Interview by Leah Thayer
From the January/February 2019 Net Assets magazine
Net Assets: Independent school business officers work in the creative environments of K–12 schools, yet they have rigid (or compulsory) responsibilities involving matters like regulatory compliance in HR and tax, to name just a few. What’s the business case for them igniting what you call the “power of disciplined creativity” within themselves?
Who: Erik Wahl, graffiti artist and best-selling author
What: Leadership Awards Lunch
When: Tuesday, March 5, noon to 2 p.m.
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Wahl: Efforts to court creativity translate to serious money. The top 1,000 public companies spent $680 billion on innovation in 2015, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 2015 Global Innovation 1000. Yet the same study found no statistical relationship between increased innovation spending and sales growth, operating margin, net profit growth or total shareholder return, among other measures. In fact, the study’s 10 most innovative companies based on performance (led by Apple, Google and Tesla) cumulatively outperformed the top 10 spenders by nearly 10 percent — a trend that has held true for the last six years. Clearly, there is a tangible difference between treating creativity like a supplement and treating it like the ecosystem in which your company breathes and operates. While casual dress codes, retreats and brand renovations can be effective additives in the body of a highly creative ecosystem, they are merely antacids in an organization that does not breathe creativity.
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The bottom line is that the power of disciplined creativity is a long-term growth strategy. Think about the companies that are fading away because they only focused on their short-term goals and objectives: Kodak failed to plan for and accommodate the wave of digital photography that overtook them. Nokia was one of the first smart phone providers but failed to keep up with a lightning-quick software evolution. Blockbuster Video refused a partnership with Netflix and was cut out of the digital entertainment revolution. There are so many examples of mega-corporations who didn’t make innovation part of their everyday operations and paid the price. Quite simply, organizations that don’t bake innovation into their every strategy, operation and goal put their competitive edge at great risk.
Net Assets: How can business officers become more agile or adept with the creative process?
Wahl: I would encourage them to not be afraid to fail. In fact, if you don’t fail, I would say you aren’t trying hard enough. I could predict a future trajectory of success for any industry, any industry or organization, or child by asking one simple question: What is your definition of failure? If your definition of failure is consumed with weakness or loss or bankruptcy, then your ceiling remains at a very specific level, you insulate yourself from challenges or external environments, and you can only go so high.
By comparison, if you define failure as research and development — an opportunity to adjust, advance forward, fail forward — the sky’s the limit on how far forward you go. Every time you come to face with fear, you become stronger, more courageous and more confident.
Net Assets: You have written, “In order to free your own originality, you need to be willing to stop doing only what’s required and expected of you, and start doing the things that only you can do.” Time is the obstacle. How can independent school business officers make space for going beyond what’s required and expected?
Wahl: Invest in a weeklong time audit, in which you write down to the minute how you spend your workday. You’ll see the hard truth about where you’re spending it wisely and where it’s being wasted. Are you spending the right proportion of time on the most important steps to meet the most important goals? Are you holding or attending meetings for issues that could be handled with fewer people, an email or a phone call? What would be better delegated or eliminated completely? Where could you use an efficiency upgrade? What processes no longer serve the organization’s mission?
There are always core responsibilities you need to handle. But how you handle them can create a shift in time and efficiency, opening space for creativity to enter.
This is all lip service, however, without executive buy-in. Your organization needs to be committed at every level to innovation as a value. The secret to trusting the creative process lies in embracing the duality of creativity — that it is both a fresh idea and a fierce drive, both at the same time. Applying this to your day-to-day requires an ability to know which is needed during the course of creation. While you might assume that ideation is the beginning of the creative process, this isn’t always the case.
There are a few steps I recommend:
Net Assets: How can business officers apply structure to the creative process?
Wahl: You need to embrace a routine to be disciplined as a creator. For great artists, composers, writers and business masterminds, discipline is strategic. A mindful routine allows for fast progress and simultaneous flexibility to explore without an immediate deadline. This is a creativity conundrum: We need to be efficient and use our energy wisely, but in order to make progress, we also need to explore, ideate and create. Routine is the glue that holds them together. There has to be a constant willingness to let go — of assumptions, of current knowledge, of safety nets. But there must also be structure to make real strides in your creative efforts, enough to force you to take action and produce something, anything, on a daily basis.
No creative routine worth embracing is simultaneously light on risk and heavy on reward. The creative process is risk and reward at once and all at once. It may hurt at first, but the more you do it, the less risky, rote and unreasonable it will feel even when your actual odds of failing haven’t changed. Fighting this fight is one of the most worthwhile battles in your life.
Set about today to establish a routine, a rhythm, that allows you to maximize as much creative juice as possible every day, in every context. Allow your routine to become part of who you are, part of your lifestyle. When you experience its rewards, even only a few times, you will be ready to lean in further. In other words, you will comprehend what constant creators have known for centuries.
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