What is “Social Creativity?”

Anselm Kiefer retrospective – London. A gallery assistant stands next to the artist’s ‘Language of The Birds.’

“I need to be able to read the room and know exactly what they should do next. I need to be able to depart from the plan with 100% confidence and intuit accurately where to go.”  That’s a super smart social entrepreneur with ten successful years behind her, telling us about her challenges when facilitating high stakes workshops.

So what does she need?  To “read the room” is to perceive the tensions, the possibilities for disruption, the potential for flow. It’s completely tangible if you’ve been in enough adult learning or dialogue environments. She also needs to know, with certainty, what to do next to shape that immaterial reality, to guide it towards vitality and productivity — towards being productive. What does it mean to sculpt this invisible but nevertheless perceptible “medium?” It’s the stuff of art. We call it “social creativity.”

As leaders, we have to understand how creativity works — not only conceptually, but also experientially, as practitioners. IBM’s 2010 Global CEO study found that 1500 top CEOs interviewed around the world considered creativity the number one capacity required of present and future leaders.  But knowing it’s important is not the same as building real-time, reliable, genuine and robust creative capacity.

Is reading the room and pivoting from the agenda an instance of creativity?  Absolutely.  Creativity depends on knowing one’s medium (oil paint for the painter, clay for the potter, etc.) — in this case, an ability to perceive her audience’s states of comfort, buy-in, and well-being — the medium Otto Scharmer calls social fields.  Creativity also includes the know-how of shaping that medium — for example, to deviate from the workshop agenda in the moment in order to take a group to the next level of shared understanding, commitment, or whatever the aim.

With confidence.  IDEO’s David Kelly talks about creative confidence; he teaches it by taking clients through creative processes.  So creativity is not only possible to learn — it’s also not that hard to learn.  It takes a bit of courage — and also, clearing away of misconceptions.

Let’s start with a biggie.  One of the most common misconceptions about creativity is that it is primarily a method of problem solving.  Creativity and problem solving are related, but not synonymous.  Problem solving focuses on attacking or fixing the cause of a symptom — but doesn’t necessarily focus on bringing to life something innate and potential.

Creativity, on the other hand, expresses and represents what is real and possible, but not yet there.  It produces something that embodies and communicates what otherwise is felt and experienced — but not yet shared.  It is a communication of, and ultimately, a communion in, qualitative experience.  When Picasso painted Guernica, he didn’t do it to solve the problem of an empty wall.  Art isn’t necessarily made to solve — it’s made to connect.

Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece Guernica.

The social sculptor’s work is enabling that qualitative experience, that connection.  Our creative medium isn’t oil paint or clay, but instead, the sum total of connections among human beings to each other and the natural world: the social fields.

Another misconception about creativity is that some people are creative, and others aren’t.  And while not all beginners can draw (or write, or paint) equally well, it’s just as true that every child is creative — it’s just a matter of helping that creativity grow.  Creativity is innate in every human being — it’s just that we don’t practice, don’t learn.  We become rule followers and menu-bar navigators.  Anyone can learn to be creative.  When artist Marina Abromovic sat with more than 500,000 people during her performance The Artist is Present, her goal was to meet her visitors, she said, with “unconditional love.”  An everyday act, though admittedly, not a simple one.

Many artists have realized that their work is primarily about connecting with people, not about making products.  Their creative work is to shape social fields.  And they have much in common with other leaders and change makers who take up the work of social creativity.

And now we’d like to hear from you.  What are your interests and needs regarding creativity?  Leave us a comment — and please share with your friends!

Marina Abromovic, performing The Artist is Present At New York’s Museum of Modern Art.



  1. Bob Stilger on December 10, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    Lovely article.

    Lately my attention has been drawn to co-creation. There’s been such a focus on collaboration for years now. But collaboration is usually about working towards outcomes we think we know and can see. Outcomes we can predict and mange and control and where we can speak in glowing terms about intended impacts and how we will measure them.

    But what do we do when the future turns invisible? I think that’s a strong invitation to turn our attention to NOW. Working in the NOW thrives with the energy of co-creativity which flows from our deepest true selves. Much to consider here, I think. as we invite people into their creativity in new ways.

    One other note, in Japan creativity is not about making something new — as it seems to be in the West. It is about releasing the essence of what is. Birthing, bringing forth. An interesting contrast…

    • Jeff Barnum on December 14, 2015 at 7:50 pm

      Thanks Bob! We’ll be exploring the details of “how creativity flows from our deepest true selves” in upcoming articles, videos, and courses. Stay tuned!

      As for the Japanese notion you mentioned. If in “making something new” we can find a moment of intuition, then we could also perhaps say that intuition is intuition OF something. There’s a bit of common ground there, somewhere.

      Thanks again!

  2. Mary Roscoe on December 22, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    Thank you for your article!

    Recently, I have been involved in developing an intentional or more conscious network by visualizing connections and relationships through network mapping. When I look at a network map – the connections, and possibilities – I have similar thoughts to what you expressed:

    The social sculptor’s work is enabling that qualitative experience, that connection. Our creative medium isn’t oil paint or clay, but instead, the sum total of connections among human beings to each other and the natural world: the social fields.

    I am drawn to and excited about giving visibility to the connections between partners (normally an invisible field), yet it is challenging. I am often met with the question, “What does the map do?”

    • Jeff Barnum on December 23, 2015 at 12:23 pm

      Thanks Mary!

      There are many network and systems mapping apps out there; I like Kumu. However, your question resonates with me. The map can show “connections” — many different kinds of connections — but as for its use, well, that is up to the user. My favorite example of this kind of map was done by hand by an artist named Mark Lombardi. He mapped financial transactions between and among the world’s elite, including those moving from the Bush family to the bin Laden family. Needless to say his work was very controversial.

      Others use such maps to reveal connections and potentials that otherwise remain untapped; we’ve seen people use systems maps to identify potentially high leverage relationships or possibilities, e.g. to help multiple organizations achieve together something none of them can do alone (such as transforming large energy or food systems, for example).

      Social fields, however, are in my view quite different and cannot be “mapped” in the same way. Any attempt to do so would be an illustration, perhaps a helpful one — but not necessarily a useful one. That is, it may be helpful to see connections among many people, but to heal or transform the social fields they create, one has to enter them — not just know about them. In my experience, one learns to perceive them, and in doing so, becomes aware of their potentials for health.

      Thanks again for the comment! More to come!

      • Mary Roscoe on December 24, 2015 at 10:01 am

        Jeff, thank you for your response. I use Kumu and find it as a useful tool in creating a picture of our ecosystem of partnerships — a snapshot for visualizing the web of connections and relationships. I also think of it as a palette that useful for bringing talents together to meet needs and opportunities that arise.

        I appreciate your comments about social fields as distinct from the maps – the nature of my recent work with networks has been both practical and yet conceptual. Especially at this time of the year, entering into and exploring the social field is renewing. Thank you for the distinction and reminder – it is freeing in many respects.

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