On creativity, art, and entrepreneurship

Want to start a company someday? Great. Begin by dropping my class.

Creativity and business are strange bedfellows. The academic literature in management and business, and in particular the research in entrepreneurship and innovation, consider creativity to be integral to the generation of economic rents — a concept that, in turn, undergirds the entire field’s theories of economic organization and the relationship between innovation, economic growth, and development.

Yet despite almost universal agreement that creativity is somehow important both to the practice of economic life and our academic understanding of the mechanisms that enervate it, the domain of management theory has historically paid very little attention to the potential contributions of scholars who think about creativity for a living — art history, critical theory, and the like. On campus, the intersection between creativity and business occurs in the university classroom. That conversation is a transmission, not a dialogue, with the people who know very little about creativity lecturing those with a surplus of it. When I started hanging around experts who teach entrepreneurship for a living, I asked them why it is done this way. And, because they are experts, they were delighted to break it down for me.

The maker or artist is, in the conventional explanation for why things are as they are, unsuited and or unskilled in some important way for economic life, and to participate meaningfully in it must receive an infusion of general business and economic knowledge. While business school types like myself might not know much about creativity, it seems reasonable that things like general business knowledge may be a topic we might know something about. Our archetypal creative is, therefore, guided by well-meaning people into a course or series of classroom experiences taught by other well-meaning people. These courses provide instruction concerning the rudiments of entrepreneurship or small business management because — it is presumed — the infusion of these skills will enable, for example, the industrial designer to be a more useful and compliant employee in the established firm that will hire her upon graduation, or perhaps enable the fine artist to more effectively navigage the vicissitudes of a creative career.

For every complex problem there is an answer
that is clear, simple, and wrong. — H.L. Mencken

Our dutiful designer or artist imbibes a smattering of technical training, advice around company formation, et cetera and, ultimately, is institutionalized into the underlying meta-message: business is complicated and technical; creativity, while clearly important, is not important enough to study formally or potent enough to carry the day economically.

However, recent developments in the fields of management, organizations, and entrepreneurship suggest that there is much more potential in the intersection between creativity and entrepreneurship than previously conceptualized, with implications that go far beyond classroom pedagogy. An emerging perspective conceptualizes the totality of economic life as a sub-class of a larger enveloping construct—that of human social institutions. In this view, all of the phenomena of interest to management scholars are more like marriage, the Olympics, the government of Poland, and Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living then they are not.

Taken seriously, this perspective implies that everything management scholars study is dependent on creative human minds for its existence, and the collective agreement of human minds to value it and ensure its persistence. Said another way, the sum total of economic life — markets, the corporation, money, and even opportunities for entrepreneurial profit — must be understood as and function according to the rules of human social institutions rather than the laws that constitute our physical world.

The physical world , composed of particles in fields of force, has a fixed set of rules. You don’t get to negotiate with gravity—it does not work that way. Human social institutions, however, are not like gravity. Some of those rules can be negotiated with, bent, or broken.

While there is a long tradition of distinguishing between the social world and the physical world in management scholarship, the implications of that distinction and its application to theory or practice have — surprisingly — remained unconsidered and the troubling implications for management theory left largely unexplored. And, while business school types like myself might lay claim to some semblance of expertise in general business or economic knowledge—calculating the weighted average cost of capital, or working out options grants —it is a stretch to suggest that we have any native advantage when it comes to generating and installing a new social institution, or manipulating social structures.

Our classroom experiences are bereft of this activity, and — most importantly — there does not seem to be much in the way of theory native to the field from which to draw. This is a problem.

Nowadays, a large chunk of my intellectual energy is being applied to considering what creativity means for the theory and practice of economic life given a world of human social institutions — an environment in which, ontologically speaking, opportunities for innovation (and, thus entrepreneurial profit) are not necessarily exogenously encountered but also can be endogenously formed. Entrepreneurship is a particularly fruitful context for these explorations, for a couple of reasons.

First, entrepreneurship has been the most common intersection between creativity and business — and, thus, there is some sort of proto-conversation happening there. Second, because the heart of economic life — the generation (and potential capture) of economic value — is most easily observed at the earliest stages of venture formation, establishment, and growth.

As best as I can tell, entrepreneurship has something to do with value creation and may also have something interesting to say about value appropriation. So working at the intersection of entrepreneurship and creativity is a good place to be if you want to begin to think more deeply about these topics.

This initial foray into creativity and entrepreneurship has generated several surprising insights, with associated implications for theory building, practice, and pedagogy. Foremost among these insights is the conclusion that, given a world in which opportunities are formed rather than encountered, the domain of entrepreneurship cannot routinely draw on theoretical latticework from economics or strategy to gain purchase on core questions that drive the field in the way it has done so in the past. Surprisingly, theoretical insights from art criticism and process represent some of the most promising avenues for management, innovation, and entrepreneurship scholars to understand how value is created, how collective acceptance is engendered, and why individuals choose particular organizational structures and not others during the act of creation.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres (American, b. Cuba, 1957–1996). Untitled (The End), 1990. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Said another way, it would seem that in a curious reversal of fortune it is actually the nascent entrepreneur, conventionally trained in a business school, who is the least equipped for economic life — either as a future founder or as a potential employee in a going concern —when compared to their creative counterpart. This, too, is a problem.

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