The Creativity-Centrality Spiral

A critique of Perry-Smith & Shalley’s analysis of perceptions of creativity within organisations and its relevance to work I did at the BBC in 2008-2010.

The Creativity-Centrality Spiral

This concept, outlined in a 2003 article titled ‘The social side of creativity: a static and dynamic social network perspective’ by Jill Perry-Smith and Christina Shalley, builds on Granovetter’s and Burt’s ideas (among others). They observed that previous research in this area tended to “view networks as static, and do not consider networks as changing over time.” Their six propositions merit in-depth investigation as they provide an organizational rationale for managers with a track record in ‘creativity’ to continually reinvent and evolve their networks in order to sustain their ability to deliver good ideas – to view creative networks as dynamic.


Usefully, they define what they mean by creativity in the context of work and organisational behavior (drawing heavily on the ideas of Theresa Amabile):

“Individuals can be creative in their jobs by generating new ways to perform their work, by coming up with novel procedures or innovative ideas, and by reconfiguring known approaches into new alternatives. Thus, creativity does not have to exist only on specific types of projects; it can occur while an individual performs in various work situations. We define creativity at work – an individual level construct – as an approach to work that leads to the generation of novel and appropriate ideas, processes, or solutions.” (Perry-Smith & Shalley, 2003, p. 90)

This is a broad definition of creativity in the workplace – the kind of pan-organisational creativity which was the goal of the BBC’s Making It Happen initiative starting from when Greg Dyke was Director General – “to be the most creative organization in the world” (BBC, 2006). The projects and programmes under consideration in this thesis take a more programme-specific definition of creativity – specifically ideas for new and compelling TV, radio and online programmes and formats. Nevertheless, the concept remains applicable, even with the tighter definition, as the need for uniqueness applies in both definitions.

“This definition can involve creative business strategies, creative solutions to business problems, or creative changes to job processes. In order to be considered creative, however, these outputs must have some level of uniqueness compared to other ideas.” (Perry-Smith & Shalley, 2003, p. 90)

Social context and ties

They argue that creativity exists in a social context, and that creativity depends on two key combinations of factors:

* interpersonal communication and interpersonal interaction, and

* creativity-relevant skills

The communication of ideas and information should improve creativity, and the influence of external factors should improve creativity-relevant skills – even among those with an innately high level of skill.

They then look at the influence of the specific kinds of social ties identified by Granovetter (Granovetter, 1973). Weak ties are important to creativity because “actors connected by weak ties are more likely to be different because they are not immersed in the same interconnected web of relationships, shaped to some extent, by similarities. Therefore, weaker ties are more likely to connect people with diverse perspectives, different outlooks, varying interests and diverse approaches to problems.” (Perry-Smith & Shalley, 2003, p. 94) So, the access to more nonredundant information and diverse social circles facilitates a variety of processes which should help foster creativity:

1. access to more information should enhance knowledge relevant to creativity and/or domain-relevant knowledge

2. exposure to different approaches and perspectives should enhance creativity-relevant skills, such as flexible thinking.

3. weak ties facilitate autonomy, thus avoiding conformity, which is generally considered to hinder creativity (Amabile, 1996)

This contrasts with strongly-tied networks, where information and perspectives circulate quickly and becomes redundant, and social pressures lead to conformity, leaving less opportunity for helpful information to surface from other networks.

This leads to the first set of Perry-Smith and Shalley’s propositions:

“Proposition 1a: Weak ties should facilitate creativity at work compared to strong ties.

Proposition 1b: Relatively many weak ties and fewer strong ties should correspond with higher creativity at work than many strong ties and fewer weak ties

Proposition 1c: A larger number of weak ties should correspond with higher creativity at work, up to a point; beyond this point, there is less benefit realized from larger numbers of weak ties, and they may constrain creativity at work.” (Perry-Smith & Shalley, 2003, p. 95)Thic

So, if an actor is able to make use of social media to increase the number of networks with which they have weak ties, they should then see an improvement in their creativity at work – or at least their colleagues’ perception of it, if we follow Burt’s models more closely. I saw evidence of this in interviews with senior BBC leaders conducted for my PhD, who grasped the possibilities to increase their network capital through the use of social media, and thus enhance the perception of their creativity.

In the next post I’ll look at how an actor’s network position influences this, and examing the different phases of the spiral…