That we are living at a time of decline of a shared view of reality warrants a few words from the perspective of those working so hard every day to become better creative leaders. Driven by digital media and spotlighted by the Brexit vote and the U.S. Presidential campaign and election (and now, their aftermaths), the very bases of a ‘post-truth era’ demand active engagement by leaders and citizens alike. The very definitions of ‘post-truth’ or ‘filter bubbles’ or ‘fake news’ are slippery, of course. Easier to recognize is that the de-stabilization of news has resulted from a diminution of traditional institutional structures that have changed radically with digital technologies and the transformed relationships they enable. My interest is in the cottage industry of consultants, trainers, and educators that has already grown up around the topics of business innovation and creativity and their leadership. The emergent world of apparently post-truth communications makes that innovation-industrial complex even more potentially misleading and problematic and deserves our closer scrutiny.
Current discussions of truth and lies, in politics and through social media, invariably raise questions of trust. ‘Facts aren’t the point, trust is’ is one characteristic assessment of the political and communication priorities in ‘the Age of Trump.’ That new point, we should clarify, entails increasing changes in the public status of both truth and trust. Some argue that the manipulation (or subversion) of conventional standards of fact or truth is undertaken to cultivate the trust of public groups, and others that the growing tendency toward individual political bias has pushed us into a ‘post-trust’ era. The claim here is that the nature of that trust and how it is established is itself evolving.
One standard approach to trust that we might usefully reconsider is the ‘trust equation’ formulated by David Maister in the 2002 book, The Trusted Advisor. The equation specifies four key components in our assessment of others’ trustworthiness: reliability (experience and keeping promises), credibility (competence and ‘technical expertise’), intimacy (emotions and feeling ‘safe’) and self-orientation (the extent to which others’ focus is themselves). At a glance, it may seem that fake news and post-truth compromise traditional norms of expertise or experience by appearing to offer the emotional re-assurance and safety of intimacy. Potentially more relevant than the individual components, though, is the exploitation today of the equation’s underlying priority of developing a trusting relationship with others. Especially problematic is a seeming disregard for the self-orientation of those generating the fake news. It may be now that we as citizens, businesspeople, and consumers of information are experiencing a more fundamental shift to the priority of our own – versus others’ – trustworthiness.
As David DeSteno makes clear in his valuable study, The Truth About Trust, learning about and trusting ourselves can be more difficult than we imagine but it is an essential aspect of developing trust in the others and the wider world. Trust in oneself is different from the self-orientation that we judge in others. That trust in oneself can radically (re-)orient an individual’s engagement with others across Maister’s four dimensions. Many creatively-minded people are especially prone to this orientation, heeding the call (and paraphrasing writer Rita Mae Brown) that, ‘Creativity comes from trust – trusting in your own instincts.’ While such self-trust is related to what others describe as creative confidence, it also speaks to the individual’s ability to feel or engage or establish trust in a contemporary landscape altered by digital technologies, social networks, and shifting group dynamics. In other words, at a time when the calculus of determining the trustworthiness of others, not to mention institutions and systems, has grown more complicated, trust in one’s own sense of truth is a more and more reasonable and vital starting point.
Creative Solutions and Problem-Solving
Ultimately, trust relies on a greater degree of faith than certainty. Viewed that way, the belief in creativity can assume a quasi-religious character. Two decades ago, sociologist Robert Wuthnow wrote about how ‘spirituality’ in the United States had become ‘a vastly complex quest in which each person seeks his or her own way,’ with growing numbers ‘[piecing] together their faith like a patchwork quilt.’ My contention is that twenty-first century faith in creativity has taken on a similar patchwork quality, weaving together more traditional beliefs in artistry, exceptional talent, and imaginative thinking and expression with more recent admiration for the breakthrough abilities of technological innovators and of business entrepreneurs. Both sets of beliefs turn on the individual’s trust in and exercise of one’s own creative thinking, imagining and expression (even if, as is often popularly described, such exercise occurs in collaborative settings).
Holding together this patchwork today is an axiomatic belief in the power of creativity and innovation to solve all manner of problems – those of customers, businesses, societies. This raises at least two issues. The first is the nearly magical character of creativity that is increasingly employed as the potent if vaguely-defined driver of change and transformation. The second is the functional understanding of creativity as means to the end of problem solving in businesses and beyond. Solving problems can obviously be good and important. Increasingly, however, other attributes of creativity – from self-expression and source of personal growth and fulfillment to disruption for its own sake and social critique or political provocation – are being left behind in the quest to harness creative efforts as the means to bottom-line personal or organizational returns.
One notable example of the blurring of creativity and problem-solving is the persistent celebration of new features, products and services as solutions. The entrepreneurship theater in which such celebration occurs only rarely pauses to ask which solutions to these problems are in fact worth the investment of time or other resources (or are whether these are indeed problems). During a recent visit to one of the world’s largest tech companies in San Francisco, my host bitingly confided that, too often, the ‘problems’ his industry took on were those of young men wanting to devise technological ways to take care of tasks their parents used to do for them. A joke, yes, but one that shines a light on what our innovation efforts are actually achieving. The outstanding recent book by economist Frederic Erixon and entrepreneur Björn Weigel, The Innovation Illusion, offers a more sustained response to this same question about the wider social value and impact of much of today’s creative commerce. We might ask: Is the trust we increasingly place in our instincts and in our faith in creativity obscuring the superficiality of much of our innovation and creative problem-solving?
