Eitan Wilf on his new book, Creativity on Demand


Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: You describe how, when you explained your previous work on regimented jazz instruction to someone also attending a business innovation workshop, he asked you how you managed to get metaphorically from a famous jazz club in New York City, the Village Vanguard, to these workshops. You point out that the similar tensions in both sites exist because people are using rule-bound and structured pedagogical techniques which are meant to lead to creative improvisation that in earlier decades was believed to emerge more organically.  How do you think the business innovation workshops you attended differed from the jazz classes in the ways rules and creativity were understood?

Eitan Wilf: My interlocutors in academic jazz programs and business innovation workshops did not approach rules for generating creative results in the same way due to the historical specificity of each context. Most of my interlocutors in academic jazz programs—students, teachers, and administrators, as well as the wider public—understood the academic jazz program as a pale shadow of the vibrant urban jazz scenes of the mid-20th century, which gave rise to the masterpieces of this genre. The apprenticeship system, in which neophyte musicians learn from more experienced musicians in live performance settings, was the prevalent form of jazz training in those scenes. With the gradual disappearance of clubs and their replacement with academic programs, jazz training became more standardized, abstract, and text-mediated. Due to this history, my interlocutors in academic jazz programs viewed the structured pedagogical techniques taught in such programs as always already problematic, a form of training that indexed the music’s and their own fall from grace and the realization that, at best, such techniques can give them a glimpse of what genuine creativity in jazz is all about. In contrast, my interlocutors in business innovation workshops did not have the idea that they were born after a past golden age of creativity in the business world in relation to which their own practice could be negatively compared. Because creativity has never been a defining dimension of their ideal-typical practice, they approached the structured techniques for generating creative results that they were taught in innovation workshops with much more enthusiasm, hope, and curiosity. If they experienced any ambivalence toward those techniques, it was due to the fact that in western modernity in general creativity and rules are understood to be antithetical to one another.

Ilana Gershon: In studying companies geared towards spreading business innovation, you point out that idea generation is a fairly small portion of what actually takes place in innovation, but is the major focus of business conversations and imaginations of how innovation functions. How does this mismatch affect the companies you observed and their clients?

Eitan Wilf: Idea generation and creative cognition are the “sexy” dimensions of innovation. Had innovation been presented only as what it really is—a very precarious, uncertain, and unglamorous process that has to do with cost-benefit analysis, feasibility considerations, regulatory issues, organizational politics and rivalries—it would have been more difficult for companies to generate the kind of enthusiasm that can help them recruit employees, secure venture capital, get media attention, and mobilize consumers. It also would have been more difficult for innovation consultants to sell their expertise. In addition, the continued existence of innovation workshops whose focus is idea generation can be explained by the fact that the business world is receptive to what I call “institutional myths of innovation,” or organizational structures (such as innovation workshops) that have become associated with increasing innovation and that are used because of this association rather than because of their actual productivity effects. The business world is receptive to such myths because inasmuch as innovation is about the generation of the as of yet unknown, innovation is characterized by a high degree of ambiguity of goals. Hiring an innovation consultancy and experimenting with innovation workshops are mechanisms for reducing the level of uncertainty if only because one’s competitors are also doing this and because investors expect businesses to show visible and legible signs of innovation or at least of taking the steps to generate it.    

Ilana Gershon: You argue that part of what contemporary business innovation strategies do is transform products into quasi-persons and consumers into quasi-objects.  What do you mean by this?

Eitan Wilf: An innovation method developed by one of the consultancies I worked with is based on the notion that to come up with ideas for new products, innovators must pay attention to the developmental history of existing successful products—how they changed from one previous version to the next one. This history of changes in form contains clues about existing products’ potential for future development that will cater to unmet consumer needs. When you analyze this innovation method in detail, you notice phrases such as “the innovator must listen to the voice of the product,” to its “potential” to evolve in specific ways, and statements that emphasize that any product can have “a creative spark” that the innovator must identify and take advantage of. The product is thus transformed into a quasi-person in accordance with a romantic notion of the self that stipulates that each individual has a unique nature, voice, or potential that contains clues about this individual’s future, which she must listen to in order to realize it. Products are approached as quasi-persons because this conceptualization allows the innovation consultant to transform creativity from a poorly understood human characteristic into a controllable element of the innovation process. When the potential for change and for ideas for new products is understood to inhere in existing products and to be discoverable by means of an algorithmic analysis of products’ past formal changes, it becomes easier for the innovation consultant to convince businesses that she has managed to come up with a rule-governed system for generating creative results. However, the price to be paid for this displacement of creativity from humans to products is that consumers have to be approached as quasi-objects that are unchangeable, static, and decontextualized. This is the only way to make the argument that consumers’ future needs can be algorithmically inferred in advance just by looking at the history of existing products work. Class-, gender-, and race-based characteristics—in short, culture and context—simply do not exist in this framework.

