What’s the worst that can happen: narratives around creativity and risk

Creativity & Risk Symposium: practices of learning to leap into the unknown at University of South Wales 6/9/19.

I recently enjoyed a day in Cardiff at the Creativity and Risk symposium convened by Inga Burrows and funded by the MeCSSA Practice Network. There were lots of great presentations around the subject of creativity and risk from both industry and academia. The contrasting of the two positions was an interesting strategy offering two perspectives that are not always in alignment. I thought at first that the conflict between these two positions might reveal something about creativity and it did, a little. But not as much as I had expected. 

Actually the most startling epiphany for me came early on in the day when film producer John Giwa-Amu (Red and Black Films) gave his presentation Never Tell Me the Odds. It was a starling revelation which I will try and relate to you since I feel it is of some significance. For me the difference between his presentation and those of the two preceding speakers, Pauline Burt (Ffilm Cymru) and Martin Ingram (Wales&co) both from industry. Was a linguistic one, though a difference that also implies for me a philosophical position. 

Now, I would say that both spoke eloquently and their presentations were really instructive, they just came at the topic from differing positions. Industry it seems, is conservative. Yes it values talent but it frames its development of this talent in phrases such as: mitigating risk, de-risking, risk management. Pauline Burt described her approach to talent development at Ffilm Cymru as all about positioning for success. For her the risk of working with creative talent is mitigated through the development of a distinctive (but not too distinctive she stressed) voice – or as she put it by “being the same but different”. Which on reflectionary doesn’t seem that risky at all. In fact, while I am sure Ffilm Cymru do take risks their narrative seems to be around the managing of a problem.

Of course it would be. They operate in a market place that is risk adverse and they need to deliver successful (i.e. money making products) to their investors. That is the bottom line. Creatives are edgy, chaotic, wild and unpredictable. They need to be harnessed, tamed and de-risked. 

The second session saw Martin Ingram who also works in the commercial sector in conversation with Tom Ware. Right upfront he acknowledged that creativity and risk are both sides of the same coin and that you cant have one without the other. He also talked about how risk adversity results in bureaucratic policies and procedures which can shut down possibilities for creative expression. A theme that other presenters also touched upon, most notably Rea Dennis (Deakin University) who explored for us the ways in which risk management discourses impact on innovation and creativity in higher education contexts. 

To give Martin his dues he also talked about how his only regret of his time as a commissioner at the BBC is that he didn’t take more risks. Nevertheless, the language he used to talk about risk in the context of the creative sector was also couched in the same old phrasing: risk management, mitigation, and control. It was interesting listening to him speak on risk because at times it sounded a little like he was conflicted. Or perhaps he didn’t have the framework for expressing what was on the tip of his tongue. This is unsurprising since the dominating discourse around risk in industry and in academia is one of controlling chaos. Just think of the title of the government approved PRINCE2 which stands for ‘projects in a controlled environment’. You don’t need to be an expert in semantics to read between the lines there.

It seemed to me we were exploring a discourse that takes a philosophical position that risk is a negative, it is fundamentally perilous. A discourse for which the avoidance of jeopardy is the main concern. Where, in order to address the problematic nature of creativity, processes of management are required that can safely shepherd those who identify as creatives into the commercial sphere. In a more extreme sense, it feels as though this is a discourse of sanitisation as though creativity needs to be cleansed and made palatable to investors. Perhaps it does need that, certainly there is a position from which this all makes sense. 

Towards the end of his conversation with Tom Ware, Martin said that risk management is all about asking the question “what if”. But what if that question is always framed in terms of jeopardy? Isn’t that going to shape and constrain our creative expression within models of management that filter and cleanse. Is that the kind of approach to risk we want to be teaching to our students?

The epiphany came when John Giwa-Amu gave his presentation. I was particularly stricken by the difference in the use of linguistic phrasing when discussing risk. Now John is clearly a person with a lot of positivity so that may have coloured some of his speech but for me there was more going on. Among other things, he has a background as a professional gambler and as he told his story this different position started to emerge. For example, he told us how he started gambling in slot machine arcades where he learnt to game the slot machines. Everything he and his friends did was orientated towards getting a payout. Their “risk analysis” (his words) was all about getting a result by maximising opportunity, not by mitigating jeopardy. This for me was an important insight and opened up a way of thinking about risk within an entirely new philosophical framework.

As the presentation went on John made some further comparisons, this time between playing professional poker and film producing. There is no real mystery to playing poker he told us, its a slow process of incrementally small decisions. What are the odds, how can you weight the odds in your favour, what’s the position on the table, not being too ahead or behind the curve. Poker players, we were told, are making situational judgements, evaluating a complex of interacting moments, factors and variables to make a call. He also talked a little about the role of feelings. For him this is an excitement about a creative idea, an impulse. Knowing this is the right way to go. While feeling is clearly important, the discussion turned around how this tacit knowledge is built up over time, it is gained experientially.

He concluded with the suggestion that we forget about risk altogether though I think what he meant was, lets forget about the obsession with jeopardy and refocus our attention on the opportunity. Perhaps this is something entrepreneurs do that enables them to navigate risk in a way that (ideally) and balances jeopardy and opportunity. That is perhaps food for thought and certainly worthy of further research.

The idea of failure as a positive experience which gives entry into a pedagogic space was also threaded through the days discussions. Though there was some dissent over how it should be framed and whether or not it needed to be given a more positive spin. For Paul Senter (Professional Poker Player), fear of failure can make you cautious as a poker player and can result in you playing poorly. John Giwa-Amu echoed this sentiment saying the same is true of what he does as a film producer. So perhaps we should take a note of Sarah Carter’s (University of South Wales) thoughtful discussion on courage and creativity and ask “what’s the worse that could happen” or in other words “feel the fear and do it anyway”. 

#creativityandrisk

A big thank you to everyone involved with organising the event and to all of the presenters. My apologies for not including everyone in the post it would have just become too long. It was an inspirational day and I look forward to more of this from MeCSSA Practice Section in the future.