What is Management, Anyway?

In the grand scheme, the goal of academic research is to advance the state of human knowledge. While this necessarily entails diving into some fairly esoteric weeds, I won't pretend that management scholars have it too tough in that regard (at least compared to chemistry). At the same time, our field is somewhat unique in that few people know what it actually means to study management (at least beyond an MBA). For years, people have been asking "so, you're getting a PhD in how to make money?" That's a fair question, but pursuing a PhD isn't usually a ticket to fame and riches. Instead, academic research in management explores topics such as innovation, entrepreneurship, organizational behavior, and strategy. And because you're now thinking, "those don't really sound like real scientific pursuits either," it's probably worth digging a bit deeper.

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The Most Creative Music Video

I recently stumbled across this music video by David Fain called "Choreography for Plastic Army Men". It's for an instrumental piece by the Portland band Pink Martini, and - you guessed it - it's got some creativity. Which led to an interesting question: what is the most creative music video of all time?

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What Rock Climbing and Creativity have in Common

El Capitan, a towering 3,000' monolith of granite located in Yosemite Valley, presents a brutal challenge for any climber. Here's how legendary climber Mayan Smith-Gobat describes her 2011 ascent the mountain's Salathe Wall:

"My brain switches off to everything else, and only that moment exists...that's probably when you feel most alive, but you're not thinking about life. It's just being there, right there.. Most of it's just body and mind coming together, everything focused on one task."

Interestingly, that type of language is exactly how creative always people describe their creative process; regardless of their age, nationality, or the project they're working on. And while it is surprising enough that people from all walks of life would describe creativity in the same way, it seems even stranger that the language they use also describes rock climbing - or even religion. As it turns out, all of these activities are manifestations of what creativity scholar Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi has termed "flow".

Flow is the automatic, effortless, and highly focused state of consciousness that comes along with stretching one's capacity and engaging in novel discovery and creation. Flow is that feeling that we've likely all had of "losing oneself" entirely in an activity, only to "wake up" minutes or hours later to find that the world has gone on without us. Through in-depth interviews with dozens of highly creative people, Csikzentmihalyi found a few common factors that allow people to find flow:

  1. There are clear goals every step of the way.
  2. There is immediate feedback to one's actions.
  3. There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  4. Action and awareness are merged.
  5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  6. There is no worry of failure.
  7. Self-consciousness disappears.
  8. The sense of time becomes distorted.
  9. The activity becomes autotelic.

The last factor is the big one, since that's what what allows us to really lose ourselves in the creative process. Autotelic is a Greek word for something that is an end in itself; it's a poem written because it wants to be written, or a mountain climbed because it is there. An activity becomes autotelic when we're just at the edge of what we're capable of, or "trying something that's right at your limit", as Smith-Gobat says. The balance of this challenge, along with the freedom to focus and a confidence in our ability, is what allows us to engage freely in the creative process. And that's where all the other elements come in. Jack Kerouac famously taped hundreds of sheets of paper together and fed them into his type writer while writing On The Road, for instance, so that he could avoid the distraction of changing pages. His goal was to become completely absorbed in the story he was creating, as flow is found when we're acting and creating and learning without thinking of any of those things.

We actually had a term to describe this same phenomenon in rowing: "swing" was eight rowers becoming one. I suspect that this feeling was a lot like the sensation of mind and body coming together that Mayan Smith-Gobat describes, as well as what a person in the throes of religious ecstasy might experience. All three are instances of people pushing themselves to their limits, searching for something beautiful. And while that doesn't necessarily make rowing (or prayer) a creative activity, it is pretty fascinating that our brains treat all three the same way.

For more, check out Csikzentmihalyi's book "Creativity", or just watch Mayan be a total bad*ss in this absolutely stunning video of her ascent up El Capitan's Salathe Wall.

Most Creative When Groggy

I'm a bit behind the times on this one, but it's a cool story that deserves a post. Here's the punchline: according to a December 2011 paper in the journal "Thinking & Reasoning", you're at your most creative when you're groggy and out of it. In the study, Mareike Wieth (Albion College) and Rose Zacks (Michigan State) recruited 428 undergrads and used a questionaire to identify them as either night owls or morning larks. They then gave the students a set of problem-solving tasks, half of which required creative insight and the other half of which were narrow-focus analytical questions. Some of the students were given the test first thing in the morning, and the others were tested in the late afternoon.

Their big finding was that students were much more successful at solving the insight problems when tested at their least optimal time of functioning. When tested "off-peak" (night owls in the morning and vice versa) the students averaged success rates of 56%, 22%, and 49% for the three insight tasks, versus 51%, 16%, and 31% when tested at their preferred time of day. In contrast, the performance on analytical questions was unaffected by time of day.

The explanation is that insight-based problem solving (creativity!) requires a broad, unfocused approach, which is easier when your inhibitory brain processes are weaker and your thoughts are meandering.

Pretty cool. For a more thorough summary, check out this quick post in the BPS Research Digest, or if you're feeling brave dive into the full paper here.