We speak on behalf of the creatives who are passionate about their work. They experience deep frustration today with the institutional barriers that have been put in their way as they seek to more effectively achieve their full potential. They want and need platforms that can help them connect with others and drive performance to new levels. They are articulate about their frustrations and needs, but they are often so consumed by their current initiatives that they rarely find a collective voice to express their broader interests.
Who are passionate creatives?
Passionate creatives exist everywhere. They are not bound by geography, job classification, institutional affiliations or demographic categories – they can be found anywhere from the frontlines of the largest organizations to the garages where entrepreneurs are preparing to unleash the next wave of innovation. These are certainly not just knowledge workers. They include mechanics who are passionate about the machines they service, gardeners who see art where others only see plants, retail clothing sales staff who can see the inner person and help them to express it through their clothes and craftspeople who see something amazing in the most mundane raw materials. They also include customers who are not satisfied to take products as given to them, but see the opportunity to make so much more with the products they find. What unites them is the desire to make a difference, to leave the world a better place than they found it and to engage with those who share their passion so that they can get better faster.
These individuals go by many names. Some have adopted the label of pro-amateurs (or “pro-ams”), popularized by Charles Leadbeater, but this label typically refers to amateurs who adopt and pursue professional standards in their pursuit of their passion. We seek to include those of us fortunate enough to be compensated for work we are passionate about, whether we are entrepreneurs, professionals, knowledge workers, craftspeople or clerical workers who are searching for new and creative ways to do the most “routine” tasks. Of course, these individuals have been around since the beginning of human history and played a more prominent role in some eras than in others. Our goal is to expand their ranks and position them firmly in the center of the institutions that shape our professional and personal lives.
Passionate creatives are everywhere among us, but they are not evenly distributed. They tend to gather on the edges where unmet needs intersect with unexploited capabilities. Edges are fertile seedbeds for innovation. These edges include emerging economies like China, India and Singapore that are beginning to encourage individuals to pursue their passion. Other edges include demographic segments like younger generations coming into markets and the workforce with new sets of needs and interests. Edges also arise around the frontiers of technology, whether it is information technology, clean tech, nanotech or biotech. Edges naturally tend to become spiky as passionate creatives seek out collaborators. In this quest, they gather together in dense geographic settlements to enhance their ability to find and encounter others they can learn from.
To be certain, not all people fall into this category. Many today are overwhelmed by the changes going on around them and seek stability, predictability and safety. They long for the time when they knew exactly what needed to be done and what could be expected when they did it. This is completely understandable – change can be perceived as very destabilizing and threatening – especially if we have very little and are struggling to hang on or if we have accumulated a lot and fear that we will lose it all.
But all of us have the potential to become passionate creatives and more and more will make the transition into this growing cohort. We all have the capacity to become passionate about some element of the vast world we live in and passion fosters creation, especially if we have the discipline to master the practices required to drive performance to new levels. Passion fosters new dispositions - it not only welcomes new challenges, it actively seeks them out. It takes challenges and transforms them into opportunities to develop new skills and perspectives. It moves people from external incentives to instrinsic motivations. It consumes people with the desire to take the game to the next level. It merges personal and professional, intricately weaving the strands so that we can no longer tell the difference.
Many of us have suppressed our passions in an attempt to fit in and integrate ourselves into a world that expected stability, predictability and safety. But they remain in the margins of our lives or in the daydreams that distract us from our daily tasks. Our challenge is to re-discover and cultivate them, moving them from the margins into the center of our lives. We must all make our passions our professions – they will help to focus us and energize us in a world where those without passion will be increasingly marginalized and overwhelmed by mounting pressures.
The Big Shift and the opportunities it creates
Why will more and more people evolve into passionate creatives? Because we live in a world that is shifting inexorably from an obsession with efficiency to an obsession with learning. We have come to call this the Big Shift. It is being driven by long-term changes in our technology and public policy infrastructures. These catalysts in turn generate richer and more prolific knowledge flows around the world. Eventually these knowledge flows get harnessed in creation spaces that offer the potential for increasing returns – the more participants that join these spaces, the richer the performance and learning improvement opportunities.
