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Book Review: Managing Creative People
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Book Review: Managing Creative People by Gordon Torr

Managing Creative People: Lessons in Leadership for the Ideas Economy

Written by: Gordon Torr. Armonk, Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2008. 303+xiv pages. 
Reviewed by: George Kingston

Managing Creative People

This is not your typical book on creativity. It will give you a refreshingly different viewpoint on a subject that is critical for new product development organizations. Gordon Torr, formerly a global creative director for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency and now the head of his own consultancy, has extensive experience in managing truly creative people. In this book, he proposes that creativity, like high intelligence or athletic talent, is a characteristic of a small subset of people, and then he goes on to develop an approach for successfully managing these creative individuals. This book is intended for those who manage creative people, whether they are artists, scientists, copy writers, engineers, or designers.

The author does not deny that most people can develop some degree of creativity, just as most people can learn to hit a tennis ball or write an essay, but his focus is on the creative equivalent of Olympic athletes. These are people who have the special talents and personalities needed to come up with breakthrough ideas again and again. He argues that they are different from other people and need to be managed accordingly. They are creative because they are different; they are not different because they are creative. This thesis goes against the grain of the many writers on creativity who seeks to show how creativity can be taught, and Torr is not shy about skewering some well-known names. As such the book is thought provoking and enlightening.

The book is divided into two parts: The first part describes and analyzes the creative individual, and the second proposes a model for a creative organization. The author begins by showing, from his own experience and from observations in a variety of industries, that creative people do not respond well to the incentives and controls that are generally successful for managing large organizations. Rather, standard management techniques tend to suppress these individuals. He then looks at organizations that have been successful at generating creative output and comes to this conclusion: “The history of ideas teaches a very simple lesson: that two guys in a garage will beat a multi-million dollar corporation ninety-nine times out of a hundred” (p. 23). This seemingly straightforward statement contains two basic ideas that the author goes on to develop in detail. First, it doesn't apply to any two guys. For example, many organizations have tried to emulate the success of Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory or Lockheed's Skunk Works, but without a Thomas Edison or a Kelly Johnson to come up with the ideas, they are often disappointed. Second, organizations can, and often do, negate the contributions of really creative people by inappropriate management. This is why breakthrough innovations often are the result of a collaboration of a small group of highly creative individuals operating semiautonomously.

Who are these creative individuals? The author spends several chapters sorting through the sparse and sometimes contradictory literature on the biological and psychological bases of creativity, including an exploration of the similarities between creative and psychotic personalities. His conclusion is that creative people are, in fact, different, but whether it is because they are less inhibited, more open to experiment, more perceptive, or just weirder than the rest of us remains to be discovered. What is clear to him is that attempts to reduce the act of creativity to a formula or a process have to date been woefully inadequate. The author concludes his discussion of the creative individual with this provocative statement: “Process doesn't really matter. If we're smart enough we will solve problems. If we're even smarter we will allow for the illogicality that has brought us this far” (p. 116).

The first sentence of the second part of the book sums up the author's management philosophy: “A belief in creativity for the sake of creativity is a necessary condition for the success of creative companies” (p. 120). Reconciling the self-gratifying nature of creativity with the demands of a profit-oriented organization is the challenge of managing creative people. Creativity results from intrinsic motivation; organizations run on extrinsic motivation. Creativity cannot demonstrate its instrumental value, that is, its commercial worth, by itself, which makes it incompatible with a world of key performance indicators.

After a discussion of why creativity often fails to survive in large organizations, the author comes to a critical distinction: the difference between creativity and innovation. By his definition, creativity is about coming up with ideas, and innovation is about implementing them in the real world. Innovation is a process that can be managed, as evidenced by the numerous permutations of the Stage-Gate® approach. But most of these tend to gloss over the idea generation step. Managing creative people is about making that idea generation happen. As the author points out, “Creativity without innovation, at least in the commercial context, is a self-indulgent waste of time. Innovation without creativity is absurd” (p. 175).

Leaning heavily on the work of Theresa Amabile (1998), a professor at Harvard Business School, Torr presents the evidence for intrinsic motivation being the most effective driver of creativity. Intrinsic motivation is best defined as doing something because you enjoy doing it. He also shows how an overreliance on extrinsic motivation can actually have a negative effect on creativity and the performance of creative people.

As a model for the creative organization, Torr uses Amabile's analogy of a maze with one entrance and five different exits. Exit one is directly opposite the entrance and easy to find but leads to an incremental benefit. Most people will use that exit. The other exits are increasingly hard to find but lead to more interesting places. Exit five is where the greatest result is gained, but few people can find it. The goal of the creative organization is find people who can and enable them to find that elusive exit. This means refusing to let them use the easy exits or, to put it another way, refusing to accept incremental improvements and having the patience to encourage the persistence and imagination that will result in great ideas.

The author does not prescribe a single, specific organizational model. Rather, he suggests carefully identifying the most creative people for the job, separating them from the line functions of the organization, letting them explore their particular maze, and protecting them from organizational interference. He recommends paying them well and recognizing them for their output, not for the eventual commercial success or failure of that output: “1. Hire the best talent you can afford. 2. Let them get on with it” (p. 167).

As befits a book on creativity and the creative process, this work tends to ramble. At times, the reader may wonder why the author has taken off in a particular direction. But persistence is rewarded with important insights and a thought-provoking philosophy for managing creative people.

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