“Organizing creativity” now available in Sociology Compass journal

Looking for an overview of social science research on conditions that enhance or constrain creativity in organizations? See my just published Sociology Compass article “Organizing Creativity: Enabling Creative Output, Process, and Organizing Practices.” This article pulls together findings from organizational sociology (including my own research on the organization behind Burning Man), cultural sociology, psychology, and organizational studies.

Here is the abstract:

How individuals can exercise creativity in collectivities is unclear. We thus need to more thoroughly investigate the ‘black box’ of organizational creativity. Future research should consider creativity in a variety of organizations, rather than just those that are known for creative outputs or practices. In addition, we need to examine what I call everyday, relational, and proto-institutional forms of organizational creativity. Intra- and inter-organizational aspects can enhance or depress such organizational creativity: (1) within the organization’s boundary: internal interactions among organizational members and (2) outside the organization’s boundary: the surrounding organizational environment or field, which include competing or supporting organizations, other organizational actors, and the state. These two aspects pose dilemmas about how to organize that can constrain or enhance organizational creativity. In addressing these dilemmas, organizations must mediate between under- and over-organizing extremes. Organizations can enable creativity by incorporating changing interests and conditions. Organizations can eschew convention, increase rank-and-file involvement with corresponding authority, tolerate ambiguity and deviance, encourage improvisation, and support members’ diverse experiences and perspectives.”

Are you considering graduate school? Currently in graduate school? Finishing graduate school?

Increasingly, I get more inquiries from students who are interested in completing a masters or doctoral degree. Some believe that these degrees will help them land their dream jobs in an increasingly tight job market. Others aspire to be professors or researchers. Both groups often have erroneous assumptions about what training in the academy involves. For example, would-be PhD students typically don’t understand what a PhD is for – usually, it’s intended as preparation for a career as a professor or a researcher. Or, would-be graduate students underestimate the length of time it may take to complete a doctoral degree (hint: it doesn’t take 1 year – add a zero behind that 1 for some disciplines or departments), misunderstand what the graduate school process is like (hint: it doesn’t just involve reading and taking classes; students have to be self-directed enough to undertake a research project from conceptualization through write-up), and overestimate the availability of tenure-track appointments (hint: in my field, a tenure-track position may get at least 300 applications; I’ve seen figures that estimate as few as 5% of those completing a PhD overall will get a tenure-track position).

Orgtheorist Fabio Rojas has published an ebook Grad Skool Rulz which expands upon a popular series of blog posts. I’ve read an earlier draft of the ebook; it presents no-holds-barred advice on reasons as to why one should or shouldn’t go to graduate school, how to apply for graduate school, how to select a program, and how to thrive in a program. If you are considering getting a masters or doctoral degree, spend the bargain-priced $2 (yes, just two bucks) to think through whether the opportunity cost of spending between 2 to 10 years out (or partially out) of the job market is worth your while.

Revitalizing cities through arts and cultural organizations

During the past several decades, the loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector have sapped the vitality of US cities. While a few cities such as New York City and San Francisco have been able to rebound, others have not. One revitalization approach calls for building amenities that will attract tourists and consumers; this approach supposedly creates jobs, initially in construction and then in the service sector, and is believed to bring in a revenue stream based on consumption. Sociologists John Logan and Harvey Molotch point out how a focus on increasing real estate values underpin this approach; political and corporate interests drive this urban growth machine. In practice, investments in venues such as sporting stadiums can be high-risk for residents, particularly when large projects worsen rather than improve a city’s fortunes, as this July 12th “A Stadium’s Costly Legacy Throws Taxpayers for a Loss” WSJ article outlines.

In his Rise of the Creative Class book, sociologist Richard Florida argues for another approach – that attracting creative professionals, such as artists and software programmers, is crucial to revitalizing cities. However, according to other researchers like geographer Julian Brash, this approach pits cities in a zero-sum game in which cities compete against each other for resources.

Others have since researched the roles that existing arts and cultural organizations and other collectivities play in revitalizing cities. For example, a new book by University of Michigan sociologist Frederick Wherry‘s The Philadelphia Barrio: The Arts, Branding, and Neighborhood Transformation (2011, UChicago Press) examines how local arts organizations and small businesses can take collective action to reinvigorate neighborhoods.

