Creativity and Efficiency

In art, as in most things in life, creativity and efficiency co-exist in tension. If you optimise on creativity, it often isn’t very efficient. On the other hand, if you’re obsessive about efficiency, that can easily drive out creativity. The essence of efficiency is standardisation, repeatable process and reduction of deviations. Ironically, you can get very efficient at making the wrong thing. Only an injection of creativity can break the deadlock, helping you see the right thing to build, or even replacing a seemingly efficient process with a much more efficient alternative way.

Economies fixate on efficiency, assuming creativity will always be there to rescue it, even if nobody is prepared to pay for it. I submit that this fixation is because efficiency is easier, in some senses. There are fewer unknowns. You just apply method and perseverance. It’s easier to measure. Type one thinking, our gut reaction and instinctual response, is very efficient, but frequently wrong. Type two thinking, with its sceptical introspection and evidence-based conclusions, can be highly creative.

The fact is, you need both creativity and efficiency. One without the other is sub-optimal.

The way to combine the two is through purposeful play. Make time to explore, but set a deadline, so that you gravitate toward some kind of focussed conclusion, without prejudging what that conclusion will be. Play is learning. Learning can feel stressful and challenging, making you feel inadequate and lost, breaking you down and humbling your spirit, so approaching it playfully makes the discomfort of not knowing feel more like excitement and fun. The only time you are actually growing is when you’re uncomfortable. The secret to success invariably lies in the very thing you’re avoiding.

Together, creativity and efficiency define innovation. Innovation is the dialectic that is present throughout nature. It’s a dynamic equilibrium and a circular interaction. Creativity plants the seeds, saying yes to more new ideas, while efficiency thins out the seedlings, removing the less viable and saying no to ideas that look less promising. This spiral nature of innovation illustrates that creativity—ironically—is a key route to efficiency, and efficiency can lead to creativity.

The greatest innovators are rarely individuals, but rather groups that embody this tension between creativity and efficiency. Artists need editors as much as the commercial business of art depends on iconoclastic creators. A band of engaged musicians in creative tension frequently produces better music than the individual band members do, as solo artists. It’s difficult (though not entirely impossible) to be both creative and efficient at the same time. Your head space is either one or the other, at any given time and context switches take time and effort. 

In particular, one potentially powerful pairing, inside an ecology of innovation, is the novice and the expert. The novice is unconstrained because they have little idea of what is and isn’t possible, unafraid of asking questions and hence, producing surprises. The master brings the benefit of experience and judgement, helping to sift good questions from less useful ones. The two, in tandem, are a formidable team.

Is your artistic practice in balance? Do you alternate between creativity and efficiency, or are you stuck in one mode or the other?

Think how economies, public policy and companies could be transformed, if they deliberately and consistently balanced deviation and conformity. Imagine if both mindsets were equally valued and respected. That would be innovative.

We can but dream.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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