creativity, or the origin of loser


As much as we’d like to think we do, I don’t think organizational theory has a good handle on the creative process. Network scholars seem to be the most interested in creativity (see Burt 2004; Uzzi and Spiro 2005). But the rest of organizational research seems to relegate truly creative effort to the dark realm of personality and psychology.

Creativity often takes place in organizations. Spontaneous creativity often emerges in a group context, sometimes when least expected. Take, for example, this wonderful creative moment described by the musician Beck.

What I used to do is, I’d get up and play my quote folk songs. I’d be at Jabberjaw or one of these clubs, and the audience would all be talking or people would be outside smoking cigarettes, and the real band that was playing would be setting up equipment — the band that people were there to see. So there came a point where you’re being drowned out by people talking and all that, and you start doing things, like I’d put my guitar down and sing a capella, or I would stomp my foot and start rapping and make up rhymes. And it was really just out of desperation. I did this one night and this guy came up to me, Tom Rothrock [record producer and co-founder of Bong Load Custom Records, which originally released “Loser” as a single], and kept saying, “I like that rap you were doing.” And I said, “Thanks, I was just making it up. And I would love to rap — why not?” He said, “I know a guy who makes some beats.”

I gave him my number and, you know, I don’t know what it was, six months or a year later I end up coming by after work to this guy’s house, Carl [Stephenson, who co-wrote “Loser” and co-wrote and produced other Beck songs], who I did my first record with. You know, he had a beat, and I wrote some lines, you know what I mean? And I put some of my slide guitar on there and that was “Loser.” The whole thing was just sort of ridiculously simple, how it came together, and probably one of the things I worked the least on, but, you know, the best-known thing. It was probably something I never would have pursued, it’s just that that happened to be the song I did, and it set an aesthetic direction.

Are networks involved? Definitely. Bringing Beck’s folk style to a rock setting put him into contact with someone like Rothrock. But there’s also an organizational story to be told about the collision of different worlds, the frustration/friction it produces, and the emerging creative effort. It’s this latter part that interests me but that appears to be absent from org theory, at the moment.* Am I wrong?

BTW, Beck’s new album The Information is a blast – a mix of his different styles. Think Odelay meets Sea Change. Also fun, the album cover is blank but comes with a bunch of stickers so that you can decorate it yourself. I gave my kids the stickers and the cover and let them go to work. Surprising to me, my kids may have a little artistic talent. Definitely not inherited from me.

*Of course, institutional theory has Friedland and Alford. Institutional contradictions, which result from underlying tensions between two institutional logics, produces dissonance and potentially leads to deinstitutionalization. But this is meant to apply to a much broader process. What about the more mundane forms of creativity, like coming up with new products? Or innovations on an established genre? Neither are as transformative as institutional change, but they are fairly important to the functioning of the organization and may alter the industry.

Written by brayden king

October 4, 2006 at 4:20 pm

Posted in brayden, networks

10 Responses

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  1. In the creativity literature there is an ongoing person versus situation/environment/context debate. A nice pair of readings e.g., on Beethoven is Tia DeNora (Beethoven and Construction of Genius) versus Peter Kivy (The Possessor and the Possessed) – the former advocating social context and the latter genius as the origin of musical innovation. In social psychology you have folks like Simonton “versus” Amabile. There was also an insightful BBS piece a few years back – Innate talents: Myth or reality – with the main piece advocating for the importance of situation and social context, but many heavy-weights commenting to the contrary.



    October 4, 2006 at 6:37 pm

  2. This seems like an un-needed dichotomy to me. Is there something naive or wrong to say that personal genius can best flower in certain contexts?


    Fabio Rojas

    October 4, 2006 at 7:21 pm

  3. It seems like an interaction of the two. To use the above example, Beck is obviously someone with innate talent for songwriting. But his talent would probably not have flowered into genre-busting mix that it has without the context.



    October 4, 2006 at 7:28 pm

  4. Its multilevel, interaction, structuration, interdisciplinary…
    …its everything, and, nothing.



    October 4, 2006 at 7:44 pm

  5. Teppo said:”Its multilevel, interaction, structuration, interdisciplinary…its everything, and, nothing.”

    That’s going to far – but a simple, non-trivial, multi-level model would establish a few obvious person level traits (IQ/personality/wealth) and some interesting network/org variables. The longer I live and see creative people at work, the more I realize that genius is anything but random. It’s really a very specific sort of interaction effect.

    Consider the geniuses at – we all have strong network ties that bring us together


    Fabio Rojas

    October 4, 2006 at 9:35 pm

  6. “But there’s also an organizational story to be told about the collision of different worlds, the frustration/friction it produces, and the emerging creative effort. It’s this latter part that interests me but that appears to be absent from org theory, at the moment. Am I wrong?”

    Not wrong at all. Most organizational theory is silent on creativity. But notice that you already mentioned some of the substantive assumptions that come from the network theories of creativity (those creatives who bridge different worlds will tend to be more creative) in talking about “worlds colliding” (remember that Seinfeld episode?…). This is equivalent to both Burt’s and Uzzi’s emphasis on brokerage positions as a source of creativity.

    One org theory research exception that I can think of is the work of Podolny and Stuart (1995, AJS) on technological change and innovation from an ecological perspective.



    October 5, 2006 at 7:48 pm

  7. True, network theory does seem to cover this fairly well. Perhaps that’s the answer…should have known all along it would have been networks.



    October 5, 2006 at 10:31 pm

  8. “Most organizational theory is silent on creativity.”

    Hmm, there is a pretty large literature – see the work of Amabile, Hargadon, Sutton, etc etc (Omar, you might be thinking about sociology specifically – in the managerial literature there is quite a bit on this topic). Now, whether it pegs the issues, I don’t know – I think the question of the primacy of levels for example is still open.



    October 5, 2006 at 11:05 pm

  9. I stand corrected. I had forgotten about the workgroup interaction research and had completely missed out on the connection between organizational learning and creativity. Both of these literatures treat creativity without devolving into a discussion about personality.

    See what happens when I write a post hurriedly.



    October 6, 2006 at 4:11 am

  10. […] More here. (Here’s a related previous post by Brayden on Beck). […]


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