Creativity & Co.: The Co-Creativity Story

To pick up where we left off in our last blog post, “Baguettes of Co-Creativity,” we’re going to take a more in-depth look at co-creativity and explore why it’s such a compelling and influential concept in today’s workforce. Going about clearly explaining this far-reaching and important, yet unchartered and nuanced subject has proven a tall task for us, as it is such an instrumental theme in the work that Visual Insight does. In consequence, we concluded that the best way to jump into this assignment would be…

Story time!

Ready? Okay. Here we go…

Lets begin with the origin of the term co-creativity. It was coined as a sort of tongue-in-cheek phrase by Visual Insight founder Eileen Clegg and company in 1999 when they co-authored the book Claiming Your Creative Self: True Stories from the Everyday Lives of Women (out of print). During that time, Eileen, along with co-authors Susan Swartz, Margaret McConahey, and Deborah L.S. Sweitzer, unanimously hypothesized that, as Eileen puts it, “People still thought you needed to be ‘ordained’ (with a Rockefeller grant or some such) to be considered ‘creative.’” They disagreed with this view, and highlighted their stance by coming up with and using the now-not-uncommon phrase, which embodied, and still does, the “Everyone is Creative” movement—a movement that, in recent years, has had an ever-increasing influence on business teams’ cultures in many an industry.

“Back then, as now,” says Eileen, “being creative—as in being fully yourself—was, and still is, a little nerve-wracking. It takes courage.” One of the women in Claiming Your Creative Self, she illustrates, formed a club called the “Danger Rangers,” where people received badges each time they did a creative act. “This inspired us co-authors to take some risks of our own,” she continues. “We relied on each other. We jokingly called ourselves ‘co-dependent creatives,’ which we shortened to ‘co-creatives.’”

And the rest is, well, herstory…

Now lets fast-forward to co-creativity in the present day. The phrase “co-creativity” is popping up more and more, and in a lot of different places. We’ll even go so far as to say it’s in the zeitgeist cloud. (Yup. We said it.) And even though the concept of co-creativity is not yet clearly defined, leading edge thinkers somehow know that it is the next “edge,” and some of them have even been able to realize its alchemical potential with respect to innovation.

So, what do we know about co-creativity? We know that co-creative groups serve as “innovation factories.” How do we know? We’ve seen it. And we’ve done it. We also know that a group of people who are not only willing, but eager to support each other’s creativity equals co-creativity. How do we know this? By the results. The results are magic.

“I think of co-creativity as this delightful state where individuals are being iconoclastic—together,” exclaims Eileen. “Maybe that sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s really not. In fact, it’s the opposite of an oxymoron. It’s an ‘oxygenius’!” (Yup. We just said that, too.)

The fact that we at Visual Insight—in addition to many leading-edge companies—have been able to identify, cultivate, harness, and now promote, co-creativity without having clearly defined it reveals something else about it: Thus far, it has been successfully employed solely by way of intuition. While such a phenomenon is awe-inspiringly mystifying, it is also daunting in its ambiguity. How can we put co-creativity into precise wording when the only way we’ve come to know it is by doing it and then recognizing its presence? Well, this is where things get a little fuzzy. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

To better understand what co-creativity is, let’s first look at what it is not…

Co-creativity is not teamwork. The word “work” is the big hint here. Combining the word “team” with “work” implies that a team already has a specific goal in mind, a designated task to complete—i.e. people working together to figure out how to get from A to B. Co-creativity does not involve “work.” It’s a calling. The individual is following the voice of the muse, not the voice of the boss.

This is not to say, however, that teamwork should be viewed in a negative light, or even as something that completely stifles innovation. Teamwork is as valuable as co-creativity. Both are necessary. But each serves a different purpose. Whereas the purpose of teamwork is to problem-solve as a group, the purpose of co-creativity is to feed off of one another and innovate as a group.