The Innovation-Industrial Complex
Many of those companies driving small-scale and feature-based innovation contribute to a complex of industry practitioners, public commentators and media, event organizers and curators, educators and consultants. In the past, critics have called out a self-perpetuating ‘leadership-industrial complex.’ For example, in an illuminating short piece from 2016, the consistently insightful INSEAD leadership professor, Giampiero Petriglieri, addressed what he called the ‘fairy tales’ promulgated by that complex. The post, ‘What “The Art of the Deal” Reveals about Leadership Fairy Tales,’ speaks directly at times about Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign and the post-truth communications it relied on. More generally, however, the piece questions the ‘fairy tales’ through which the industrial complex ‘fabricates’ consistent and specific models of leaders and leadership.
Petriglieri is hardly the first skeptic about the leadership industry, of course. Stanford’s Jeffrey Pfeffer offers a similar critique in his 2015 book, Leadership BS, of the mis-measured conditions, ‘heroic leadership tales,’ and ‘simplistic methods of understanding behavior’ that produce so many leadership failures – and that are perpetuated by an ever-expanding array of leadership training, consulting, and development efforts. In The End of Leadership, Harvard’s Barbara Kellerman likewise concludes that the industry, only four decades old, is thriving because clients are fascinated by leadership, that is, by power and influence as well as the prospect of being ‘led wisely and well.’ Leadership, she observes, is an enormously appealing subject that ‘taps into our deepest, most primitive human impulses.’
Increasingly, a similar industry complex has emerged around innovation, disruption and creative thinking. In fact, we might draw a parallel from Kellerman to observe that innovation and creative leadership tap into not one but two other primitive human impulses – the drives to gain assurance amidst uncertain external conditions and to do so by exercising a fundamentally human part of ourselves. Consider the title of a recent article, ‘Don’t Want a Robot to Steal Your Job? Be Creative,’ which appeared on an outlet ‘for business people in the new global economy’. The piece exemplifies an ever more familiar and facile answer to anxieties about today’s rapidly changing business and social life. Such advice offers comfort through the magical thinking and oversimplified notions of creativity that re-assure individuals that they need only to trust more in their own creative instincts and imagination to succeed. The innovation industry of trainers, educators and other experts offers fairy-tale cases of disruptive thinking and fabricates heroic creative leaders as bulwarks against both the stagnancy of conventional businesses and the complexity of current social, technological and economic conditions.
A Modest Proposal
How, then, to respond? The conventional calls of Barbara Kellerman, Jeffrey Pfeffer and, for many, simple common sense involves greater skepticism and critique of industry claims. Yet this approach, writ large, is what communications in the post-truth era so troublingly bypass. Seeking the deeper meanings or research-based underpinnings of a feel-good buzzword like ‘innovation,’ much less trying to assess the perform-better-and-more-creatively claims of creativity and innovation consultants, is no longer enough. Adapting the approach to fake news offered by social media researcher Danah Boyd, an alternative is to build a new ‘infrastructure’ that allows more meaningful and substantive engagement around innovation and creativity. Rather than reflexively asking more or better questions, that is, we need to begin undoing the culture of hype around innovation and creativity such that people can, as Boyd puts it, ‘hear different perspectives and make sense of a very complicated — and in many ways, overwhelming — information landscape.’
That shouldn’t be read as either an abstract call for a national conversation or an unrealistic proposal for a centralized platform for innovation vetting. Bursting the ‘filter bubble’ of creativity means more than engaging in open conversation and crafting a homogenized approach. We might look at three initial ways to begin. The first is to re-establish the value of expertise in response to what Tom Nichols calls the ‘manic reinterpretation of democracy’ that entitles anyone to claim their opinions have value. In the creative realm, this entitlement is often claimed on the basis of passion or commitment to creativity alone or from the assumption that individual experience equals expertise.
Since anecdotes are likewise not evidence, a second approach is to develop better and more systematic means to communicate innovation and creativity research and actual cases. The discussions held recently by the National Academies of Sciences about communicating science more effectively offer a potential path. In response to a growing disdain for evidence-based thinking and scientific explanations, the Academy called for new tools for better translating insights into practice or conveying the nature of the scientific method and facts. The same would benefit those interested in furthering both the understanding and practice of meaningful and measurable innovation.
The third and most promising approach involves building more systematic practices that would parallel those in several other service-based professional industries. Lawyers, architects, financial planners, and investment advisers have variously developed and adhere to different standards of conduct and reporting, client interaction, and even certification and regulation. Many of these are greatly imperfect, of course, and none would fit exactly the ever-growing market of creativity and innovation consultants and education. Yet the general willingness of other industries to develop an infrastructure, commit to more empirical research, and adopt shared standards arguably make their work more reliable. Practically, these efforts could begin by identifying core skills, knowledge and response strategies of professionals, publicizing performance details, disclosing shortcomings, clarifying areas of expertise, and formulating ethical codes.
Introducing such standards and guidelines to what is now a Wild West of creativity and innovation consulting and education might seem far-fetched. Or it might be the most imaginative and forward-looking way possible to re-stabilize the communications and trust that are essential for consultants and clients alike to pursue real innovation together.