Last night I attended a book launch party to honor Elizabeth Alexander, the poet who spoke at Obama’s inauguration. After some opening remarks, she read her inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day.”
After her reading, she took questions from the audience of over 100 people.
The question (and response) that struck a chord with me was when Elizabeth was asked if the inauguration committee gave her any guidelines for her poem. Did it have to be a certain length? Did it have to be around a certain theme?
Elizabeth’s response was an emphatic “No.”
There were no restrictions on the poem’s length. It did not have to fit neatly into a time slot. It did not have to address any particular topic. She could talk about whatever moved her.
The only restriction was how much time she had to write the poem. Obviously it had to be ready by January 20th. She joked that this was the first time she ever had a deadline for one of her poems.
Elizabeth commented that the organizers knew that only the artist could determine the perfect length and the perfect theme. Dictating these parameters would compromise the quality of the finished product. Poetry is a natural expression that emerges best when there are fewer limitations.
Even though a topic was not dictated, I suspect the theme was immediately obvious to her. It was to capture the historic moment of change within the country. To honor America and Americans. And to celebrate the inauguration of her friend, Barack Obama.
Creativity is similar to poetry. If you put too many restrictions on the creative process, you may compromise the quality of the finished product. Creativity often needs time to incubate. And the best solutions often look different than expected.
But in business, the “theme” is not always as obvious. Everyone has their own agenda. One reason creative endeavors fail in business is that they are solving the wrong problem.
Einstein once said, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” From my personal experience, most people (and organizations) spend 60 minutes finding solutions to problems that don’t matter. For those of you who have played Personality Poker®, you know this is why the “spades” (the fact-driven, analytical people in your organization) are so important to your success. They can help define critical themes for the creative “diamonds.”
In business, we are not creating works of art. Our creative endeavors need to make business sense. They need to be implementable (the domain of the “clubs”) and they ultimately need to serve customers, employees, business partners, and/or shareholders.
Regardless, there is great wisdom in Elizabeth’s response.
You need to give people – all employees – more creative freedom. You need to put fewer restrictions on the creative process. And you need to give employees more latitude to let the best ideas emerge. In doing this, your innovation efforts may just develop spectacular works of art that move, inspire, and create value for everyone.