Let's Put an End to Random Acts of Creativity

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The article was mundane enough. So why did it make me so mad?

The title read, “Sample 11 of the Best B2B and B2C Content Marketing Ideas of 2018.” 

On the surface, there was no reason for my gut to start screaming to my eyeballs to go find something else to look at, ya dinguses. I mean, who hasn’t seen dozens of these articles before? Here was a simple, curated list of things, brought together in one piece because we as humans ascribe special meaning to 12-month time periods for … reasons.

I just couldn’t figure out why the hell this seemingly innocuous article bugged the snot out of me. And then it hit me, whilst blowing my nose: This article perpetuates a great misconception about creativity in the workplace, one that bastardizes our understanding of the idea. In fact, this article, whether intentionally or not, contributes to one of the worst things happening in business today:

Shortcut Culture. 

Regardless of whether we write blog posts or host podcasts or build and sell products or lead teams, we all tend to validate our success by looking for the same thing: a spike in the numbers. We want the work to work. But not just "work" -- we want it to crush. Like corporate versions of Ricky Bobbywe wanna go fast.

Can't you just feel the rush of witnessing that sudden boost in numbers? Don't you just crave a moment of up-and-to-the-rocket-hyper-ship-growth?

Imagine: you've had a long and stressful week. It's Friday, and you keep thinking about your couch, and Netflix, and that glass of special something, and that special someone snuggling up next to you (human, feline, canine, or otherwise). You're trudging towards that brief respite from the mad dash of constant business growth. Finally, mercifully, you decide to see how things are going. You peel open your laptop. You pull up the data. Your heart is clamoring to escape your chest and retreat behind your hands, which, without you realizing, are now covering your eyes. You slowly take a peek at the graph ... and, OMG, could it be?!

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THOSE SPIKES THO! 

You smile broadly and breathe deeply. Ahhhhh … that’s the good stuff.

Over time, we start to conflate “great work” with “outlier results.” No spike, no good. When we experience The Spikening, it forever changes our conversations too. We whisper in the halls, “Christina’s video was good, but it was no Holiday Video of 2012.” We hear from clients, " “Let’s really go big here. Yeah. Have fun with it.” We're poked and prodded by bosses, ever so passively, ever so aggressively: "We need our next version of the Ultimate Collection of Social Media Templates.”

In the blink of a very twitchy eye, our jobs become manufacturing more spikes. We're no different than whatever soulless monsters spend their time seeking the next Call Me Maybe or MMMbop or (gasp) Macarena. ("And now for the 16th time this morning, here’s Miley Cyrus singing her latest smash hit, Call Me MMMacarena!”)

And so it goes: The endless search for singular moments of spiking numbers. We wander through the desert until HALLELUJAH! We work away until BAM! We stress and struggle and strive until WHAMMY!

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Is this our fate? Is that what our work really is? 

When the greatest possible success we can have is a big spike, our jobs start to change. We don’t exist to deliver great work. We exist to manufacture an outcome that arrives faster and arches higher ... through whatever means necessary. Is it any wonder the business world is filling up with people and programs promising see-spikes-now schemes? The shortcuts. The cheats. The hacks, “secrets,” and gurus. The social media bros who mean-mug the camera for their YouTube pre-roll ads, promising that you, too, can make millions and buy a mansion and trick people into paying you—op! wait! ignore that! Did I mention THIS SWEET NEW CAR I BOUGHT?!

Ugh. I am so. freaking. sick. of shortcut culture in business. Even when we’re not desperately trying to click away from brotastic bullshitters, we still fall victim to endless content and ideas focused on short-term gains. We want Ultimate Guides to tell us everything we need to know, end of discussion, end of learning. (That’s what “ultimate” means, after all: "being or happening at the end of a process; final.") We create internal playbooks specifically so we can run them again and again. We seek out lists of tips-and-tricks from Yet Another Expert Interview Podcast, and we fall all over ourselves when someone claims to know EXACTLY what to say to a prospect, what to do with the algorithm, or what to buy to make the numbers climb rapidly, today.

Ahhhhh yes ... there it is.

So, why did that well-meaning list of inspirational marketing examples grate on me? Because it applauded something I call Random Acts of Creativity.

When we approach our work with a short-term focus or we actively seek shortcuts to juice the numbers, creativity becomes one-off. Like a stunt double, we call upon it to emerge from some trailer in the back parking lot of our brains, and we treat it like a stand-in for the real work. But consistently successful teams infuse creativity in everything they do. It's not a stand-in for the real work. IT IS THE REAL WORK. As the legend John Cleese often says, creativity is not a talent. It's a way of operating.

The business world is full of examples of Random Acts of Creativity replacing creativity-as-process: articles applauding one-off projects, awards for campaigns and viral pieces, and persistent requests to "jump in a room" to brainstorm THE idea ... just to name a few.

If we're going to create unassailable work -- original, resonant, always exceeding ever-higher expectations in others -- than we can't rely on Random Acts of Creativity. What if we stopped seeking them out entirely, and started emphasizing consistency instead? What if we created things made to STICK, instead of spike?

In the end, building exceptional companies and careers unfolds over the long arc of time. Zoom in and you'll find a rather zig-zaggy approach. Some things work and some things don't, all to a varying degree. What matters isn't the next spike. What matters is the slope of the whole damn line.

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We all want to create unassailable work. That is our shared goal. To achieve that, we know we need to be creative, to produce work that resonates emotionally with both us as the creators and the audience as the recipients. In our quest to do so, we face a choice: Fall victim to the popular dialogue around creativity, or prioritize consistency. I say, it's time to ditch the stunts...

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So what can we put in its place? Consistent creativity, sure. But how does that work? What's our solution to shortcut culture, the substitute that we feel better serves our shared goal?

Well, to figure out the cure, we have to diagnose the illness, and if I'm being honest, I don't think we've done that quiet yet. While shortcut culture and the Random Acts they prompt are obvious targets of our ire, I don't believe they're the root problem. The root problem, I think, is the core reason why RACs are ineffective in the first place. After all, none of this would matter if you could indeed use a single stunt to create a special career or company.

No, to find and diagnose the true illness here, and to build back up something new from first principles, we have to dig deeper. Why is shortcut culture ineffective? What happens when we rely on Random Acts of Creativity that hurts our cause rather than helps it?

I'll share my theory next week. 

Only one thing is certain in our shared journey so far: We're putting shortcut culture where it belongs...

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Posted on January 16, 2019 and filed under Wrinkles.