We initially experience this shift in terms of mounting pressure as competition intensifies on a global scale. But, for those of us already pursuing our passions, this world is enormously liberating because it challenges us to become even better. It also provides us with many of the resources required for this effort. It creates opportunities to unleash our passions, leverage them and scale them in ways never before possible. It gives us opportunities to create and make a difference in ways that we never could before.
Those of us pursuing our passions as our professions will move quickly to address the opportunities created by these new infrastructures, participating in richer and more diverse knowledge flows and challenging each other to new levels of performance. Our success and profound joy will become beacons for the others who have kept their passions bottled up, hidden from sight and far removed from their daily tasks. From another direction, the growing pressures on those who struggle to succeed in the absence of passion will become unbearable and ultimately create a crisis challenging their most basic beliefs.
But there is an even more profound factor driving the growth of this category. At a very basic level, to be human is to be a passionate creative. That is what all of us were meant to be, even though many religions and political movements over the centuries have sought to channel or even deny this basic human need. We live in societies that, often with the best of intentions (and unfortunately occasionally with the worst of intentions), sought to socialize us into a very different mold. But many of those societies have been disintegrating over the past several decades as technology and public policy infrastructures challenge and undermine the foundations of those societies. Our true nature as human beings will ultimately prevail, aided by the changes going on around us.
The journey to engage our existing institutions
But the journey will not be easy. This group of individuals today still faces enormous obstacles in pursuing its passions. While our infrastructures are transforming at a rapid pace, the institutions around us are increasingly at odds with these new infrastructures. Most of the institutions that we must deal with, whether they are schools, firms, non-profits or government bodies, emerged and were shaped in a previous era, driven by earlier technology infrastructures. These communication and transportation infrastructures rewarded scalable efficiency and we responded accordingly. The great institutional leaders of the twentieth century enjoyed enormous success and widespread impact as they mastered the practices and institutional architectures required to deliver scalable efficiency. But, in the process, we paid an enormous price. We discovered that scalable efficiency expected all of us to integrate into these new institutional homes by performing highly standardized tasks that were repeatable and highly predictable.
That integration led most of us to suppress our passions. We were taught to treat our work as a price to be paid to accumulate the material resources required to enjoy the rest of our lives. Passion in the workplace became highly suspect. Passionate people do not follow standardized scripts well, they are constantly seeking to improvise, challenge conventional wisdom and strike out on new and unexpected paths. Passionate people are not predictable and, as a result, undermine determined efforts to ensure predictability. These individuals also detest the organizational politics that pervade these institutions as many in the hierarchy begin to focus on hoarding and protecting limited resources.
As a result, we often tend to be deeply unhappy in our current institutions. We are profoundly frustrated by the daily obstacles that we encounter at every turn. We see all the possibilities, but experience firsthand the barriers that keep these possibilities far out on the horizon rather than within our grasp. Well-meaning mentors advise us to get with the program and embrace the institutional agenda even if it means leaving our passion at the door every morning as we report for work. We quickly learn that our passions are viewed as deeply subversive, rather than as treasured assets. As a consequence, many of us have fled these institutions and learned to build independent platforms that are more suitable for pursuing the work that we love. Others remain in our institutional homes, struggling to make a difference against enormous pressure.
While this battle can seem to be overwhelming in the short-term, we can draw hope and inspiration from one inescapable fact. Our current institutional homes will have to change. Performance pressures will continue to mount, driven by the broad deployment of new technology and public policy infrastructures. In this environment, our institutions will be forced to change or fall by the wayside as a new generation of institutions emerges, designed specifically to exploit the unprecedented opportunities created by new infrastructures. The recently released Shift Index provides compelling quantitative evidence that the current approaches to scalable efficiency in our institutions are no longer working – performance has been deteriorating at an alarming rate over decades. Institutions are experiencing unmet needs (for new ways to create value and drive performance to unprecedented levels) and passionate creatives will become powerful catalysts for institutional transformation, whether they remain within the institution itself or are now outside the institutional boundaries, operating on the periphery in various roles. Major organizational change initiatives rarely succeed without a clear and present threat. That threat is now very present for those who care to look.
