Benign Control for Creative Collaboration

| By TMA World


Unconstrained open-endedness can paralyze creativity, while some form of controlling limitation can be a great aid to the creative process.

Many—if not all—of you will remember the hit AMC TV series, Breaking Bad.  It’s the one in which a high school chemistry teacher (Walter White played by Bryan Cranston) diagnosed with terminal lung cancer partners with a former student (Jesse Pinkman played by Aaron Paul) to make and sell crystal meth. White’s plan is to secure the financial future of his family when he dies.

Bryan Cranston once gave an interview to business magazine Fast Company on how to collaborate the Breaking Bad way.  Cranston is very clear that getting to the final product necessitates actors, writers, and directors working together in a true collaboration. I reread the interview recently, which prompted me to share some insights from Bryan Cranston and other creative collaborators in my files:

The making of the show involved a rotating cast of characters. For example, the director of an episode was often a guest who came in and did what directors do and then left. Cranston needed to be the “honesty police” and make sure the director was true to the character—even so far as making sure the director put him in the correct side of the bed in a bedroom scene. After all, “what married couple switches sides of the bed randomly?”
It’s the small details that help avoid uncertainties in the minds of the audience—uncertainties that create illogic and psychological distance from the show.

Providing newcomers with adequate contextual details helps maintain continuity and reduces the learning curve.

When Cranston has a disagreement, he always puts it in the form of a “preface.” Instead of “I disagree” or “You’re wrong,” he says, “I have a pitch.” A “pitch” is language from sales and relates to how you see something, and the benefits of seeing it that way.  When something doesn’t sit well, it’s called a “bump”—“I bumped on this.”  This is a less aggressive way of saying, “I have a problem with this.” And so, the way of talking about an issue would be, “Something bumped me, and I have a pitch.”

Controlling Limitation

The language of the Breaking Bad collaboration kept the project moving forward in a respectful and professional way. It was part of the controlled environment that enabled creativity to flourish.
Dare I say controlled in relation to creativity?

One of the problems some managers have with creative collaboration is that they frame creativity and control as incompatible. But are they? Look at the following:

Creativity: chaotic, wild woolly, haphazard, anarchic, incoherent
Control: power, domination, regimentation, subjection, repression

Framed in those extreme terms, they have nothing to offer one another, but anyone who has been involved in creative activities knows that some form of controlling limitation can be a great aid to the creative process. The controlling limitation can be a strong vision, a required format, a theme, a problem, a limited amount of time, a framework or process, scarce resources, a set of ingredients, a script, and so on. Unconstrained open-endedness can paralyze creativity. Filmmaking is a highly creative and controlled process with the director working the tension.

Martin Scorsese has been described as one of film’s “grand conductors” with a directorial style that is loose and methodical, structured, and improvised. Irwin Winkler a producer of several Scorsese films, including Raging Bull, said, “He knows what he wants, so he has the freedom of improvising . . . like a jazz musician.”

According to actress Ellen Burstyn, Scorsese is best at creating a climate in which actors can do their very best work. He trusts actors and involves them. Robert de Niro remembers a similar technique of finding “a structure for improvisation” in Mean Streets, as well as in Raging Bull. In essence, the actors have the controlling limitation of Scorsese’s vision.

Francis Ford Coppola relies on theme as a controlling limitation. When he made a movie, he would state the theme of the movie in one or two words. For The Godfather, the theme was succession. For The Conversation, it was privacy. For Apocalypse Now, it was morality. Knowing the theme helps decision-making when which way to go is uncertain.

If you want to be creative—in your training, for example—but you are working with limitations, watch the TEDtalk by the artist Phil Hansen. Hansen developed a hand tremor obsessively creating pointillist pictures (pictures created by applying small distinct dots of color). At first, he did what most of us would do—he held the pen tighter, but that didn’t help. He felt devastated and left art school. A neurologist told him to “embrace the shake”; in other words to seize the limitation and think inside the box. He learned he needed to be limited to become limitless. His creativity is remarkable and you can see it for yourself by visiting:

Benign Structures

A couple of decades ago, two academics at the University of Manchester—Susan Moger and Tudor Rickards—focused their work on creative leadership in teams. In their model, the creative leader introduces structures (protocols) that facilitate the creativity of the team. They call these structures “benign structures”—benign in the sense that they don’t impose structural impediments to creative development and systems change. They are not structures aimed at maintaining the status quo. A benign structure can be a creativity technique. The technique will have codified and explicit protocols (rules), but they operate “to establish habits against habits” (a quote from S J. Parnes, co-founder of the International Center for Studies in Creativity).

With collaborative creativity and innovation being very high on corporate agendas, I think the idea of “benign structures” needs to be looked at anew.

Terence Brake

Director, Learning & Innovation, TMA World

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