The Creative Drumbeat

Warning – I’m tying together a few loose ends here. Things may get tangled.

The application of scientific process to business practice has been one of the critical drivers in the success of modern enterprise. Observe, hypothesize, measure, analyze, apply, repeat. It drives efficiency and progress. Unfortunately things get dicey at the edges. There is an art to being a breakthrough business, in being able to observe the unobservable.

Sometimes our ability to envision surpasses our ability to measure. Sometimes you just have to leap.

“Leave space for things to come to you,” says Janice Cartier in her discussion of artistic process.

In a way, creativity’s feeling of random discovery is a scientific process we have not yet come to terms with. Robin Dickenson commented that for him the creative and scientific processes were modes of thinking that can be switched between. Kay Plantes commented that both the scientific and artistic states-of-mind need to recognize the value each brings to the toolbox of business thought. And then she brought Jeopardy Champ Watson into the discussion.

Ah, Watson. The knowledge workers’ nightmare…

Part of Watson’s strength is the programmers’ ability to dissect and understand the thought-processes of human Jeopardy champs of the past. Ken Jennings describes Watson’s intuition:

“I expected Watson’s bag of cognitive tricks to be fairly shallow, but I felt an uneasy sense of familiarity as its programmers briefed us before the big match: The computer’s techniques for unraveling Jeopardy! clues sounded just like mine. That machine zeroes in on key words in a clue, then combs its memory (in Watson’s case, a 15-terabyte data bank of human knowledge) for clusters of associations with those words. It rigorously checks the top hits against all the contextual information it can muster: the category name; the kind of answer being sought; the time, place, and gender hinted at in the clue; and so on. And when it feels “sure” enough, it decides to buzz. This is all an instant, intuitive process for a human Jeopardy! player, but I felt convinced that under the hood my brain was doing more or less the same thing.” Ken Jennings, Slate 2/16/2011

Is Watson imitating human intuition or have programers learned how the old synapses fire. Don’t know. Makes me feel vulnerable though.

Understanding and nurturing creative process is a critical competitive advantage, one that the US thought it had pretty much locked up. ‘Sure take our manufacturing jobs, we’ll all be imagineers.’ Now the alarm bells ring for U.S. creativity with a key measure (the Torrance score), falling each year since 1990.

“Instead of solving problems, our current mentality is to postpone dealing with them, either by ignoring them or trying to spend our way out of them,” Brad Shorr observed when commenting on the decline.

That particular methodology could be seen as a symptom of creative decline in and of itself. Creativity is all about solving, adding, discovering.

Maybe a part of the problem is that our ability to measure has suddenly surpassed our ability to absorb. The amount of data flying at the average manager is much higher than ever in history, does it free managers to move or lock them in a narrow pathway?

“What if I had been taught that the science of writing is also an expression of art?” Deb Brown asked.

ART - Photo by Joanna Paterson at

We all need to be reminded that some aspect of what we do is art — is creative. No matter how hard we try to bury it. Diane’s question reminded me of this Postcard Project image from Joanna Paterson’s Confident Writing site where she was reminded that “Your Words Are Art.” I like that. More wisdom form Janice, by the way. Learn from the artist. They are closest to the paint.

Could we also say, “Your Actions Are Creative.”

This post has the distinct feeling of a random walk, but sometimes my ideas do come from strange places, so walk with me a moment longer please.

If someone beats a drum and says, “Don’t disrupt the production line. You are not creative. You should not be creative. It is not your job to be creative.” Most of us would laugh, and consider the drummer to be silly.

As a matter of fact, I’ve never met anyone who would knowingly drum such a beat.

But the drummer exists. Self-doubt. Social mores. Wave avoidance. ‘Go with the flow.’ Odd reward structures.

Recognize the beat. It’s background noise which we all hum without realizing.

A devastating drumbeat.

Makes you want to cover your ears and run screaming for the woods. Thoreau did. He was on to something.

