What makes for creative organisations?
Many thanks for reading this, the first of hopefully many weekly email newsletters. Modern work can be a maelstrom of the here-and-now – short-term problems demanding immediate solutions – and for us knowledge workers it can be hard to carve out time to breathe, look up, and think about fundamental long-term issues. This blog and newsletter are my attempts to force myself to do precisely that kind of looking upwards and outwards, and hopefully to evolve some useful and coherent theories about why our world is the way it is and what can be done about it. I hope I can repay your attention with regular missives that are useful, or at least interesting, but obviously I’m still in the process of feeling out exactly what that looks and feels like. Please bear with me in the meantime, and if you have any thoughts at all then please let me know!
This week I’ve been thinking about creative organisations. Lots of businesses aspire to being creative, and there’s lots of advice out there for them.
As someone who seeks out that advice and could really benefit from it, I often find it to be disappointingly superficial. That’s annoying, because creativity cuts to the very core of organisations, and is affected deeply by the fundamental dynamics and power structures within them. There are no easy fixes for organisations that struggle with creativity, and no straightforward explanations for why creative organisations succeed. In particular, it feels like creativity isn’t something that you can fix at the process level – it’s something much deeper than that.
So, this week’s article focuses on an old-but-interesting model of creativity that was developed by the psychologist D. T. Campbell in the 1960s, that views the spread of creative ideas as akin to the evolution of genes in biology – a three-stage process of variation, selection, and retention. I think organisations can be good or bad at any one of those phases individually, and if they’re serious about becoming more creative then they should think hard about where their problems lie.
This week’s article
Donald T. Campbell, inspired by evolutionary theory, explained the spread of creative ideas in three steps: variation, selection, and retention. What does it look like to build an organisational culture that excels at all three of these phases?
This week’s two interesting link
Ben Thompson’s weekly Stratechery article this week is a doozy: it’s a profile of Jeff Bezos, the soon-to-sort-of-retire CEO of Amazon, and what makes him perhaps the most effective and impactful startup founder in history.
Bezos is one of those interesting characters that’s perhaps simultaneously over- and under-rated. Fawned over by business bros for his (important!) drive and determination, people spend less time focusing on just how visionary he was at several key junctures, and perhaps underestimate the impact of those visions on the global economy. He spotted the unique potential of the internet from a retail perspective, creating a store that could only exist on the internet; he spotted the unique potential of creating computing primitives that could be used internally by Amazon but also be built into the behemoth that is Amazon Web Services; and he spotted the unique potential of becoming a platform rather than merely a retailer. #
iFixit have been nobly banging the drum for repairable electronics for years. That debate has often been framed as one of consumer control and what “ownership” really means when it comes to our devices.
But with their Repair Jobs Revolution, they’ve shifted the focus to the wider societal benefits. Sending electronic waste to landfill doesn’t just waste the components and energy used to create it, and damage the planet; it also takes almost no effort to process and creates no value. Repairing and reusing, on the other hand, creates local jobs that produce genuine value. Good for the planet, good for the local economy. #