture on creativity in management. Notwithstanding a few poorly-aged jokes, this lecture provided me with great insight into making time to waste time. One of the most important parts of Cleese’s workflow was getting to his desk and sharpening pencils. By making time to allow his ideas to gestate, unbothered by decision making, they would be able to emerge. 

In my role at ARTD, as I suspect is the case with many jobs, there are parts of work that are largely administrative. Interview scheduling, data entry, version consolidation: these tasks do not appear as lively and exciting as reporting, analysis, and writing proposals. What Cleese helped me realise was that these mundane tasks are an opportunity to be helpful and productive, and an opportunity to give ideas time to come. 

I now try to have a handful of straightforward, closed tasks to complete. This means that when I am solving a complex problem with no clear solution, I can jump to these tasks to give my brain a break.  

I begin with the complex problem, read all I can that is relevant to it, jot down some ideas, and try to express them. Then when the inspiration starts slipping away, I pivot to doing straightforward tasks. By the time I have finished, often creative thoughts have swum back into my view. And so I begin again, and move between these two modes. 

Why is creativity so important in evaluation? 

At ARTD we deal with complex problems. Part of our job is working out where to draw the edges around a problem or a system in order to be able to assess whether an intervention is effective and efficient, and doing so in a way that fits the pragmatic concerns of budgets and timeframes. We also draw on available data to consider creative solutions and improvements. To do so, we use our judgement, which relies heavily on critical thinking, but first engages our creativity. Before considering our ideas are feasible, we need to allow ourselves the time for expansive thinking, holding our fishing lines or sharpening our pencils, creating the space for creativity.  

So, when I’m faced with a complex problem I think, and I think, and then I make a cup of tea and answer some emails and do some data entry. And then I sit down, ideally with no meetings or pressing work in front of me, and I give myself the time and space to play. And then I draw on another ARTD value of collaboration, and share my ideas with my colleagues, so we can create even better ideas together.  


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