Similarly, in a forthcoming article, I explore how the Burning Man organization and off-shoots, such as the Burning Man regionals, local art projects, and Burners without Borders, establish a context that could stoke the creativity of a wider range of persons (i.e., not just trained professionals) at Black Rock City and other localities. “Lessons for Creative Cities from Burning Man: How organizations can sustain and disseminate a creative context” is in press at the peer-reviewed journal City, Culture and Society.

Collaborative Intelligence Seminar- 10am EDT Thur., July 7, 2011 at SUNY Stony Brook

Prof. Todd Pittinsky at SUNY Stony Brook sent me the following info for those of you who are in the New York City/Long Island area and are interested in learning how to set up effective teams.

“The LI Infragard Alliance, the Metropolitan Area College & University
Security Consortium, and the Department of Technology and Society,
Stony Brook College of Engineering and Applied Sciences
will be
cosponsoring a talk by Professor J. Richard Hackman, Department of
Psychology, Harvard University. The talk will be held at the Wang
Center at Stony Brook University
on Thursday, July 7th.

This event will begin at 10:00 AM with coffee and networking. The
program will start at approximately 10:30 AM with introductory remarks
by Suffolk County Police Department’s Deputy Chief Mark White,
Homeland Security and Anti- Terrorism. The program is expected to
conclude by 12:30. Register via the link provided below.

Wang Center Lecture Hall 2:
10:00 am: Light breakfast sponsored by The Security Consortium
10:30 am: Introductory remarks: Suffolk County Police Department
Deputy Chief Mark White and Todd Pittinsky, SBU
10:45-11:45: J. Richard Hackman and open Q&A

About the Speaker:
Professor J. Richard Hackman serves on the Intelligence Science Board
of the Director of National Intelligence. He is the Edgar Pierce
Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard
University and a leading expert on group dynamics, team performance,
leadership effectiveness, and the design of self-managing teams and

Professor Hackman will speak to the subject of his most recent book
Collaborative Intelligence, Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems,
Lessons from and for the Intelligence Community
. Intelligence
professionals are commonly viewed as solo operators, but these days
intelligence work is mostly about collaboration. Interdisciplinary
and inter-organizational teams are necessary to solve the really hard
problems intelligence professionals face. This book and talk draws on
recent research findings as well as Professor Hackman’s own experience
as an intelligence community researcher and advisor, to show how
leaders can create an environment where teamwork flourishes.

Who Should Attend:
Although crafted for intelligence, defense, crisis management, and law
enforcement professionals, the talk will also be valuable for
improving team success in all kinds of leadership, management,
service, and production teams in business, government, and nonprofit

To register for this free event, please click this link.

What to do with the “bad” team/group member?

This June, more than 50 colleagues and I will be participating in a special conference sponsored by the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, the Center for Public Leadership, and the Graduate School of Business Administration at Harvard University. This conference honors one of my advisors, J. Richard Hackman, a foremost expert researcher in teams. To identify the conditions that encourage effective teamwork, Hackman studied groups including commercial flight crews and the Orpheus chamber orchestra, which does not rely upon conventional leaders but rather collective decision-making by the group. Besides numerous journal articles and co-authoring the seminal book Work Redesign with Greg Oldham, Hackman has also written the book Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, which walks readers through the steps of creating and running successful teams.

In addition, Hackman has been highly influential in mentoring and teaching organizational researchers such as myself about how to create organizations that are both meaningful and serve members’ interests. In fact, Hackman has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of my research on Burning Man, which when I first started my field studies, was a mystifying phenomena to most (i.e., at the time, most reactions consisted of “Burning What?!? Is this like the movie Wicker Man?”).

When I initially signed up for this June gathering, I anticipated sipping bubbly over small talk in the hallowed halls of HBS. I soon learned that the conference, dubbed the “Hackfest,” involves working in teams to troubleshoot challenges to teamwork. One issue that we’ll discuss involves “Dealing in real time with “bad actors,” team members who are slowing team progress or undermining the team.” Those of us who manage/work/volunteer in groups inevitably encounter this dilemma. Since most of us are not trained or coached on how to work effectively in groups, we often deal with this challenge through trial and error, with a heavy emphasis on error.