Furthermore, co-creativity does not replace the function of teamwork. In a co-creative environment, problem-solving plays second fiddle to innovation. After all, it’s hard to solve the problems of ideas that haven’t been invented yet, right? It takes co-creativity to come up with a new, profound idea, and it takes teamwork to practically refine that idea and put it into action.

Likewise, effective teamwork can lead to co-creativity, but effective teamwork does not automatically yield co-creativity. Although it is not unheard of that a team can be so in-the-zone while problem-solving that cohesive innovation takes shape on each individual’s own terms—a sign of co-creativity—the inherently goal-oriented, A-to-B paradigm of teamwork could likely present itself as an obstacle in the attempt to cultivate a co-creativity-friendly environment.

Now we’re going to throw another “co” word into the mix…

Co-creativity is not collaboration. Or, rather, let’s say that co-creativity is not only collaboration. Collaboration, which we can essentially define as the act of working together jointly and cooperatively, is a key component of co-creativity, but, like teamwork, does not automatically yield co-creativity.

Teamwork and collaboration are different in that teamwork is when a team collaborates, whereas collaboration is not necessarily limited to working within a team. Two or more individuals, teams, or companies working together cooperatively equals collaboration. A joint venture, for example, is a collaboration in which all parties involved remain separate entities, as opposed to fusing into one team, and yet work together to achieve a shared goal.

But enough of this hair-splitting business. Time to move on to fry the bigger fish we had in mind for this post, like…

How do you encourage co-creativity? Perhaps deconstructing this intuitive process will lead us closer to a clear definition, or at least help you come up with your own.

Co-creativity is encouraged the same way that creativity is encouraged, only the emphasis is on the group creating cohesively and equally, and with each individual creating in her own way and maximizing her own strengths and interests. In order to make it possible for such a dynamic to exist, group members must feel free to be themselves, which means that the environment must have an air of safety and comfort.

First and foremost, a safe space to innovate is one that is devoid of harsh judgment and pressure, both of which are what Eileen refers to as “Creativity Killers.” In a co-creative environment, it is important to keep in mind that innovation, like thought patterns, is not linear. You never know what an idea that you think is dumb might lead to. It is also important to keep in mind that by harshly criticizing an idea, you run the risk of knocking the idea’s owner off of the path that may have led him, and therefore the group, to a brilliant and innovative idea, or solution, or both.

With respect to pressure, it is important to remember that your muse, and everyone else’s for that matter, needs some breathing room. The Creative Spirit does not do well with being told to “Produce now!” The Creative Spirit is playful. It is part of the subconscious, which tends to follow only its own rules. Eileen points out that it is critically important to recognize that you do not make creativity happen, it makes you happen. Still, in order for creativity to find you, you have to speak its language, which sounds a lot more like music than spoken word, and looks a lot more like pictures than the written word.

Why are we encouraging co-creativity? Visual Insight has shared the idea of co-creativity with a number of leaders in companies that are what we refer to as “DSI” (Desperately Seeking Innovation). These companies are interested in harnessing the benefits of teamwork and collaboration in order to create breakthrough products and services, but the processes they have used to try to accomplish these things have ultimately let them down.

We believe that co-creativity can provide the spark that will help companies achieve the level of innovation that they have been trying to ignite. Visual Insight has, however, experienced some pushback with this stance because people want us to better explain co-creativity before committing to trying it out.

We understand such skepticism, which is why we have been grinding away at trying to fit a concept as intuitive and holistic as co-creativity into a cut-and-dry definition. We will continue to work at defining co-creativity until we succeed at doing so because we believe that organizations and thought leaders need to understand it in order to move beyond incremental innovation to the kind of disruptive, breakthrough innovation that will truly change the world for the better.

We realize that there is still much ambiguity surrounding co-creativity as a concept and process, yet we have decided to approach this project in a way that remains in line with the nature and spirit of innovation: an ever-evolving quest, a labyrinth that reveals its secrets to you the more you explore it. And with that said, we hope that you will continue to join us, as both witnesses and participants, in this—you guessed it—co-creative adventure.



Creativity & Co.: The Co-Creativity Story
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