Creativity vs. standards?

Subject: Creativity vs. standards?
From: "Geoff Hart" <geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Date: Tue, 26 Oct 1999 12:10:02 -0400

Andrew Plato took issue with the notion of "instituting a process of
creativity in documentation management."

<<Creativity cannot be serialized. "Institute creativity" what is that?
It sounds like you went out and bought the "creativity" module for
your android and you need Geordi to install it. Wow.>>

I think the reason why this discussion is slowly evolving into an
argument is that two issues are being conflated: creativity, and the
benefits of standards. You need both if you want your workers to
be happy and productive without compromising the needs for
certain minimum quality and for consistency... and by consistency,
I mean the kind that helps readers, not the "hobgoblin of small
minds" that Hobbes (I believe) wrote about.

I find it interesting that you chose the word "serialized", since
many of the finest examples of creativity can be found in the
original serials: radio serials, serialized novels in newspapers, daily
comic strips, and comic books. In each case the authors work
within a tightly constrained medium, and in addition to telling
creative, involving, entertaining stories, many authors have
developed very creative means of eluding the constraints of the
medium. (And many more have failed to do so, which is always the
problem with constraining creativity.)

<<It seems to me that if you want a creative environment it needs
to be free.>>

Which leads to a fairly obvious paradox if you consider that
freedom and working for someone else (whether full-time or as a
freelancer) are mutually exclusive conditions. The trick is to create
the conditions under which creativity can flourish within your
process, without striving for an unattainable goal: total freedom.
The only total freedom an artist has is when there's enough money
in the bank to ignore the need to earn a living through art.

<<As any half-decent artist will attest, creation comes from
inspiration and hard work - not from a really swell looking
methodology. I am not an art historian but I am 99% certain that
the masters of art and science who changed human perception of
the universe did not write up an exquisite analysis process before
they went to work.>>

Depends on who you talk to. "Genius is 99% perspiration and 1%
inspiration" more closely reflects what I've read about both the
scientific and artistic processes. And certainly, most science
involves years of tedious labor to build a foundation of basic
knowledge that some genius then synthesizes into something far
greater. What was it Newton said? "If I seem this tall, it is because
I stand on the shoulders of giants". (Something like that.)

<<By the very nature of a process you have removed free will. By
mandating behaviors and practices and establishing ways to
measure the outcome of those processing you have effectively
processed out creativity.>>

Hardly. Although it's true that (by definition) any constraints do
reduce the amount of freedom, the situation is rarely so black and
white. In fact, there's always room for compromise. When that
room gets lost in the bureaucratic shuffle, you're certainly correct,
and then it's time to move on to new challenges... of which there
are plenty elsewhere.

<<let's not confuse productivity (the ability to get work done) and
creativity (the ability to invent new things).>>

A telling point, and I say that without any intent of sarcasm. The
problem is that any production environment requires both.
Technical writing is never as creative as art or literature, nor should
it be: it's difficult to see how creativity helps you document a "save
file" dialog box, or improves the user's ability to save files. There's
certainly considerable room for creativity in discovering how to
teach users to use a convoluted or irrational interface, and in
persuading the developers to fix the interface, but that's a very
different kind of creativity. As you observed, "not all writing is
creative. Merely following a process and then publishing the results
does not imply creativity." The day it does is the day I'm leaving
this business; it's the problem-solving and the waves of new
problems that keep me challenged and interested.

<<In many ways, the more processes there are, the less creativity
you allow since the mere nature of a process weeds out anything
that does not lead to increased productivity - and creation is often
very unproductive.>>


<<Never, not even once, in the history of humans has ingenuity
been planned out in advance.>>

True enough at face value, but it doesn't refute my basic thesis.
Plenty of places create the conditions under which ingenuity,
genius, and serendipitous discovery flourish. Think of Xerox's Palo
Alto Research Center, MIT's Media Lab, Apple, and IBM. I doubt
you could call any one of these organisations "free" (particulalry
IBM, which probably has the most bureaucratic reputation of the
lot), but marvelous, inspiring things are coming out of each place.

<<I know that some people want to believe that all these
processes and standards make their jobs have more meaning. In
reality, they merely make your job more predictable.>>

The predictability is the important thing here. Standards really
should exist for one purpose, and one purpose alone: "We've
proven that this works better than (or at least as well as) the
alternatives for our audience." Those are the kinds of standards you
should strive for, and the creativity lies in finding increasingly better
solutions and in finding solutions for things not covered in the

And for those of us with the urge to create, you go home after a
long day of writing procedures, fire up the wordprocessor (or get out
the palette and oils) and do something really creative. Best of both

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca (Pointe-Claire, Quebec)
"If you can't explain it to an 8-year-old, you don't understand it"--Albert Einstein

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