Ilana Gershon: You point out that innovation consultants have a particular conundrum they must overcome – they must persuade businesses that they have teachable techniques for producing newness, which is widely understood to emerge from ephemeral creativity.   What are some of their strategies for dealing with this?  In what ways do spaces and material artifacts become productive vehicles for addressing this contradiction?

Eitan Wilf: Business innovation in general depends on the perfection of persuasive mechanisms because key forms of innovation—especially in the start-up sector—depend on the ability to convince investors to provide the capital that entrepreneurs need to produce a future reality when there is very little in the present that can guarantee that such a future will be successfully produced. There were two key kinds of persuasive devices that my interlocutors used to convince businesses that newness can be generated by means of rule-governed techniques. The first device is a kind of ritual semiosis that unfolded in real-time during innovation workshops. Workshop facilitators orchestrated multilayered and multimodal discursive events that first brought into being the culturally-specific opposition between rule-governed techniques and creative agency and then recruited participants into the role that accepts that rule-governed techniques can encompass and productively channel creative agency. Facilitators hoped that the changes in role-inhabitance diagrammed or enacted during the workshops would result in more permanent changes outside the workshops, that is, that participants would buy into the facilitators’ philosophy of innovation in a more permanent fashion. The second persuasion device I analyze is the mediation of the existence and success of rule-governed innovation by means of the design of the spaces in which innovation takes place and the material artifacts used during innovation sessions. For example, shared and open-plan workspaces, which are understood to increase organizational creativity because they can facilitate serendipitous information flow and serendipitous encounters between people with different skillsets, are designed in ways that mediate their ability to productively channel and increase organizational creativity along these lines. I found a spectacular form of mediation of the power of the shared workspace to increase innovation when I did fieldwork in a shared workspace in New York City where an old and obsolete office workstation was exhibited in a glass enclave as if it were a specimen of an extinct species. One of the glass panels dissected this workstation so that one could see the inner mechanisms of its obsolete technologies (those technologies included one of the first Mac computers, floppy disks, a rolodex, ruler, desk lamp, a wooden desk, dial phone, and a file cabinet stuffed with paper files, to name a few). In this way the designers of this space iconized the power of the shared and open-plan workspace to make the business organization, even the much vilified office of the past—the office that is now seen as the epitome of inflexibility, opacity, lack of creativity, and informational blockage—literally open, transparent, and, by implication, more creative. Some of the material artifacts used during the innovation workshops, which performed a similar form of mediation, included innovation method cards on which strategies of innovation are encoded and which mediate the possibility of facilitating structured innovation sessions at any time and place, as well as post-it notes, which visually mediate by iconizing controlled creative cognition and structured brainstorming sessions.

Ilana Gershon: I found your chapter on both the life and the self that are available to be designed quite chilling, in part because it resonates so much with privileged forms of imagining one’s potential I hear fairly often from my students and even my friends. I am wondering if you could say a little bit about what is distinctive about the designable self as opposed to the more generic entrepreneurial self that critics of neoliberalism have learned to associate with contemporary capitalism.

Eitan Wilf: Well, let’s take your own work on career counseling services in the United States. The target audience of those services are mostly people who struggle to remain employed in a highly volatile market environment where companies, to boost the prices of their stocks, must show that they are capable of change in the form of constant reorganization and layoffs. Against this backdrop, the career counselors you worked with advise their clients to develop themselves into a bundle of both flexibility and predictability that will help them remain employed. An individual should develop her flexibility by cultivating different skills and experiences as part of her entrepreneurial self, but she also must learn to present herself as a coherent and predictable self that businesses can partner with by identifying and marketing her self’s authenticity, or its unchanging and unique qualities. Here authenticity is a means to an end—remaining employed and employable. In contrast, the target audience of the specific method of self-innovation I analyze in my book are people who already have stable high-paying jobs or who will have no problem getting such jobs if they want to. Their problem is getting meaningful jobs, or jobs that align with who they really are. Against this backdrop, this method teaches an individual to identify her authentic self and to “design” her future life around a job that will align with this self and that will make her happy. Here the self’s authenticity is the end for which a specific job is the means. If the key metaphor for the self in the context you studied is a business that must remain profitable and viable by being flexible and strategic, the key metaphor for the self in the method of self-innovation that I studied is a high-end consumer product such as a Porsche, a Ferrari, or a MacBook Air laptop (these are the actual examples used in this self-innovation method) because each of these products has its own unique aesthetics that was the product of careful design processes. The idea is that each of us can use design thinking to design a life that will align with our authentic selves and that will make us happy. Of course, this idea ignores the numerous differences that exist between a self and a Porsche or a MacBook Air laptop, as well as the fact that design thinking has led to many failed products that disappeared from the market without leaving a trace.


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