Creative surplus is the time we have to invest in thinking creatively, just like a financial surplus allows us to make financial investments. I like the term because it implies both that it is a quantity that you have to create and it is something that you can invest for greater benefit later.

I am not sure where I first read the term, but it came up several times on Monday in my session with the IDBE masters students at Cambridge. Students were asking how can they make time to do the creative thinking that supports conceptual design. Many talked about being in high-pressure delivery teams where there is no time for creative thinking.

I think it is helpful to think about both creating personal creative surplus and organisational creative surplus. Personal surplus is the time you have to think creatively. In a high-pressure delivery environment, where creativity might not necessarily be valued (until your creative thinking releases a great deal of value for someone else!), making personal creative surplus often comes down to time management tactics. For example:

  • Finding time in the day when no one else can distract you. It could be for just twenty minutes, but done regularly, it will give you some time.
  • Focusing on priorities – one of the reasons we don’t have any creative surplus is that we have taken too much on.
  • Doing the Hard Work rather than the Long Work. These are terms I picked up from this interview with Seth Godin on the Tim Ferris show. Long work is turning up each day and dealing with all the things people throw at you and never addressing the issues that determine the overall aims of what you are doing or the ways in which it is delivered. The Hard Work is making the difficult decisions that define the whole landscape in which you are working and the direction you are taking. Hard Work is difficult but often takes less time than Lond Work and should ultimately free up more time – creative surplus. There is a circularity here: creative surplus may help you understand what the Hard Work is.

At an organisational level, there are analogous actions:

  • Developing rituals and routines to demonstrate that the organisation values people’s time – and therefore their time to think creatively – over everything else (for example, by doing the basics like being strict about holding meetings, by sharing documents effectively). And at a more sophisticated level, by recognising that people’s time is not linear – they can get more or less done at different times of day – and that different times of day are suited to different types of thinking.
  • Keeping focused on organisational priorities, which means checking in with people that they really know what the priorities are and how we are going to get there.
  • Making sure that the leadership is undertaking Hard Work rather than Long Work

For more suggestions on building creative surplus see my previous post, Nine Ways to Build Creativity in your Organisation.

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