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From Ian Curtis to John Peel, the unknown pleasures of creativity

May 18, 2012

It was Monday, 19th May 1980 and the John Peel show started at 10pm on Radio 1. Sat in my bedroom, I was thinking to myself, hope he plays the new Joy Division single, Love will tear us apart.  After the iconic Pickin the blues theme tune by Grinderswitch, which introduced the show, faded, the customary ten seconds of absolute silence before John’s deadpan voice.

A few seconds later, the shock news came onto the air. Bad news lads, monotoned Peel solemnly. Ian Curtis, of Joy Division, has died.

I didn’t know whether to feel sad, angry, shock or cheated or what. Joy Division had been my favourite band for the previous year, part of putting Manchester on the map. Their bleak, stark, atmospheric experimental sound had carved a place for them into the record collections of many in 1979, including my own. Living just outside Manchester, they were big news for me and my mates.

May 18th, 1980 Ian Curtis ended his life, aged 23. The driving force behind Joy Division’s dark vision, he hanged himself in the kitchen of his Macclesfield home. It was not his first suicide attempt. Curtis ended his life before he could feel the range of his influence. As the singer/songwriter for Joy Division, he wallowed in his own deep despair, peering into the dark underbelly of human existence. He wrote stunning lyrics from the pictures in his head, until he saw no purpose in living.

Factory released Love Will Tear Us Apart in April, and as a piece of music it has stood out years, surely everyone recognises the song immediately the first throws of the incessant, hollow drumming with pace launches the humming, driving guitars in the intro, before Curtis comes in with the vocals? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHYOXyy1ToI&feature=list_related&playnext=1&list=AL94UKMTqg-9BJBiOddivXxWNavYgSXPDJ

So for me, an anniversary of the death of someone who at 17 was shaping my life, still resonates today with 95 digital tracks on my iPod and the Unknown Pleasures, Closer and Still albums safely stored in the attic, and all their Peel Sessions performances saved too.

Joy Division’s appeal has far outlasted their tragically short life because, if they were miserable, they did miserable differently. Curtis’s baritone voice and lyrics about personal anxiety, pessimism and intensely dark memories, combined with his intense, wide-eyed stage presence was unique. Curtis was an innovator, a creative genius, and at the same time John Peel was a pioneer too. Both played a major part in changing the music industry in terms of their ideas, influence and how to connect with an audience – it was all about what they did, and being different.

If I think about creativity and what innovation looks like, the same slideshow of images clicks across my mind: that photo of Einstein with his unkempt hair all over the place, Edison with his light bulb, and in business terms, Steve Jobs onstage in his black turtleneck jumper introducing the latest iThing device.  For Curtis and Peel, their creativity and originality was in a different form. Who can ignore Atmosphere or The Festive 50?

For all the innovators who have impacted our lives, it’s not just about that romantic Eureka! moment, it’s about the nitty-gritty work that comes after the idea in terms of getting it accepted and implemented. For Curtis and Peel, they may have been the creative driving force, the catalyst that had the original spark, but successful innovation is frequently about the team too, being surrounded by like minded people with complimentary talents.

Forbes Insights recent study How entrepreneurial executives mobilise organisations to innovate identifies five major personalities crucial to fostering a healthy atmosphere of innovation within an organisation. Some are more entrepreneurial, and some more process-oriented – but all play a critical role in the process (http://www.forbes.com/forbesinsights/europe_entrepreneurs/index.html). Thinkers need doers to get things done, and idealists need number crunchers to tether them to reality.

Then again, the risk-takers and the risk-averse must co-exist otherwise an organisation veers too far to one extreme or the other, and either jerks all over the place with the push-and-pull, or simply moves nowhere at all. An effective and productive culture of innovation is like a good homemade vegetable soup – it needs to have the right mix and balance of all the ingredients, otherwise it’s unbalanced – and downright mushy.

The Forbes Insights study surveyed more than 1,200 executives in Europe. Using a series of questions about their attitudes, beliefs, priorities and behaviours, a picture emerged of five key personality types that play a role in the innovation cycle.

Movers and Shakers. With a strong personal drive, these are leaders where the major incentive for innovation is the idea of creating a legacy and influence over others. These are the ones who like being in the front, driving projects forward, they provide the push to get things done. On the flip side, they can be a bit arrogant, and impatient with teamwork.

Movers and Shakers tend to cluster in risk and corporate strategy, in the private equity and media industries. From the research they comprise 22% of all executives.

Experimenters. Persistent and open to all new things, experimenters bring a new idea through the phases of development and execution. Where there is a will, there is a way is perhaps the best way to describe them. They’re perfectionists and tend to be workaholics, most likely because it takes an incredible amount of dedication, time and hard work to push through an idea or initiative that hasn’t yet caught on.

Experimenters take deep pride in their achievements, but they also enjoy sharing their expertise with others. Because they’re so persistent, even in the face of sometimes considerable pushback, they’re crucial to the innovation cycle. They tend to be risk-takers, and comprise about 16% of executives – and least likely to be CEOs or COOs.

Star Pupils. Do you remember those kids at school who sat at the front, whose hands were the first in the air anytime the teacher asked a question? Maybe they even shouted out Ooh! Ooh! too just to get the teacher to notice them first? This is the segment of the executive population those kids grew into. They’re good at…well, they’re good at everything, really. They make things happen. Unsurprisingly, CEOs tend to be Star Pupils.

Controllers. Uncomfortable with risk, Controllers thrive on structure, they prefer to be in control and like to have everything in its place. As colleagues they’re not exactly the team players and networkers, more likely insular, and tend to focus on concrete, clear-cut objectives where they know exactly where they stand and can better control everything around them. They comprise 15% of executives, the smallest group overall.

Hangers-On. Forget the less than flattering name, these executives exist to bring everyone back down to earth and tether them to reality. On a dinner plate, Hangers-On would be the spinach – few people’s favourite, but extremely important in the completeness of the meal. They comprise 23% of all executives, they cluster in the CFO role. Someone has to remind everyone of budget and resource constraints.

No one group can be considered the purest entrepreneurs, the most creative or best innovators, but Movers & Shakers and Experimenters may be the closest. Younger, more innovative firms generally need Movers & Shakers at the top, channelling the energy of Experimenters into a vision that can be implemented. As organisations grow and become more established, they need Star Pupils who can translate that vision into a strategy and lead it forward, Controllers who can marshal the troops to execute it and Hangers-On who can rein it in. You need a team who between them can do the blue-sky thinking and wash the pots. Creativity should be applied or considered in everything we do, simply by asking the question how could we do this differently? Throw creativity at new ideas not money.

Everyone is born creative, everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take away the crayons and give you books, on algebra and calculus (which I liked better than crayons, but that’s a different story). Suddenly years later when you get the creative bug, you want your crayons back.

So you’ve got the itch to do something. You don’t know where the itch came from. You don’t know if you’re any good or not, but you think you could be. Go ahead and make something. Make something really special, something amazing that will really blow the mind of anybody who sees it. If you’re creative, if you can think independently, if you can articulate passion, if you can overcome the fear of being wrong, then this is your time to sing in your own voice.

Ian Curtis didn’t have the greatest singing voice or vocal range, but that didn’t stop him, right? So I guess the next question for you is, Why not?  Don’t let a new dawn fade, I’m sure you’ll find some unknown pleasures in your creativity and make your mark.

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