The opportunity for institutional innovation
True to form, passionate creatives will not sit still for long, complaining about the impediments that stand in their way. This manifesto is not directed at the barriers holding us back. It is a call to action – seeking to mobilize individuals within this group to address the opportunity ahead. Given the new infrastructures emerging around us, we have an unprecedented opportunity to engage in a new form of innovation. Product and process innovation are still valuable, but they are inevitably limited in scope and potential as long as they are pursued within existing institutional arrangements.
To thrive and to draw others into our camp, we need to find ways to re-think our institutional architectures – the roles and relationships that define how institutions function – in ways that amplify our efforts to get better faster. Rather than treating us as irritants to be neutralized, institutions must be redesigned from the ground up to address a totally different rationale. Instead of pursuing scalable efficiency, institutions must learn how to pursue scalable peer learning. Said differently, institutions must find ways to make talent development the core rationale for their existence. Everything about these institutions – strategy, operations and organization – will need to be reconceived through this talent development lens. As this rationale focuses our efforts to craft a new set of institutional arrangements, we will move from the edges of our institutions to their core.
We must make this long and difficult march through our institutions. Without it, we will be forever limited in terms of the scope of our learning and our impact. Properly configured, institutions can provide extraordinary platforms to amplify and accelerate our individual efforts. Without these institutional platforms we will surely still make a difference, but the difference will be far more contained.
This long march will begin at the edges of our existing institutions and on the edges of our world – those edges where unmet needs first encounter unexploited opportunities. We will find ways to catalyze new institutional arrangements first where the need is most pronounced. Our existing institutions are largely helpless to participate in the emerging growth opportunities spawned on the edges of our world. Yet, they must find ways to redeploy resources from their core to these edges if they are ever going to effectively respond to growing profit pressure in the core. We can find ways to help lead our institutions to these edges.
At these edges, we will find more receptivity to institutional innovations that help to effectively target the growth opportunities emerging there. We will also master new practices that can help make these institutional initiatives even more impactful. These pull techniques – accessing resources, attracting resources and achieving our full potential - are already used by many of us, but in a very limited and fragmented way. As we engage on the edge, we will find that we are applying these techniques in much more systematic and creative ways. The growing impact on the edge will position us to draw more and more resources out of the core and onto relevant edges. New institutional forms will evolve rapidly, enhanced by a new set of individual practices that make passionate creatives even more successful.
Coming together to make a difference
To accomplish all of this, passionate creatives everywhere must find each other and join forces to expand our impact. It is time to move from the margins of our institutions to the core. It will be a long and difficult journey but all we have to lose are our institutional chains. The path is clear – we now have an opportunity to move from passion to profession to periphery and finally to potential.
There is so much potential – we need all the leverage that we can mobilize to achieve our full potential. Without appropriate institutions, we will forever remain limited in our ability to achieve impact. We have already begun to pursue institutional innovation on the edge of our existing institutions, in areas as diverse as the Creative Commons, open source software, extreme sports and motorcycle design in China. These innovations give an early indication of the opportunity ahead. But imagine what could be accomplished if we mobilize the vast resources residing within our existing institutions.
We need to move forward and engage the institutions around us. And the institutions have more and more need to listen to us. Twentieth century institutions are not succeeding in the twenty-first century as new infrastructures take hold. They must change or they will slowly shrink into shadows of what they once were and make way for a new generation of institutions more suited to the harnessing the potential of these new infrastructures. With the right effort, we can turn these institutions from prisons to creation platforms and achieve the potential that we have long dreamed about, both for ourselves as individuals and for the institutions that support us.
(For more informatin about the Big Shift and the perspectives leading to my next book, check out the Big Shift blog that I write with John Seely Brown and Lang Davison on the Harvard Business Publishing site)