“Imagination is at the heart of great strategy — we need to reconnect with the 9 year old kid living in the back of our head,” commented Bill Welter.

I’d say it’s at the heart of a great life as well.

I’ve had the pleasure to speak with a number of individuals over the past few months who have brought a deep sense of imagination to solving problems others shy from. Dean Cycon changing the world through coffee, Raphel O Tyson through microfinance in Ghana or Jon Rycek through play. (I owe posts on the later two. Jon just left for Peru to train individuals who plan to build playgrounds for schools in the country as part of Playground Ideas.) They understand the traditional bottom-line, but believe there is something more that a company needs to be measured by.

Know anyone who is making a difference bringing social entrepreneurship to life? My students and I would be interested in knowing about them. Let me know in comments or by email. Thanks!


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14 Responses to The Creative Drumbeat

  1. Deb Brown says:

    Fred –
    follow #vanmeter – this group of adults and students are redefining how to use social media in a school setting. They are one of the panels at and we can’t wait to see what they have to say!

  2. Fred,
    Oh wow, what great company you’ve put me in. I can’t wait to follow up on all these intriguing paths you’ve set out. Inquiry and art.. are so akin to science..akin to any learning actually.
    If we always teach what we already know…don’t we get what we already have? So leaving a little space for that in process, immeasurable stuff…makes the measurable stuff possible.
    Always thought teaching is about setting up a structure for intrigue. 🙂

    Very cool links. Thx. 🙂

  3. Paul C says:

    Who is bringing social entrepreneurship to life? I am seeing tribes of bloggers gather around their skills: writers of fiction and aspiring poets. I think their dream is to have a large enthusiastic following when their books are published. This loyal group will endorse and positively review….

    I really enjoyed this post.

  4. Sounds neat Deb. I’ll add that to my list.

  5. Thank you Janice. “Always thought teaching is about setting up a structure for intrigue.” — I like the way that thought would alter a classroom.

  6. Thanks Paul. The transparency and energy that the blogging platform has unleashed really does help transform business in ways that none of us fully understands yet. Whether poet or activist the ability to project is a wonderful thing.

  7. It does alter things.The energy shifts and engagement becomes full on. It’s the way I designed many artist in residence projects in academic classes. For example:Don’t teach the WPA era, ask them to become WPA photographers in their own city. Black and white photos only. Amazing what you get, how empathetic and alive they become and how history becomes real when they have to produce it for their own time. Very cool project. You actually allow history to come to them. Huge aha’s. 🙂

  8. Ellen Weber says:

    Wow – thanks Fred! What an amazing unity of the art and science linked roads to creativity! This blog is a must read at the start of a new day where one hopes to end in a finer place!

    It truly describes the heart of a great (and a creative life). Thanks for your amazing zest and talents for both – Fred!

  9. I’m feeling challenged. I love that idea and how it could change the way I look at some of what I’m doing. Thanks.

  10. Hi Ellen, What a nice thing to say. Thank you.

  11. Hi Fred,

    Sorry I haven’t commented here for awhile.

    I am surprised to hear that the U.S. is falling back on the Torrance score. I had always thought that your country pretty much led the way within the developed world in terms of entrepreneurship, and that that entrepreneurship was driving creativity.

    I like your comment about the drummer. No matter how much anybody would want to avoid being a ‘status quoer’, it is all too easy to just accept the way things are rather than rock the boat.

  12. J.D. Meier says:

    > Learn from the artist. They are closest to the paint.
    That’s stuck in my mind now. I like it, and it’s true.

  13. Hi Andrew, Thanks for dropping by. Been thinking about you – hope all is well down under.

    There are questions about the validity of the Torrance score, but it’s really all we have when it comes to longitudinal studies. I’m not sure what accounts for the decline, although there has been a decided upswing in the amount of homework and schoolwork that youngsters are supposed to complete taking away from unstructured time here in the States. I have a feeling that might be part of the issue.

  14. Thanks J.D. I liked it as well.

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