We may not recognize instances in which participants may have different goals or processes in mind and label these persons or their activities as bad rather than understanding their underlying motivations – “undermining” might be one participant’s way of checking groupthink or pursuing an end other than efficiency. For example, some people complain when meetings get derailed by small talk or discussions that don’t lead to tangible outcomes. What we often don’t realize is that meetings aren’t just tools for getting things done; they also serve as social occasions where the collective comes together. On the other hand, we do occasionally encounter individuals who are having a bad day or have a chip on their shoulder; their participation can derail or impede group processes despite our best efforts.

Interestingly, back in May, Burning Man regional leaders at the 5th Annual Burning Man Leadership Summit discussed a similar issue, “How do we deal with divisive personalities while still supporting radical inclusion?”* This and other issues provoked feverish but enthusiastic brain-storming, much of which drew on an earlier workshop on conflict resolution skills. I’ll be paying especially close attention to the “bad actors” discussion at the Hackfest to see whether what the experts suggest lines up with what Burning Man practitioners have proposed. (BTW, in his book Leading Teams, Hackman also recognizes the value of including even seemingly “difficult” individuals.)

*Note that the summit’s wording uses the word personalities, which connotes that this behavior is inherent to a person, rather than the conference’s word actors, which emphasizes activities. Organizational researchers like myself prefer not to use terms like personalities, as we focus on how activities emerge from interactions or situations. For example, all of us have occasionally acted as a “wrench in the machine” by questioning the status quo, but most of us would not characterize ourselves as being inherently divisive.

First paperback printing of Enabling Creative Chaos almost sold out!

Michael McQuarrie, a UCDavis colleague, assigned my book for his 2011 spring quarter class and was kind enough to let me know that the University of Chicago warehouse says that they are out (!!!) of the paperback version of my book. To follow-up, I spoke with my press’s marketing representative and was told that a second print run will be available by July 2011. Thank you to colleagues, including Gwen Dordick at The City College of New York and Tor Hernes at the Copenhagen Business School, who have assigned my book.

For those of you who need Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event for class or other deadlines, here are options for how to get my book:

If you have an iPad, Nook, Kindle, or other ereader, you can buy an electronic version of the book.

Major distributors like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, as well as independent bookstores, have new and used copies of the book.

If the above places are out of hard copies, you are welcome to contact me about whether I have any available.

If you prefer to borrow the book, your local library or university library may have a hard or electronic copy to loan. If your library does not have a copy, you may be able to request one using Interlibrary Loan (ILL) – search WorldCat for options.

Fact-checking and researching Burning Man phenomena

Increasingly, I am contacted by the media or students to fact-check items or find information. Most recently, I was asked about the veracity of the claim that rap star dr. dre had started Burning Man. To my surprise, someone cited my book to refute the claim, which then lead to another report reproduced in the huffingtonpost and businessinsider blogs. My take on the dr. dre and Burning Man meme? Burners enjoy satirical pranks – for some, these are an art form.

Graduate and undergraduate students as well as practitioners are also interested in learning more about Burning Man and its organization for a course paper or setting up their own organizations. If you fall into that camp, I would highly recommend starting with the online AfterBurn reports, which are produced by the Burning Man organizers, staff, and volunteers. These are a treasure trove of information for those patient enough to read through the reports.

New informal reviews and mentions of Enabling Creative Chaos

A reviewer on Good Reads was kind enough to provide a review that highlights several of the main points of my book Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event. Click here to read his review, which starts with: “This truly lovely bit of organizational sociology is about “the difficulties of creating an enabling organization: how can members establish sufficient structure and coordination that support but do not constrain their activities?” (Page 153).”

In addition, Howard Lune, at Hunter College, CUNY, has included a short discussion of my research in his new sociology of organizations textbook Understanding Organizations (2010, Polity). See p. 144-145.

Burning Man entry now available in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology

Have a student or colleague who needs a quick summary of scholarly research and references across the disciplines on Burning Man, as well as possible avenues for future research? The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology has just published my entry on Burning Man.

The Blackwell Encyclopedia was edited by sociologist George Ritzer and his graduate students, including J. Michael Ryan, at the Dept. of Sociology, University of Maryland. Ritzer is best known for the concept McDonaldization, which describes the relentless spread of “efficiency, predictability, calculability and increased control through the replacement of human with non-human technology” across society. Those of you who are interested in understanding consumption might also like his newest writings on prosumption, in which consumers both produce and consume products or experiences.